Ukraine has a rich soccer tradition. Famed coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi was one of the sport’s great tacticians pioneering the use of scientific methodology. He led Dynamo Kyiv to 13 league titles in various stints and to the Champions League Semifinals in 1999. Two of Lobanovskyi’s Ballon D’Or winning proteges, coach Oleh Blokhin and captain Andiry Shevhenko, led Ukraine to the quarterfinals of its only international tournament in World Cup 2006. They will attempt to recreate that magic here, thought that may be a tough ask.
Qualification: The Ukrainians qualified automatically as hosts. They had a disastrous run of friendlies, winning just 1/10 from Oct. 2010 through Sept. 11. Before a 3-2 loss to Austria on Friday, however, they had won five of six. The sixth was a 3-3 draw with Germany.
Coach: Ukraine are coached by 59-year-old Oleh Blokhin. He was a legendary striker for the Soviet Union and Dyanmo Kyiv in the 1970s and 1980s and the 1975 Ballon D’Or winner. He is the same coach who took Ukraine to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2006.
Squad: Twenty-one of the 23-man squad play domestically, mostly for Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk. The team’s strength is up front, which should be disturbing. Andiry Shevchenko is an AC Milan legend and won the Ballon D’Or in 2004. He has also declined markedly since signing with Chelsea in 2006. He still has some technical ability, but is 35 and hampered by chronic back trouble. Former Liverpool player Andiry Voronin will pair with him. Marko Devic, two goals in 20 appearances, should be the choice should Sheva be unable to go.
There are two noteworthy Ukranian midfielders. Bayern Munich veteran Anatoliy Tymoshchuck, who started in the Champions League Final, will play in defensive midfield. He’s savvy and reads the game very well. They also have 22-year-old winger Andriy Yarmolenko, dubbed by Shevchenko “the future of Ukrainian football.” He’s robust, has pace, and has scored five goals in Ukraine’s last nine friendlies.
The defense could be shorthanded. Former Barcelona central defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy will miss the tournament due to injury. After two injuries and a doping suspension, Ukraine is also down to its fourth-choice goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov.
Tactics: Depending on how you group the players, Ukraine plays a 4-4-2 or a 4-1-3-2. Not overly skilled, they will try to sit back and defend before hitting teams on the counterattack.
Political Controversy: Multiple European leaders have threatened to boycott the 2012 Final in Kiev, protesting the treatment of Ukranian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. The former prime minister was tried on politically motivated charges related a gas deal signed with Russia in 2009. She was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Racism Controversy: A BBC Panorama documentary raised concerns about racism and antisemitism in Polish and Ukrainian soccer stadiums. England, concerned about the safety of black and Asian fans, will set up “England only” safe zones at matches in Kiev and Donetsk.
Prognosis: Ukraine made a strong run at the 2006 World Cup. The trouble is the country’s stars then in their prime are now in a rapidly fading twilight. Ukraine, at best, is one of the worst teams in the tournament on paper. Qualification is not inconceivable in a pervious Group D, just unlikely.
Fun Fact: The world’s oldest map was found in Mezhirich, Ukraine. It dates from around 12,000 B.C. and was carved into mammoth bone.
[Photo via Getty]