Few will envy the task facing Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin who, in the build-up to Euro 2012 on home soil, must draw on his reserves of character following a string of injuries and arguments between leading players. And these problems existed long before the appointment of the man who is still much admired for the heroics his side performed at the 2006 World Cup by reaching the quarter-finals.
In February 2010, Myron Markevych – the vastly experienced manager of Metalist Kharkiv – took the reigns of the national side and was in charge for four friendly games: wins over Lithuania (4-0), Romania (3-2) and Norway (1-0), plus a commendable 1-1 draw with Holland. But Markevych was forced to quit following a bribery scandal at his club, where he remained in charge while also coaching the national team.
Next the Football Federation of Ukraine turned to Yuri Kalitvintsev, a star of the Dynamo Kiev team of the 1990s. But during his seven months as caretaker, Ukraine registered only one win (2-1 against Chile), five draws and two defeats (by Brazil and Italy, both 2-0). However, Kalitvintsev, who guided Ukraine to the European Under-19 title in 2009, was still considered a strong candidate for the full-time post, along with under-21s coach Pavel Yakovenko.
Instead, the unemployed Blokhin won a majority of the votes at a federation executive committee, mainly due to his ability to keep his head in a crisis. “I’m neither a dreamer nor a madman in football terms,” he said. “I’m aware that the head coach is always responsible for the result. That’s doubly important with Ukraine co-hosting Euro 2012.”
Blokhin undertook numerous experiments in friendly games, reshuffling the starting line-up every match. After an opening 2-0 win over Uzbekistan, a disastrous series of four defeats followed, including two against future Euro 2012 group rivals France (4-1) and Sweden (1-0). “We weren’t too bad in either game,” argued Blokhin at the time. “We were rather unlucky. I think we need to go to church to change our bad luck.”
It is hard to pinpoint what changed, but in the next five friendlies Ukraine won three and drew twice, including a 3-3 thriller with Germany in the inaugural match at the Olimpiysky stadium in Kiev. “It was a special, probably a critical moment,” said Blokhin. “We proved to ourselves that we could play with the biggest sides in Europe on equal terms.”
Unfortunately for the coach, the unity he worked so hard to build was in danger of disappearing in April when a vital league game between Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev ended in acrimony. Shakhtar won 2-0 but the game was marred by serious mistakes by referee Yiri Vaks.
Dynamo and Ukraine midfielder Denys Harmash was wrongly shown a second yellow card (later rescinded) in an incident which helped to create a spirit of animosity between two clubs who will supply the bulk of players for the Euro 2012 squad. Shakhtar defender Yaroslav Rakytskyi claimed that Dynamo skipper Oleksandr Shovkovskyi verbally abused him in the tunnel after the game.
“Shovkovskyi insulted my city, my president, my coach, and my team-mates,” claimed Rakytskyi. “How can we play in the same team for Ukraine? He must apologise.”
Shovkovskyi was quick to hit back, saying: “Only players who have been in the national side many years can make claims against me. For the ones who invented reasons not to play for the national team [Rakytskyi left the training camp, claiming that he was injured ahead of a friendly against Sweden] it’s better to think about his own reputation.”
Blokhin has little time to repair the damage and has not been helped by the injury that has ruled out goalkeeper Andriy Dikan, of Spartak Moscow. In addition, Shakhtar’s key central defender Dmytro Chygrynskyi has been struggling with injuries and is yet to make a full recovery, while there are ongoing concerns over the health of veteran star Andriy Shevchenko. The situation could be further complicated if Shakhtar and Dynamo are forced into a play-off for the title.
Blokhin is strong-willed but it remains to be seen if he can overcome the obstacles facing the squad and repeat the miracle of 2006.
EURO 2012 FIXTURES
11.06.12 Sweden (Kiev, Ukr))
15.06.12 France (Donetsk, Ukr)
19.06.12 England (Donetsk, Ukr)
EURO 2012 SQUAD
23 Oleksandr Horyainov (36) 29.06.75 Metalist Kharkiv
1 Maksym Koval (19) 09.12.92 Dynamo Kiev
12 Andriy Pyatov (27) 28.06.84 Shakhtar Donetsk
21 Bohdan Butko (21) 13.01.91 Shakhtar Donetsk
3 Yevhen Khacheridi (24) 28.07.87 Dynamo Kiev
5 Oleksandr Kucher (29) 22.10.82 Shakhtar Donetsk
17 Taras Mykhalyk (28) 28.10.83 Dynamo Kiev
20 Yaroslav RakYtskYI (22) 03.08.89 Shakhtar Donetsk
2 Yevhen Selin (24) 09.05.88 Vorskla Poltava
13 Vyacheslav Shevchuk (33) 13.05.79 Shakhtar Donetsk
8 Oleksandr Aliyev (27) 03.02.85 Dynamo Kiev
6 Denys Harmash (22) 19.04.90 Dynamo Kiev
9 Oleg HusIev (29) 25.04.83 Dynamo Kiev
19 Yevhen Konoplyanka (22) 29.09.89 Dnipro
18 Serhiy Nazarenko (32) 16.02.80 Tavriya Simferopol
14 Ruslan Rotan (30) 29.10.81 Dnipro
4 Anatoliy Tymoshchuk (33) 30.03.79 Bayern Munich (Ger)
22 Marko Devych (28) 27.10.83 Shakhtar Donetsk
15 Artem MilevskYI (27) 12.01.85 Dynamo Kiev
16 Yevhen Seleznyov (26) 20.07.85 Shakhtar Donetsk
7 Andriy Shevchenko (35) 29.09.76 Dynamo Kiev
10 Andriy Voronin (32) 21.07.79 Dynamo Moscow (Rus)
11 Andriy Yarmolenko (22) 23.10.89 Dynamo Kiev
Oleg Blokhin (59) 05.11.52
• Oleg Blokhin extended his contract as coach to the end of the 2014 World Cup … goalkeeper Oleksandr Shovkovskyi was omitted after undergoing surgery for a shoulder injury.
Ukraine qualified as co-hosts.
By Oleg Zadernovsky