The Greatest Player I Had Never Heard Of
It’s the nature of the beast which is football history that there is just too much to catch up on. Too many seasons and tournaments have gone by. Only a sliver of the matches were actually recorded and preserved on tape. For the most part, though, one will have at least heard of or read the name of most notable players. Yet I regularly stumble upon highly lauded players whom I had no idea existed.
And so the greatest player I had never heard of is David Kipiani.
USSR Player Of The Year 1977
Regarded as possibly the finest footballer hailing from Georgia Kipiani was born November 5th 1951. As a player he never left his native Tbilisi. And for all intents he was a one club man. A 14 year career with Dinamo Tbilisi was only briefly interrupted, in 1970, by a loan move across town to Lokomotiv. After establishing himself at the senior level Kipiani returned to Dinamo and came to dictate their play for the following decade. In 1977 he was voted Soviet Footballer Of The Year.
More than winning two Soviet Cups (in 1976 & ‘79), even more than winning the Soviet League (in ’78) what cemented Dinamo’s legacy was their European triumph in ’81. It was when watching the final of the European Cup Winners Cup that I first noticed Kipiani. Because Carl Zeiss Jena, Dinamo’s opponents that day, had apparently studied him more closely. They intended to hack Kipiani down as soon as he touched the ball. It did the trick for the most part, stifling his involvement somewhat. Kipiani would drop deeper to avoid the press and structure the play from the back. This is something also apparent when watching video highlights of other matches; there Kipiani often looks like a modern day deep-lying playmaker. Tall and lanky but hard to get off the ball, with a great technique and an eye for short and long passes alike, Kipiani directed the pace and flow of matches.
His 79 goals in 246 league matches for Dinamo suggest a player who could finish an attacking move as well. Against Jena he provided the most crucial of assists, though, that for Vitaly Daraselia’s winner. (To be fair, Daraselia created much of the scoring opportunity by himself; seen here from 04:30 onwards.)
Little footage of Kipiani remains. Most YouTube highlight reels string together the same handful of scenes; footballia carry only five matches featuring Kipiani. Then again the biggest stage eluded him.
While the USSR failed to qualify for the 1978 World Cup, Kipiani missed the 1982 edition due to a broken leg. Or were it the powers who be who prevented his involvement in Spain? In a recent portrait for The Blizzard Michael Yokhin relays the intertwined stories of Kipiani, Daraselia, and their coach Nodar Akhalkatsi.
Ever deeper the rabbit hole goes. For while Kipiani is widely regarded as one of the best Georgian players of all time, I have yet to find him topping any such list. Murtaz Khurtsilava was awarded the UEFA Jubilee award to mark him as Georgia’s outstanding player of the last 50 years. Boris Paichadze, who is of an earlier generation, won a public poll recognizing the nation’s greatest ever player. Today Dinamo’s stadium carries his name.
Which begs the question: Who were Murtaz Khurtsilava and Boris Paichadze?