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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Ukraine’s national soccer team: an episode or an epoch?

22 January, 2008 - 00:00
Photo by Oleksandr KOSARIEV

In Mukachiv last Monday, President Viktor Yushchenko once again focused attention on the need to speed up preparations for the 2012 European soccer championship. “I would like to send a distress signal to both the Ukrainian parliament and the Ukrainian government,” he said, criticizing Kyiv’s authorities because “nothing has been done” in the capital, “and we’re talking about 60 hotels.” Three days earlier, the president told the heads of regional administrations gathered in Kyiv that “January is the last month to finish the planning work. February 2008 is the first month when equipment is brought to the sites and construction work begins as well as the rebuilding of the sports-related infrastructure.”

The head of state also emphasized that a debate is still going on about construction funding and reconstruction of the Euro-2012 facilities. Moreover, no final decision has been made about demolishing the above-ground part of the Troitsky shopping mall now under construction next to the Olympic Sport Complex, and Yurii Pavlenko, Minister for Families, Youth and Sport, is only issuing predictions in this regard. Is there any kind of government in this country? Does it realize where Ukraine will end up if it fails to prepare for Euro-2012? Despite plentiful excuses, this danger truly exists.

What kind of advice can one give the government? There should be a responsible manager, preferably a vice-prime minister, who would be vested with exclusive powers and personally responsible for the timely preparation of the championship. Otherwise, the whole project may sink into a mire of debates and interdepartmental grudges and squabbles. This may seriously damage Ukraine’s image and throw the country not just onto the fringes of Europe, which will be a no-go area for us, but the remotest backwaters of Eurasia, where neither tourists nor soccer players will ever set their foot.

There is another — purely soccer-related — aspect to the Euro-2012 problem. Since we have been entrusted to host such a prestigious competition together with Poland, we must also show Europe and the world our sports mastery. This will be discussed below. But I would like to add one more thing. One should not rely on elite athletes alone, although their role in popularizing sport and the country is difficult to overestimate. If we are to see the development of a healthy younger generation and its successes in the international arena, we should create proper conditions so that our children will take up sports today, tomorrow, and forever after. We should restore the network of children’s and youth sports schools, train coaches for them, and pay them decent salaries. If we start dealing with this question right now, by 2012 we will not only have boys who can run after off-line balls but other promising young athletes.

Soccer life is special in that it does not provide anyone with time for reflection — neither for winners to relish their success nor for losers to bemoan their loss. Was Ukrainian soccer a winner 18 months ago, when the Italians thrashed our national team 3:0 in the World Cup quarterfinal? Many people dared to call this a major success. But when a defeat is presented as a victory, there can be no hope for real headway.

In the fall of 2005, when the stars augured well for our national team, which was among the 32 participants of the world finals, the scenario of further events was very clear for all to see. Any performance in the finals would have been called successful because we had made it to this kind of competition for the first time. The 2005-type national team would have rolled on through inertia, flaunting its former victories. But sooner or later, things would have taken their true course.

This is in fact what happened. The only difference from the projected scenario is that in the summer of 2006 our side was knocked out of the World Cup in the quarterfinals, not at the preliminary stage, as was planned, which prompted some people to declare us the near-champions of the world. Nobody even wanted to talk about analyzing our two defeats by the leading European teams of Spain and Italy with a score of 4:0 and 3:0, respectively.

Meanwhile, the fate of the Ukrainian national team, which made its way to the European selection tournament in the same group with Italy and France, was a foregone conclusion. For the first time since 1995 our national team came fourth in the group, having returned to the level from which it had once started out on its path to international recognition.

With respect to further actions, Ukrainian soccer chiefs had two main options. The first was to invite a foreign celebrity to head the national team, tempting him with a handsome salary and...irresponsibility. The second was to put a Ukrainian expert at the team’s helm, pinning hopes on his inside knowledge of our soccer.

As we know, the latter option was chosen. The under-21 team coach Oleksii Mykhailychenko was appointed manager of Ukraine’s national team. He immediately went to see the coaches of the teams that Ukraine will be taking on at the selection stage of the 2010 World Cup. The calendar of our team’s official games for the next two years may be announced even today.

At the beginning of this article I said that soccer life never stops. In addition to new competitions, we are inevitably approaching the not-so-distant year of 2012, when Ukraine and Poland will host the European championship. In 2012 we have to show off our soccer, not just our stadiums and hotels. I don’t want our national team in its own country playing the role that was relegated to the teams of Austria and Switzerland, the two countries hosting Euro-2008. The most radical- minded fans even demanded that these teams be stripped of the right to play in the European finals because of their low performance level. Are we so much better than Switzerland and Austria?

This is the question that the new headquarters of Ukraine’s national team should answer in the nearest future. Will the new manager be able to offer the national team a new training system or will our team be manned, like before, by semi-reserve players from the three leading Ukrainian clubs and the few Ukrainians who play abroad? Will our national team remain an appendage of Andrii Shevchenko, as has been the case in the past 10 years, or will the coaches try to set up a truly new team that has its own style typical of Ukrainian soccer?

Unfortunately, the national team may be the only one where we can see the potential of Ukrainian soccer. So far, no high-sounding statements and no “limits” on foreigners can scratch the itch that has afflicted the owners of Ukrainian soccer clubs. For years on end we have been signing contracts with mediocre foreigners, who have never helped our soccer clubs make even half a step forward in all the years of this practice.

Luckily, it is still forbidden to use foreigners for a national team. Today the manager of our national team may be the only figure in Ukrainian soccer that can and must protect purely Ukrainian soccer from the onslaught of foreign players. Otherwise, there can be no hope for our national team’s success in the nearest future. Will the new national team manager be able to perform the function of the protector of Ukrainian soccer? Or will Mykhailychenko, like his predecessors, select any old Ukrainians who still manage to play in the first string of our leading clubs and field them for inevitable defeats at the hands of truly high-class national teams?

Ukraine’s national soccer team should be regarded not just as a group of players who will win or lose one more qualification tournament. The World Cup qualification is only one episode in the fast- changing world of soccer. What we need is a new football era that will see the revival of Ukrainian soccer.

By Mykola NESENIUK
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