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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/11429/how-ukrainian-soccer-explains-planned-economies/

How Ukrainian Soccer Explains Planned Economies

January 11, 2010 by

From Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization comes this description of the Ukrainian approach to soccer:

More than almost any other county in the world, the Ukrainians have an idiosyncratic approach to the game. The man behind the approach was a coach, trained as a plumber, called Valeri Lobanovsky. Applying the logic of scientific Marxism to the game, he believed that soccer could be mastered by uncovering the game’s mathematical underpinnings. He created a system of numerical values to signify every “action” in a game. As he envisioned it, a group of “scientists” would tally passes, tackles, and shots. These scientists would note “successful actions” and “unsuccessful actions.” Their data would be run through a computer, which would spit back an evaluation of the player’s “intensitivity,” “activity,” “error rate,” and “effectivity.”

Lobanovsky intermittently coached the club Dynamo Kiev for decades and later headed the Ukrainian national team. His system became gospel, internalized by generations of coaches and players. Even after his death in 2002, the national federation continues to send scientists to every single Ukrainian professional game. His system rewards a very specific style of play: physical and frenetic. Players work tirelessly to compile points. They play defense more aggressively than offense, because that’s where points can be racked up. In a way, Lobanovsky’s system mimicked the Soviet regime under which it was conceived. Like the Soviets, it stifles individual initiative. Nothing in Lobanovsky’s point valuation measures creativity or daring. A vertical pass receives the same grade as a horizontal pass; a spectacular fake means nothing.

Compounding the stultifying effect of Lobanovsky, Ukrainians have made a fetish of coaching. Managers play a role akin to the Communist Party, imposing rigid strategic formations and an authoritarian culture. Ukrainian players commonly glance at their coach, trying to glean whether they have won his approval. Human agency has no place in this world.

That’s from Foer, Franklin, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005 (pp. 159-160).

Addendum: I almost titled this post, “If Oskar Lange Coached Soccer”.


Jonathan Finegold Catalán January 11, 2010 at 2:06 pm


For me football (a.k.a. “soccer”) provides the perfect example of individual, and unpredictable, human action. Although the sport includes set piece plays, and specific maneuvers, ultimately the success of a team will depend on individual human action. That is what makes football such an exciting sport to watch—it is unpredictable. Although coordination is also a key component, and therefore prediction and analysis can be considered a component, these quantitative characteristics can only accurately be applied on the individual level. It proves useless to apply these to some type of aggregate.

If Valeri Lobanovsky’s model is still in use in Ukraine—by, at least, the national team—it is no wonder that apart from the 2006 World Cup the Ukraine National Football Team has been unable to preform as well as either the Russian national team, or the even more successful national teams in Western Europe (although, it was FC Shakhtar Donetsk who won the Europa League last year).

The opening match for Ukraine’s 2006 World Cup group serves as the perfect illustration for my point. It was between Ukraine and Spain. Although Spain was hardly in the same shape it is today, the characteristic Spanish style of football still permeated the squad. Ukraine lost their match against Spain, 4–0 (Ukraine won their next two group stage matches, but these were against entirely substandard teams).

Ukraine’s mathematical approach to the game could not compete against Spain’s more individualistic approach. Although Spain’s style relies heavily on coordination and cooperation, these elements only exist because Spanish players have learned to coordinate and cooperate on the individual level. They do not follow some type of “master plan” or “scientific method”; instead, they rely on individual skill and individual understanding, based upon years of experience with playing with each other.

While some may try to cheat nature and apply some type of metric to football, the sport is really a shining example of human action outside of the world of strict economics.

Gary Hall January 11, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Soccer charts a delightful tactical progression from individualism to collectivism and back again.

Initially, passing the ball was utterly frowned upon and players were instructed to run as far as possible while dribbling the ball. Only cowards would pass. Post-WWII, the systems changed to be more defensive (from 2-3-5 formations, to 5-3-2, ‘inverting the pyramid’*). The Italians perfected a dour and grinding defensive system which concentrated primarily on work-rate and each individual being part of a more-important whole system.

The Dutch mixed the two systems to great effect, creating ‘total football’ wherein every position and player is fluid, but this relied heavily on having ten gifted all-rounders outfield.

From the eighties and, more prominently, the nineties, soccer has been about the individual. Teams are often set up with specific players in mind. With the likes of Raul, Ronaldo and Zidane proving attacking and creative threats, but not expected to contribute to defensive duties, the ‘midfield destroyer’ role of Claude Makelele became de rigeur.

Very often, when individuals leave teams which rely heavily on them, the team suffers without a comparable replacement. Vieira at Arsenal, Xabi Alonso at Liverpool and Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester United are notable examples.

*See book of same name for a more educated summary of soccer tactics evolution.

