When Valery Gazzaev left CSKA Moscow, and subsequently ended up at Dynamo Kyiv, understandably there was little coverage in the press outside the former Soviet Union. But Gazzaev is a man who matters in those countries, a man who is respected by fellow Russian coaches, who is impulsive (some would say eccentric) and has difficulty getting along with presidents, players and even the press. Gazzaev is also loyal though, and literally willing to die for his team. So what made Gazzaev the coach he is today? And how did he come to be regarded as one of the fathers of Russian football?
Gazzaev was born in 1954 in Ordzhonikidze, the northern Caucasus region in the then Soviet Union. As a player he turned out for Spartak Ordzhonikidze, SKA Rostov, Lokomotiv Moscow, Dynamo Moscow and Dynamo Tiblisi. Gazzaev made 293 appearances, scoring 89 times.
On the pitch Gazzaev didn’t achieve anything spectacular, save one solitary USSR Cup winners’ medal. Certainly there was nothing to suggest the success he would have in management once he hung up his boots. The first real stop on the Gazzaev story came in 1989 when he was appointed head coach of Alania Vladikavkaz.
After the collapse of the USSR, Alania Vladikavkaz benefited from a leveling of the playing field. When the Soviet Union broke apart many of the best Russian players soon exited westwards, and the traditional giants lost many of those responsible for keeping them at the top end of the table almost overnight. This forced the big Russian clubs to embark of a rapid period of scouting, searching for young players who could become the next superstars. This though would take time.
At Alania Vladikavkaz Gazzaev found himself largely unaffected by the developments taking place. Perhaps it is true that those in Gazzaev’s squad were not of the quality which would invite instant bids from abroad, but nevertheless they were professionals, well drilled and able to perform consistently. The Alania squad respected Gazzaev and he had formed a close bond with most of them, coaching and developing his players as the club progressed through the leagues.
With the start of the new exclusively Russian championship, Gazzaev knew his team were the outsiders. No-one expected little Alania Vladikavkaz to win the title, but amidst all the chaos they did exactly that. Russian football was shocked, but the signs had been there from the first game, a meeting with then champions Spartak Moscow, which Alania won.
That victory announced Gazzaev to Russia, and also the way he likes to play the game, with the emphasis on attack, not defence, and an aggressive attitude. Russian journalists soon began to link the coach’s players to the coach, stating that Alania’s players copied their coach’s behaviour. They became obsessed with the game, fought for the ball like madmen and were driven by one desire – to win.
Gazzaev soon gained a reputation as something of a rebel, but nobody understood that defiance was his nature and to rebel was in his heart and soul. The coach soon outgrew Alania and was on the lookout for a job in which he could fulfil his potential and have sustained success.
Alania’s manager was offered the job at CSKA Moscow, and permission to develop the club as he liked. CSKA had begun to be backed by big money, and it was clear for all to see that they were intent on becoming major players in the Russian game. Gazzaev had found the club of his dreams and was eager to begin work.
In his first season in charge Gazzaev led CSKA to second spot in the championship, and this proved to be just a stopping off point as the very next year they picked up their first title together.
The peak came in 2005 when CSKA again won the title, and the Russian Cup, and, to top it all off, the UEFA Cup.
The UEFA Cup victory was especially impressive as it came against Sporting Lisbon in their home stadium. Thousands upon thousands of Sporting supporters packed the Estadio Jose Avalade, cheering the home side on. For CSKA, the final was like an away match.
The game started badly, with Sporting taking the lead, and many amongst the Portuguese acted as if the trophy were already theirs. Gazzaev reacted furiously, and almost encroached on to the pitch, trying to direct his team to attack. It was all the harder because his team was still in development, made of youngsters – Yuri Zhirkov, the Berezuzky brothers and Vagner Love were a little older than 20, whilst goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev was just 19.
Yet these youngsters created a miracle, forcing Sporting back and scoring three times to take the UEFA Cup back to Russia.
After that triumph CSKA continued to play solid attacking football, regularly taking part in the Champions League, with Gazzaev becoming something of a cult figure for European football fans, marching up and down the touchline with his recognisable bushy mustache.
But clearly operating at the highest level and under such stress had taken its toll and at the end of the 2008 season he stood down. In one interview soon afterwards Gazzaev said “I need a rest. I need it and I can’t do anything about that. I hope I will be able to return to my favourite work [football] in the summer, but I don’t know if the doctor and circumstances will allow me to. If I am okay I will join some team, but if I am not I am still happy with what I achieved. But I do want to be a professional coach [if I return] and I would never dream of football as a hobby. My hobby is my granddaughter!”
Gazzaev was not out of football for too long though. After recharging his batteries he was called by Dynamo Kyiv president Igor Surkis. Surkis offered Gazzaev the job of head coach on a three-year contract. What surprised many people was the speed in which the deal was agreed, the contract terms being concluded in just two days. The day after that Gazzaev was in Kyiv.
The reasons for that quick deal are quite clear now. The previous Dynamo Kyiv coach, Yuri Semin, who changed and transformed the team completely, had to leave the club for personal reasons, heading back to Russia. President Surkis let him leave without hesitation. However, this was not because Surkis didn’t appreciate Semin’s work, after all, he had won the title and reached the semi-final of the UEFA Cup. Semin’s best friend just happens to be Valery Gazzaev, and Gazzaev agreed to cancel his retirement to take over from his friend. Semin was released, and Gazzaev came in. A simple substitution.
Gazzaev faces quite a challenge with Dynamo Kyiv, holding off a resurgent Shakhtar Donetsk at home, and building on Semin’s progress abroad. The coach has already declared himself happy with the players at his disposal, so big things are expected from the off.
There is no doubt that Gazzaev has earned the right to be considered amongst the best Russian coaches. Four Russian titles, four times runners-up, four Russian cups and two Super Cups. And, to top it all off, a UEFA Cup. There are not many with such a record.