Cybernetics and models in a golden age of Soviet football


This is a paper prepared for the 12th IACSS world symposium to be held in Moscow in July 2019. It brings together my interests in coaching and analytics in a particular cultural context.

The paper is presented as if it is an oral presentation at the symposium.


This paper presents an historical account of the dawn of computer science in association football in the USSR in the 1970s. The account is located in a cultural context of an ideologically-acceptable, growing interest in cybernetics in the Soviet Union at that time [1, 2].  It shares the story of a bioenergeticist and computer scientist, Anatolij Zelentsov [3], who met and worked with one of the Soviet Union’s most celebrated football coaches, Valerij Lobanovs’kyj [4]. It is proposed here that an account of innovation and insight from four decades ago resonates powerfully with present day practices that seek to integrate computer science into daily training and competition environments in association football and other sports. 


Sam Wineburg [5] suggests that each generation “must answer for itself anew why the study of the past is important” and “remind us why history can also bring us together”. The 12th International Symposium provides a perfect opportunity to explore the history that can bring us together by connecting the familiar and the strange. Something very special happened in association football in the USSR in the 1970s and was embedded in the emergence of cybernetics and informatics. We have paid little attention to these events despite their significance. This paper is a preliminary attempt to address this astigmatism but drawn on English language media and translations to do so. At the 2019 IACSS Symposium, Egor Timme, Alexander Dayal and Yuri Kukushkin [27] present their account of the history of cybernetics in sports in the USSR based upon models released in the 1960s.

A computer scientist and a coach meet

Anatolij Zelentsov and Valerij Lobanovs’kyj met in 1968 when Anatolij was Dean of the Dnipropetrovsk Institute of Physical Science, and Valerij was about to become head coach of the Dnipro football team [6]. Their meeting took place in a cultural context described by Jonathan Wilson [7] , Simon Kuper [8] and Slava Gerovitch [2]. 

Valerij grew up “in the great Soviet age of science”. He was a teenager “when the USSR opened its first nuclear power station and sent Sputnik into space”. Kyiv was “the centre of the Soviet computer industry” and was acknowledged “ as a world leader in automated control systems, artificial intelligence and mathematical modelling”.[7] He studied heating engineering in Kyiv. Jonathan Wilson concludes “it is no great surprise that Lobanovskyi should have been gripped by the spirit of technological optimism” [7].

They worked together for four years at Dnipro and then, in 1974, Valerij was appointed coach of the Dynamo Kyiv team. Anatolij moved to Dynamo Kyiv with him. As their partnership developed, so too did their interest in the ‘functional readiness’ of players. This led Anatolij to develop a computer program [9, 16] to collect and analyse data about players’ physical, cognitive and affective behaviours to inform and support Valerij’s quest to optimise the team’s performances in training and competition [9].

Anatolij and Valerij shared their approach to performance in association football in their book, The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models. With the insights gained from Anatolij’s observational system and computerised analyses, Valerij increased the intensity of his training sessions and decreased their duration. This was a transformational moment not only in Russian football but also in world football. In the 1970s, Anatolij and Valerij were already taking into account the specifics of the recovery period and were able to personalise the training programs for each player. 

One of the most quoted paragraphs of their book is:

When we are talking about tactical evolution, the first thing we have in mind is to strive for new courses of action that will not allow the opponent to adapt to our style of play. If an opponent has adjusted himself to our style of play and found a counterplay, then we need to find new a new strategy. That is the dialectic of the game. You have to go forward in such a way and with such a range of attacking options that it will force the opponent to make a mistake. In other words, it is necessary to force the opponent into the condition you want them to be in. One of the most important means of doing that is to vary the size of the playing area. (Quoted, for example, in [7, 10])

Within this paragraph, we have socialism meeting dynamical systems or as Vadim Furmanov [10] suggests ‘scientific communism meets total football. 

Each player, each team or each tactical system could not exist by themselves; they must necessarily be dependent on the contrary action of the opposition. Thesis and antithesis. [9]

Oleg Bazylevych and Mykhaylo Oshemkov worked with Anatolij and Valerij to develop this model of football. Oleg took responsibility for day-to-day training and Mykhaylo provided ‘informational support’ (data gathering and analysis)[7, 11]. Their approach to preparation, flexibility and universality in game playing  indicates why events at Dynamo Kyiv have had a profound impact on world football [9].

Anatolij’s computer program for the evaluation of functional readiness used a coding protocol that divided the playing field into nine squares. Within this tessellation, Anatolij measured the frequency with which each player entered defending and attacking areas and the work on and off the ball. Each player was awarded an overall score to three decimals based on physical, cognitive and affective measures [12]. He maintained an extensive database of player performance and gradually developed a video archive of world football tournaments “to predict the development direction of modern football” [6, 13].

Valerlij and Anatolij were together at Dynamo Kyiv for a total of twenty-three seasons. In their first partnership from 1974 to 1990, the club won: eight Vysshaya Liga; six Soviet Cups; two UEFA Cupwinners’ Cup competitions; and the UEFA Super Cup . They were reunited for a second time between 1997 and 2002. At this time the team were in the Ukrainian Premyer Liga. Dynamo Kyiv won four consecutive league titles and three Ukraine Cup Finals [14].

 In 2004, Anatolij noted that their approaches to modelling football performance were informed and enriched by close collaboration with scientists in other fields, including cybernetics, aeronautical engineering, and neurophysiologists [15]. The presence of research institutes in Kyiv, gave Anatolij access to a wide range of interdisciplinary inputs that were at the forefront of computer science [Peters].  Interest in their work was renewed in at the time of the 2012 UEFA Euro Championships hosted in Ukraine [17] and before the 2018 FIFA World Cup [18]. 