Ally January 11, 2010 at 2:51 pm

So that explains why Voronin stinks

Fallon January 11, 2010 at 3:56 pm


Just a few points.

*FC Shakhtar Donetsk has recently ushered in an era of unprecedented internationalism: Shaktar boasts of five Brazilian players. (say hello to cash flow to go with the change in philosophy)

*The Europa Cup (uefa cup) that Shaktar won, Shaktar’s first, is very much second in prestige to the Champion’s League.

*All three goals scored in the 2-1 final were by Brazilians.

* The biggest star of either team did not even get to play. Diego, of the German Bundesliga club Werder Bremen, is also Brazilian.

I read somewhere a few years ago that there are over 1000 Brazilian football (soccer) players plying their trade outside of Brazil.

newson January 11, 2010 at 5:29 pm

the same scientific underpinnings that made the “love tester” in moe’s tavern so reliable.

Kerem Tibuk January 12, 2010 at 2:49 am

This is not enough to condemn central planning in general because a soccer team and a whole economy are not even close.

Even if it was successful in soccer it doesn’t mean it can work as a whole. I think the book was written by someone who dislike socialism but doesn’t really understand what socialism is.

In every team sport central planning plays a big part and this is not unusual. Team sports are about people getting together and word toward a well defined and specific end. Lobanovskys method was just a method for evaluation of individual planners.

Caley McKibbin January 12, 2010 at 4:08 am

I’m an avid player of the game and of the Football Manager series. Prefab match plans never work in the long run because they are figured out and planned against. Only constant change-up and adaptation can keep you ahead. As a player, if I always did the flip-flap in one on one, the opposition would shortly learn to always lunge in the opposite direction of the flip.

widmerpool January 12, 2010 at 4:51 am

Actually, Lobanovsky is one of the fathers of the modern game, having come up with pressing, and this kind of analysis is now used by all football teams. I doubt it had anything to do with Marxism, it was about maths and statistics. All the teams Lobanovsky coached were successful at domestic and international levels. He was even reasonably successful in the Champions League in the 1990s, when almost every Eastern European team disappeared from international competition due to the collapse of their finances, and despite the disadvantage of the Ukrainian season running spring-summer instead of autumn-spring like in Western Europe.

Fallon January 12, 2010 at 7:26 am


Excellent comment. I wondered where the Italians got their inspiration from- re pressing and tactical direction. I also find it ironic that Lob, as a player, was known for being frustrated by strict coaching.

It is also important to note that sports were a real bread and circus event in the Soviet Union. Athletes were first class citizens with the role of providing a facade of success for the regime. The Dynamo academy, facilities and resources were the envy of richer Western clubs.

It may be a tribute to Lob that after the collapse of funding in the early 90′s that he could still produce world class results- and players.

Could it also be said that the Italian league, because of his influence, combined with market forces, had a brief moment as being the #1 league in the world? (I remember the stingy defense of mid 1990′s Juventus etc)

The fact that Italy are World Champs and had Cannavaro, a defender, named World Player of the Year, may also be attributable to Lob’s influence to some degree then.

Surely a formal empirical analysis would highlight the difference between the environment of totalitarianism vs. totalitarian coaching; and further, parcel out the differences in tactical and scientific coaching.

I mean, what successful manager is not tactical in thinking? There is the matter of emphasis. Like in England, for instance, where often the scientific tactic is psychological: the goal is to create “confidence” in their players….


MaxTur January 12, 2010 at 10:13 am

The article is a bullshit. Methodic created by Lobanovskiy is being used almost by all modern coaches. Lobanovsky’s childs were awarded by Golden Ball. And it’s funny to read the critic of Ukraine from so-called “author” who’s knowledge about Ukraine is limited by its Comunist past.

William Hoover February 5, 2010 at 9:44 am

Has the author ever been to Ukraine. Football in Ukraine is excellant. I am an American, living in Ukraine who coached professional soccer in America.
Watch a game sometime. Currently, the domestic league in Ukraine is ranked 7th in Ukraine right behind countries like Germany and Russia and in front of Holland and Scotland. It is very technical league (skillful), all the teams are strong from a tactical point of veiw. The football is very advanced. I would agree that the Dynamo teams from the 70′s and 80′s seemed to play and unattractive style. However, under Loboanvsky they won the equivilent of the Champions League. By the way the UEFA Cup is second to the Champions League. Shakhtar did beat Tottenham Hotspur, Bremen of German, CSKA Moscow to win the UEFA Cup. Great comments and interesting article.

netball leagues July 13, 2010 at 11:33 pm

The author comment on Ukrainian football is looking abstract and a missing link really. I think the comment would have been more justified if the author watched the inner leagues on Ukrainian football and then he could really realize how much it’s improved and fantastic.

arsenal June 14, 2011 at 11:38 am

A classic read, so is just as simple as that

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