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During bleak times Ukrainian football may shine a light. Part 1: the history

A six-year-old fan of the Ukrainian national team watching the football game Ukraine vs Sweden – the opening match of the Euro-2012 group stage at Donbas Arena in Donetsk (now occupied by Russia), 11 June 2012. Screenshot: TSN
During bleak times Ukrainian football may shine a light. Part 1: the history
These are bleak times in Ukraine… War in the east with new casualties every day, fires in the north spreading lethal radiation, Coronavirus taking its toll across the land. But even in the worst of times — in a moment of rare respite — the mind turns to what was once one of the simplest of pleasures. Football.

Dynamo Kyiv. Shakhtar Donetsk. Karpaty Lviv. Chornomorets Odesa. These major league teams belong to the Ukrainian Premier League, formed in 1991 in the wake of Independence. Several Ukrainian clubs have reached European club competitions, including Dynamo Kyiv, Shakhtar Donetsk and Dnipro (dissolved in 2019).

This year, Ukraine qualified for Euro 2020, which was scheduled to take place in 12 cities across Europe, from 12 June to 12 July 2020. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 crisis, the competition has been delayed to 2021.

To say it is an extraordinary achievement that Ukraine qualified for the Euros would be an understatement. All of the odds were stacked against the country, with the greatest being a “hot war” fighting Russia-backed militants in the eastern region of Donbas.

As many domestic football leagues collapse, sports pundits are still in shock at what Ukraine has been able to achieve under its current circumstances — finishing at the top of its group. Nor is that all. The Ukrainian U-20 team (20 years of age and under) won the U20 World Cup last year and ranked as world champions in Poland, even as the nation’s youth infrastructure has disintegrated.

Ukraine’s recent performances have brought out the nostalgia of the past when Ukrainian clubs regularly struck fear into their opponents. Among their past victories was dismantling the famed Barcelona football club, 3-0 in Kyiv, then again, 4-0 at Camp Nou. Both Champion League matches took place in 1997.

Football player Andriy Shevchenko pictured against Barcelona when his hat-trick helped them win 4-0 at the Nou Camp in 1997. Screenshot: Youtube.
Flashback 28 August 2009. I’m visiting family and friends in Donetsk. It’s the day before the opening ceremonies for the Donbas Arena.  As I walk up to the stadium grounds, I marvel over the opulence of the stadium, wishing I could be there for the grand opening the next day, but I’m scheduled to catch a train to Crimea in the morning. I watch the grand opening on television and see Beyoncé singing for more than 45,000 people in the stands. I’m filled with pride to see how far Ukraine has come since the collapse of the Soviet Union. I have no idea that a mere five years later, the stadium will be destroyed by a brutal war.

The $400 mn Donbas Arena was the first Eastern European football stadium to be built to the five-star standard of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) — strict criteria for stadiums to qualify as “elite” and eligible to host major tournaments. Even the president of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) heaped praise upon the finished structure.

“I think the stadium itself is ready to host European tournament matches even today or tomorrow, it’s certainly one of the most beautiful stadiums in Europe from what I‘ve seen, and I‘ve seen a few. I think it’s really unique … very modern, and it was built from scratch, while many other stadiums have been rebuilt or refurbished. But here it’s new, it has its own, I would say, soul and its own structure – it says something. I am really impressed! I didn’t expect to see this.” Gianni Infantino, FIFA President

The stadium represented the resurgence of football in Ukraine. Then, in 2014, after the Euromaidan Revolution of Dignity, Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Donbas. Russian’s goal then — and to this day of the six-year war that has claimed 13,000 lives — has been to quash Ukraine’s movement toward Europe and the establishment of a fully democratic state.

Donbas Arena and Donetsk International Airport — symbols of national pride and strength

With Russia’s invasion, everything changed, almost overnight. After more than six months of intermittent bombings, the Donbas Arena was devastated and left in ruins. Still unusable to this day, the true tragedy is that the remains of the stadium are controlled by a puppet republic — the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic.” Not only was the stadium destroyed, more importantly, the region itself was forced into war with Russia and its proxy insurgents.

When in 2017 I visited my family in Donbas near the war zone, I still had not come to terms with the reality that there was a war raging just a few kilometers away. Perhaps naively, I had always thought I would be able to return and watch a football match in the Donbas Arena, but the war had destroyed that dream. Today, the Donbas Arena remains out of operation, but even in the darkest days, a glimmer of hope may shine — despite the ongoing war, the stadium is slowly being repaired. On 31 May 2018, the field turf was successfully restored. Perhaps there still is a chance for the dream.
The new terminal of Donetsk Airport in 2012 and in January 2015. Collage: Twitter Baltic Frequency

Another casualty of war was the Donetsk International Airport — a modern high-tech airport, newly-opened as fans from all of Europe arrived for Euro 2012. The airport was the site of fierce battles between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian forces, from the spring of 2014 to the winter of 2015. During this period, the airport complex suffered extensive damage from constant bombardments.

