Never mind politics, but this is certainly not the best time to live in Ukraine. For Dynamo Kiev fans, football offers little consolation, as the most illustrious Ukrainian club is experiencing the worst spell since the breakup of the Soviet Union. They have seen their team miss out on the Champions League qualification for the second year running, after their worst ever, fourth-place finish in the league.
The last days, however, have been infinitely more tragic, as two club legends have very suddenly passed away. Valentin Byalkevich died on Aug. 1, aged just 41. Andriy Bal followed him on Aug. 9, having collapsed and died while playing a football game, at the age of 56. Both worked at Dynamo, with Byalkevich's last role being the assistant coach of the youth team, while Bal was recently involved in scouting. The club is in a state of mourning.
Bal and Byalkevich were not the most famous players of their respective eras, but definitely two of the most dearly loved. Their style and abilities on the pitch were important, but even more so their personalities -- both were very honest, open and outgoing people who enlightened everything around them, becoming true leaders on and off the pitch, and idols for millions of supporters. Not surprisingly, both were discovered and nurtured by the great Valeri Lobanovsky.
Bal, a versatile player who could easily fill almost any position in defence and midfield, was lured to Kiev from his native Lviv in 1981. That was also his ticket to the national team, as Lobanovsky insisted on including him in the World Cup squad the following year. It was an inspired decision, since Bal scored a very famous goal in the opening game versus Brazil, his speculative long-range effort finding the net thanks to some poor goalkeeping by Waldir Peres.
Bal started in four of the USSR's matches in Spain that summer, and it was the best experience of his career. His next World Cup, in Mexico 1986, was less successful, as Lobanovsky was disappointed with his performance in the second-round fixture versus Belgium that ended in what some have labeled an unfair 4-3 defeat in extra time. Bal was never called for a major tournament since, and had only 20 caps to his name.
Nevertheless, he possessed no fewer than four international titles on youth level. Not only did he win the European championships in 1976 and 1980, and the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1977, Bal was invited as an overage player for the European Under-21 tournament at the age of 32. With 14 years separating his first and last youth gold medals, he could easily write his name into the Guinness Book of Records.
At the club level, Bal won four Soviet league titles, and played a very important part in Dynamo Kiev's Cup Winners' Cup triumph in 1986. Lobanovsky might have left him on the bench in the final against Atletico Madrid, but Bal had to enter the pitch in the first half when Sergey Baltacha was injured, and then went on to have a great game.
More famous names, like Oleg Blokhin, Igor Belanov, Aleksandr Zavarov and others, grabbed all the headlines, but Bal was extremely influential, both tactically and in the dressing room. His friendly and humorous character made him impossible not to like, and he never ignored the fans, often starting long conversations with them. Such qualities helped him in his coaching career, especially as Blokhin's assistant on the Ukraine national team that reached the quarterfinals of the 2006 World Cup. Blokhin has always had problems dealing with people, but Bal was his complete opposite and managed to keep the team intact.
"Bal was the heart of any company. He was never sad, and always lifted everyone's spirits. That gave us strength during the toughest times," said former Dynamo and Soviet Union left back Anatoly Demyanenko. Former goalkeeper Aleksandr Uvarov, who was very close to Bal when both played in Israel at the end of their career in the '90s, admitted that he "felt like losing a finger" when hearing about Bal's sudden death.
Lobanovsky built his next great Dynamo side at the end of the '90s, and his biggest achievement back then was reaching the Champions League semifinals in 1999. Young Andriy Shevchenko was the biggest star of that team, and his partner Serhiy Rebrov also got his share of attention before eventually moving to Tottenham in 2000, but it was Byalkevich who provided exquisite passes to both of them.
The Belorussian first arrived to Kiev in 1996 and wasn't given enough playing time by coach Joszef Szabo, but Lobanovsky spotted his talent and gave him a free hand in midfield. As a result, Kiev fans witnessed a cultured and elegant playmaker, a midfielder of great vision and pinpoint through balls.
Slightly built, Byalkevich used to avoid physical contact and almost never committed fouls. He was the ultimate footballing gentleman, respected and liked by everyone. Not for nothing he used to captain Dynamo, and fans also admired the fact he stayed at the club until 2007, despite having a couple of lucrative offers abroad. Byalkevich won seven Ukrainian league titles, and was twice crowned the best provider of assists (2000 and 2001).
"Valentin was a classy player and a great person. He loved different kinds of jokes and tricks, and was able to make people happy. Everyone loved him, and he was always willing to help his friends," said grieving former teammate, ex-Arsenal defender Oleh Luzhnyi. "It's impossible to believe that Byalkevich is dead. I lost a very close friend who was a great footballer and a talented coach. He was a hero for millions of fans, and we will always remember him," Shevchenko told the official Dynamo Kiev website.
Byalkevich and Bal each died instantly because of a blood clot. The latter was passing the ball on the football pitch. The club and the whole city won't be the same without them, and if Dynamo manage to win the title this season against all odds, it will certainly be dedicated to the memory of the two legends.