Ukraine readies for 1st European Championship
More than two decades after Ukrainian football was decimated by the breakup of the Soviet Union, the former republic is making its first appearance at the European Championship.
Ukrainian football was at its peak in the 1980s - when it was still part of the Soviet Union. Under the patronage of Volodymyr Sherbytskiy, the Communist Party of Ukraine's leader, Dynamo Kiev became the Soviet Union's most successful club with 13 championship titles and was a force in European football.
Renowned Dynamo coach Valeriy Lobanovskiy also led the Soviet team, which reached the final of Euro 1988. Seven of the starting team for the final, which lost to the Netherlands 2-0, were born in Ukraine.
''The Soviet team in the 1980s was basically the Dynamo Kiev team,'' said Andriy Bal, who played in the 1982 and 1986 World Cups and is now Ukraine's assistant coach.
Ukraine has produced three Golden Ball winners, the award given to Europe's top player, with Oleg Blokhin, Ihor Belanov and Andriy Shevchenko. But since independence in 1991 as the Soviet Union dissolved, Ukraine has struggled to establish itself as a football powerhouse.
When Ukraine ventured out on its own about 20 years ago, its economy collapsed and it struggled to build institutions from scratch after centuries as part of the Soviet and Russian empires.
Establishing a constitution, a parliament and a currency took years. So did building a competitive football team.
Dozens of the country's best players, including Belanov and Oleksandr Zavarov, left to play for top teams abroad in the dying days of the Soviet Union to take advantage of better pay. They never played for Ukraine, or in the country's hastily created league.
''Our soccer was set back by five years in its development. Dynamo didn't have any opponents at all close to them,'' said Oleh Salenko, a Dynamo player who left to play abroad. ''When there are no serious opponents, you start to deteriorate as a player.''
Other Ukraine-born players, such as former Manchester United winger Andriy Kanchelskis and Oviedo defender Viktor Onopko, chose to play for Russia.
While Russia had inherited the Soviet team's ranking points, which helped it qualify for the big tournaments, Ukraine had to build from scratch.
The team's first game - playing in the yellow and blue of the national flag - was against Hungary on April 29, 1992. Ukraine lost 3-1.
But despite the setback, the country took a step toward being recognized by the international federations - even though it continued to lose players to Russia, which had qualified for the 1994 World Cup.
Salenko played in the game against Hungary, but then transferred his allegiance to Russia.
''We played that one match and that was all. Then it was the footballers who played in Ukraine who played for the national team,'' Salenko said. ''I had left to play abroad and didn't even know that the Ukrainian national team was playing. No one told me about it.''
Salenko went to the 1994 World Cup with Russia, winning the Golden Boot along with Hristo Stoichkov as the tournament's joint top scorer with six goals. Salenko scored five goals against Cameroon.
In Ukraine, meanwhile, football was shaken when the president of top club Shakhtar Donetsk was killed by a bomb during a game in 1995. The same year, Dynamo was banned from European football for three years after its president was accused of bribing a referee with expensive furs. The ban was later annulled.
But club football was developing. Lobanovskiy had returned to Dynamo, which in 1998 reached the Champions League quarterfinals. Shevchenko, then playing for Dynamo, was emerging as one of Europe's top players.
The national team, however, still failed to qualify for the European Championship and World Cups.
Ukraine came second in its qualifying group for the 1998 World Cup, just behind Euro `96 winner Germany and ahead of Portugal. But it lost in a playoff to Croatia, which went on to take third place.
The team then lost to Slovenia in a playoff for Euro 2000 and to Germany in a playoff for the 2002 World Cup.
''We always ended up in third place. But we learned from our mistakes and those mistakes have now borne fruit,'' Bal said. ''Even when we played and didn't qualify for tournaments, we caused a lot of trouble for other teams.''
When Ukraine qualified for the 2006 World Cup, it was a moment of national celebration and unity. Months earlier, the Orange Revolution had overturned a fraud-tainted presidential vote and brought leaders to power who promised pro-Western reforms. Ukraine made the quarterfinals - its best ever performance - where it lost to eventual champion Italy.
This turned out to be the last hurrah of an aging generation, as Ukraine failed to qualify for Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup.
But Blokhin has now returned as coach and is looking toward the future with a team of exciting young players who grew up in an independent Ukraine.
''The Ukrainian team has got younger,'' Blokhin said recently. ''It's a new team and this European Championship will give huge experience to the players. I think the team has a good chance for the World Cup in 2014.''