Soldiers defending the airport grounds used the terminals as garrisons and shelters. Ultimately, the buildings sustained so many structural failures that the massive roof collapsed over the stunning mezzanine. The airport control tower, also under siege, was destroyed in January during the final battle for the airport, rendering the Donetsk Airport little more than a pile of twisted metal.

Read also: In memoriam: The Defense of Donetsk Airport (25 May 2014 – 22 January 2015)

The battle for the Donetsk airport is depicted in the 2017 film Cyborgs: Heroes Never Die. The film was released in Kyiv, on 7 December 2017 — symbolically planned for the third anniversary of the fall of the airport terminal. It has since been screened internationally and at prominent film festivals.

Read also: Story of the “cyborgs”: Ukraine’s Donetsk airport defenders to hit big screen

Ukraine’s road to Euro 2020

Ukraine has only appeared in two UEFA European Championships — Euro 2012 and Euro 2016. Ukraine and Poland were selected to be co-hosts for the Euro tournament in 2012. The tournament was scheduled to take place across eight cities, equally split between Ukraine and Poland. The Euro 2012 tournament games included 16 national sides drawn into four groups, with four teams in each. The top two in each group advanced to the knockout stages. However, the Ukrainians were wiped out of the group stage in 2012 and were knocked out of the tournament early on.

In the Euro 2016 lead-up, Ukraine qualified for their first Euro tournament (apart from automatic qualifications, as hosts in Euro 2012) after beating Slovenia in the play-offs. This was the first time that Ukraine qualified for a Euro tournament via the play-offs, and enough to send them to Euro 2016 to participate in the group stage.

Unfortunately, they failed to register a single goal, and lost all three games in the group stage — respectively, to Germany, Northern Ireland, and Poland — thus failing to advance to the knockout rounds.

Yet, under the guidance of Ukrainian-legend Andriy Shevchenko, appointed head coach in 2016, the national team reinterpreted discipline and leadership. They would never be the same. Shevchenko brought the same intensity, ball control, and attacking football that he had himself executed as a player from 1993 to 2012. He took the country’s journalists by surprise when they realized how far the team had advanced, qualifying for Euro 2020.

Andriy Shevchenko the manager of Ukraine during the 2020 UEFA European Championships group B qualifying match between Portugal and Ukraine at Estadio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica on 22 March 2019 in Lisbon, Portugal. Source: Youtube.

At the time of Shevchenko’s appointment in 2016, there had been significant push-back. He was an assistant coach under head coach Mykhailo Fomenko, during Ukraine’s failed Euro 2016 campaign — perhaps the worst campaign ever from the national team.

Pundits were quick to criticize Shevchenko, saying he lacked coaching experience, since he had only briefly served as an assistant coach. They accused him of being, at least partially, responsible for Ukraine’s under-performance. Shevchenko shook off the criticism and continued experimenting with the national team, ultimately transforming their football style into a more creative and attacking approach.

Ukraine went on to land in Group B, which would require them to play all the teams in the group. The top two winners of each group would proceed to compete in the Euro 2020 competition. Their opponents were formidable, to say the least. The group included the defending European champions, Portugal, who defeated France in the Euro 2016 final, as well as highly competitive Serbia, Luxembourg, and Lithuania.

There was little expectation for Ukraine to place in the final lineup. Many expected Portugal to win the group with ease and the common view was that Serbia would finish off the group and secure second place.

Few expected Ukraine to win a group that included Portugal — which had not lost since the 2018 World Cup, and also won the 2019 Nations League competition. The expectation had been a close battle with Serbia for the second qualifying position. But Ukraine took them by storm. Their wins over Serbia and Portugal were no small feats.

The total value of Serbia’s national team was Euro 356 million, compared to Ukraine’s Euro 150 million. Portugal’s squad was worth more than four-and-a-half times that of Ukraine’s national squad value of Euro 757 million.

Nonetheless, Ukraine ended up as the group winner, finishing with 20 points — three ahead of frontrunner Portugal. Ukraine’s prolific performances included a win of 5-0 over Serbia, and 2-1 over European champions Portugal. The team ended up conceding only four goals of their eight games while scoring a total of 17 goals.

A brief history of football in Ukraine

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many major Ukrainian teams, including Dynamo Kyiv, had found it difficult to keep their best players in the country. Many chose to go elsewhere to secure a better life for themselves and their families. Under the Soviet Union, funding came directly from the centralized government to operate. Now, clubs needed to operate like a business and find different ways to stay afloat. Meanwhile, Ukrainian business in general was not in a good position to fund clubs. Sponsorships were rare, and maintaining infrastructure — let alone payroll — was a major challenge. In the last years, many clubs have either incurred heavy debt, gone bankrupt, or suffered total financial collapse, as did Football Club (FC) Metalist Kharkiv in 2016 and FC Dnipro in 2019.

