||ESPNsoccernet: World Cup
Thursday, May 25, 2006
ESPNsoccernet: May 31, 6:02 PM UK
Finals chance comes around
The Football Federation of Ukraine was founded in 1991 after the break-up of the Soviet Union, with the fledgling country officially joining international football a year later.
But it wasn't until qualifying for the 1998 World Cup that they began playing competitive matches. However, despite being short on experience, Ukraine showed a hunger to impress in the European qualifiers and came tantalisingly close to qualifying for the finals in France.
After finishing second to Germany in the group - they were placed ahead of Portugal in the final standings - Ukraine failed to edge past Croatia in the play-offs, losing 3-1 on aggregate.
But the nation again made the World Cup qualification play-offs four years later, on the road to Korea/Japan - although they again failed at the final hurdle. This time it was Germany who ousted them in the play-offs after they had finished behind Poland in the table. Germany ran out comfortable 4-1 aggregate winners after the first leg had finished level.
Ukraine changed coach after missing out on qualification for Euro 2004, appointing Oleg Blokin in place of Leonid Buryak, and the new man finally seemed to find a way to harness the talents of his players - including star man Andrei Shevchenko.
The draw for their World Cup qualification group did not appear kind. After being paired with European Champions Greece, former European Champions Denmark and also Turkey - third in Korea/Japan - they seemed to have been handed an extremely tough task.
However, Ukraine stormed to their first ever major finals in style - in the process becoming the first European nation to book a place through qualifying. Though they undoubtedly took their foot off the gas in the remaining fixtures - finishing only two points in front of Turkey at the top of the group - they proved they had the ability to live with the established sides in the international arena.
Expectation levels - outside of Ukraine at least - do not appear to be high but they are thought to be more than capable of advancing from the group stage. With Shevchenko leading the line Ukraine have a commodity which many of the smaller or emerging nations lack - a predatory, world class striker.
Ukraine may well expect to get the better of both Tunisia and Saudi Arabia to book a place in the Round of 16 in their debut tournament.
Though the name may not instantly stir up memories for younger football fans, Oleg Blokhin was one of the finest players of his generation.
A striker of immense ability with a prolific scoring record, Blokhin enjoyed a glitering career with Dynamo Kiev as well as being one of the greatest interntaional stars for the USSR before the Soviet states broke up.
He won eight USSR league titles, holds the record for the most ever appearances, smashed an unsurpassed 211 goals and won eight league titles. Blokhin also had success on the European stage with Dynamo, having won the Cup Winners' Cup in 1975 and 1986.
The forward's impressive performances in that 1974/75 campaign led to him being named the European Footballer of the Year in 1975.
His international career was no less impressive. With 112 caps he played more games for USSR than anyone else and is also the record all-time goalscorer with 42. Blokhin was a memeber of the USSR side at both the 1982 and 1986 World Cup finals.
Blokhin's playing days came to an end on foreign soil - he was one of the first USSR players to move abroad - with Vorwaerts Steyr of Austria and Greek club Aris Limassol.
After understated managerial spells in Greece with Olympiakos, PAOK Salonkia and Ionikos, Blokhin made the unusual step of moving into poltics and was elected to the Ukrainian parliment - winning a second term in 2002.
He was appointed as the new coach of Ukraine in September 2003 after Leonid Buryak had failed to qualify for Euro 2004. He didn't get off to the best of starts, losing all six of their friendly encounters prior to the qualifying tournament for the World Cup.
But he remained supremely confident in his own ability as well as that of his team, and managed to find a way of instilling his own bullish confidence in to the Ukraine team.
Before the draw for the qualifiers, Blokhin stated Ukraine were 'not going to fight for a place in the finals through play-offs, because we'll take first place in our group'.
Remarkably, Blokhin was proved right as Ukraine stormed to the top of Group Two and coasted to the World Cup finals.
One to watch
It was always thought that Andrei Shevchenko's startling partnership with compatriot Sergei Rebrov at club level with Dynamo Kiev would propel the nation into the international limelight. But with Rebrov's club career hitting the skids after low-key spells at Tottenham Hotspur, Fernabahce and West Ham United before a return to Kiev, the memory of the deadly duo ripping apart sides on the world stage is now a distant one.
Shevchenko made his international debut in March 1995 against Croatia and netted for the first time two months later - still aged 17 - against Turkey. The forward became a regular in the team as Ukraine embarked on their first qualifying campaign, for France 98.
His strike partnership with Rebrov remarkably fired Kiev into the semi-finals of the Champions League in 1998/99 and at the end of the campaign 'Sheva' was sold to AC Milan for a fee of £18million.
Shevchenko, born in Dvirkivshchyna, Kiev, has built up a reputation as possibly the most deadly hitman in Europe. Now 29, in his time in Milan he has helped the Italian giants to the Serie A title and the Italian Super Cup, as well as Champions League success in 2003. It was Shevchenko who slotted home the winning spot-kick in the shoot-out against Juventus at Old Trafford.
His performances both domestically and in the Champions League led to the striker being voted as European Footballer of the Year in 2004. He has also been voted into the top ten of the European award in five of his six seasons at the San Siro.
After his penalty heroics in the 2003 Champions League final, Shevchenko found himself the villain of the show against Liverpool in 2005. The striker missed a golden opportunity to win the match in the dying minutes, before missing the crucial penalty in the subsequent shoot-out to confirm the Premiership side as winners.
Having Shevchenko in the World Cup finals while he is still in his prime will undoubtedly add to the tournament. As one of the world's truly great talents, and with a goalscoring average of one every other game, his pedigree is out of the top drawer.
The striker has been constantly linked with a move to Premiership champions Chelsea, backed by the millions of Roman Abramovich. And after requesting to leave the Serie A side after the World Cup finals West London would appear to be his most likely destination.
Behind Gunnar Nordahl in Milan's all-time goalscoring charts, and level with Real Madrid's Raul in Champions League goalscoring history, Shevchenko's prowess in front of goal, pace and predatory instincts should not be underestimated.
Any thoughts? Then you can e-mail Dale Johnson.