In 1948, Norbert Wiener called “the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal” by the name Cybernetics [19]. Scientists in the USSR were aware of this development but were mindful that in the 1950s cybernetics was viewed as “reactionary pseudo-science”. A decade later, the field of study had been transformed into “a science in the service of communism” and had witnessed a number of landmark publications written by eminent mathematicians and cyberneticists including Andrei Kolmogorov, Sergei Sobolev, Aleksei Lyapunov, Andrei Markov Jr., and Anatoliy Kitov [20].

Two decades before Anatolij and Valerij met in Dnipro, 500 kilometres to the north west in Kyiv, Sergei Lebedev had established an electrical engineering institute that developed a small electronic computer that was the first in Europe to use stored memory and digital architecture [21, 22]. Under his guidance, the institute built fifteen high production computers. The institute became the Academy of Science Computing Centre in 1957. Viktor Glushkov became head of the Centre in 1958 and subsequently, in 1962, it was renamed the Cybernetics Institute [20]. 

In 1963, the Institute hosted a symposium on the integration of artificial computers that was facilitated by Sergei Lebedev and Viktor Glushkov. Three years later, Viktor Glushkov and Zinovy Rabinovich published their research on algorithmic structures in computer systems [23, 24]. By the time Anatolij and Valerij had met, Zinovy Rabinovich was the chief designer of the Ukraine computer under the supervision of Viktor Glushkov [21, 25]. These developments were located in a vibrant interest in cybernetics in the 1960s. Viktor Gluchkov proposed that there were five stages in cybernetics in the Soviet Union: unexplored territory (1955 to 1961); development in depth (1962 to 1967); development in breadth (1968 to 1972); the rise of parallel processing (1973 to 1978); and the transition to informatics (1979 to 1982) [20]


This is an opportune time to revisit Anatolij and Valerij’s story on the occasion of the symposium hosted in Moscow. We have a great deal to learn from a story that started fifty years ago for our current computer science in sport thinking and practice. It is a story embedded in technological innovation at a time of increasing interest in and support for cybernetics in the USSR [26]. Together, I believe they make a compelling claim to have been a golden age of discovery in computer science at the cusp of the informatics age. 


[1} Lepskiy, V.: Evolution of cybernetics: philosophical and methodological analysis. Kybernetes, 47(2), 249-261 (2018) . doi 10.1108/K-03-2017-0120

[2} Gerovitch, S.: From newspeak to cyberspeak. A History of Soviet Cybernetics. The MIT Press, Cambridge (2002)

[3} Lyons, K.: Anatolij Zelentsov. Retrieved from  (12 November 2017)

[4] Lyons, K.: Valerij Lobanovsk’kyi.  Retrieved from  (9 November 2017)

[5] Wineburg, S.: Historical thinking and other unnatural acts. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(7), 488-489 (1999)

[6] Ruban, T., Roshchin, I., Fayzullin, M.: The godfather of models. Retrieved from (nd)

[7] Wilson, J.: How Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s appliance of science won hearts and trophies. The Guardian, 13 May 2011. Retrieved from 

[8] Kuper, S.: Football against the enemy. Phoenix, London (1996)

[9] Carter, E.: Parking The Coach, Part Two: Valeriy Lobanovskyi. Retrieved from (19 May 2016)

[10] Furmanov, V.: A history of football in Ukraine 1972-1984. Retrieved from (9 August 2012)

[11] Newman, B.: Valeriy Lobanovskyi and Dynamo Kyiv’s scientific enlightenment. Retrieved from (30 May 2015)

[12] Laboratorio Pincharrata: El Laboratorio Soviético. Retrieved from (26 September 2012)

[13] Flint, A.: How science and innovation made Valeriy Lobanovskyi Eastern Europe’s greatest manager {Blog post] Retrieved from (26 November 2015)

[14] Lyons, K.: Valerij, Anatolij and Dynamo Kyiv’s Golden Years. Retrieved from (14 November 2017)

[15] Mikhailovich, A.: Anatolij Zelentsov. Retrieved from (22 September 2004)

[16] Schumaker, R., Solieman, O., Chen, Hsinchun.: Sports Data Mining. Springer, New York (2010)

[17] Ronay, B.: Euro 2012: Valeriy Lobanovsky, king of Kiev who was before his time. Retrieved from (15 June 2012)

[18] Linnyk, I.:  In profile: Valeriy Lobanovskiy. Retrieved from (31 July 2016)

[19] Wiener, R.: Cybernetics. The MIT Press, Cambridge (1948)

[20] Peters, B: Normalizing Soviet cybernetics. Information & Culture, 47(2), 145-175 (2012)

[21] Malinovsky, B.: Pioneers of Soviet computing. Retrieved from  (2010)

[22] Fet, Y.: Pages from the history of Russian computer science. In: Passey D., Kendall M. (eds) TelE-Learning. The International Federation for Information Processing, 102. Springer, Boston, MA (2002)

[23] Gluschkov, V., Rabinovich, Z.: On some directions of development of algorithmic structures of computers. Cybernetics in the Service of Communism, 3, 173-182 (1966)

[24] Rabinovich, Z.: Machine intelligence paradigm and its development. Cybernetics and Systems Analysis, 31(2), 297-305 (1995) 

[25] History of Computing in Ukraine: Zinovy l. Rabinovich. Retrieved from (nd)

[26] Zhuravlev, Y.I. & Gurevich, I.B. Pattern Recognit. Image Anal. 20(1), 1-20 (2010) 

[27] Timme, E., Dayal, A. & Kukushkin, Y.: History of cybernetics in sports in the USSR – Models released in the 1960s. Proceedings of the IACSS Symposium (2019)

Photo Credit

The group of four (Pasquale)

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