Many of Ukraine’s current stadiums date back to the 1950s and 1960s. They were once the pride of the country, but at present show little hope for the future. Smaller football teams are also suffering, they are not able to fund youth development programs, hire scouts, or buy foreign players — all of which were once commonplace. These clubs are left far behind the powerhouses of Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk who are struggling in European competitions themselves.

Oleg Blokhin raises his Ballon d’Or after being named the Footballer of the Year, 1975. Source.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s third-best team, Zorya Luhansk, has had to resort to other means to prevent the club from imploding. According to Zorya’s former director, they have had to buy young players that cannot break into the big clubs, develop them, and try to sell them once they bloom. It is not uncommon to hear that Ukrainian clubs have not paid their players’ salaries for many months. One club even offered their players houses to cover their salary debts.

Disappointments compounded the difficulties. Football history has already recognized Russia as the official successor national team of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), due to a decision made by FIFA. Hardly the real story, the account hides the fact that Ukrainians were arguably the best players in the USSR. Oleh Blokhin, a Ukrainian, holds the all-time record for both caps and goals under the Soviet Union. During the 1970s and 1980s, he was one of the greatest forwards in the world. In 1975, he won the coveted European Footballer of the Year award.

One of the greatest Soviet teams to play in a world cup was that of 1986, where nine out of 11 players were Ukrainians. The team was renowned for its high precision and what have been called “eye-watering wonder goals.” Not to mention Dynamo Kyiv who won the most championships (13) in the Soviet Top League.

Dynamo Kyiv has had an illustrious history. They won the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1975 and 1986, as well as the European Super Cup in 1975 — all of these wins can be attributed to a single person — Valeriy Lobanovskyi.

A pioneer in modern football, Lobanovskyi brought a new perspective to the game. He solidified a scientific and analytical strategy, with solid emphasis on physical fitness and strict diet.

Dynamo Kyiv coach Valeriy Lobanovskiy. Source.

Not surprisingly, Lobanovskyi was a math prodigy and he brought that brilliance to the game. He won a gold medal for mathematics when he graduated from high school, and studied thermal engineering at the Polytechnic Institute in Kyiv. He was determined to bring a scientific approach to football and to mechanize the strategy — the individual did not matter in the game, success lay in the functioning of the collective, the entire team.

Lobanovskyi utilized a high-intensity pressing system (a technique that is precisely coordinated within a team to pressure the opposing side). He ensured that every player knew what to do both with the ball and without it. Passes had to be quick and efficient, and the team had to move together as a unit. Although Lobanovskyi did not have the same technology and data that is available today, he believed in basic science and its applications in football — he was truly a football genius, far ahead of his time.

Applying scientific methods, Lobanovskyi saw football as a system of 22 elements (two sub-systems of 11 elements). The two sub-systems were constantly moving within a defined area — the pitch (field) — and at all times subject to a series of restrictions — the laws of the game. There were certain conditions to this game. How the sub-system performed would determine the ultimate outcome. Lobanovskyi reasoned that football was less dependent on individualism, and much more dependent on the connections between team players.

Under Lobanovskyi in 1975, Dynamo Kyiv became the first team from the Soviet Union to win a major European trophy, in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup Final. During the tournament, Dynamo Kyiv won eight games out of nine, resulting in a winning percentage of 88.88% – a record among all European major tournaments.

When Dynamo Kyiv dismantled Atletico Madrid 3-0 in the 1986 Cup Winners’ Cup Final, the Spanish newspaper El Pais (The Country) said they “played like a team visiting from the future.” It was indicative of what an impressive unit they were under Lobanovskyi, at that time. The Soviet Union had failed to qualify for every European Championship, as far back as 1972. But, during Lobanovskyi’s tenure as head coach of the USSR national team, the team achieved great success at the 1988 European Championship, winning silver medals. In every game in the tournament, at least seven players of the starting line-up played for Dynamo Kyiv.

Footballer Shevchenko dedicating his 2004 Ballon d’Or award to his former head coach, Valeriy Lobanovskyi in Kyiv. Source

Throughout his coaching career, Lobanovskyi won 33 official trophies, becoming the second most-decorated manager of all time (behind famed Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson). He is considered to be one of the most successful football managers ever. Lobanovskyi is also credited for being a mentor and nurturing three Ballon d’Or winners — regarded as the most prestigious individual award for football players. Winners were Oleg Blokhin (1975), Igor Belanov (1986), and Andriy Shevchenko (2004).

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was not able to build off of its impressive football heritage, and many top Ukrainian players were persuaded to play for the Russian national team. The key reason was that FIFA and UEFA decided that Russia would be the official successor team of the Soviet Union.

This was extremely unfair to several east European states and especially to Ukraine, since Ukrainians formed the majority of the USSR’s national team starting lineup. In one fell swoop, Ukrainian football was weakened, and it would take several decades to begin a recovery.

Read also:

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