Ukraine lacks guile and does not seem to possess the depth for a long run – Can they prove critics wrong?
Ukraine main profile – Taras Stepanenko
When the Ukraine head coach Mykhaylo Fomenko announced his preliminary squad for Euro 2016 in May, he found most attention directed at a rather different matter. Journalists in attendance at the press conference saw the Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU) president Andrey Pavelko bring key players Andriy Yarmolenko and Taras Stepanenko forwards as if to make an announcement. Sure enough, Yarmolenko solemnly admitted that he had made a big mistake and pleaded guilty; he shook hands with Stepanenko, before both players shook hands with Pavelko. The reporters applauded; the matter was closed, but what exactly had created this spectacle?
A few weeks earlier, on 1 May, Stepanenko’s Shakhtar Donetsk hosted Yarmolenko’s Dynamo Kyiv in Lviv. It is Ukraine’s biggest match, although Dynamo had already won the title in this instance. Shakhtar, preoccupied with their forthcoming Europa League semi-final second leg against Sevilla, fielded what was essentially a reserve team but still beat the champions 3-0. After Eduardo had scored Shakhtar’s third goal, Stepanenko ran towards the stand and kissed the Shakhtar badge in front of the visiting supporters.
Retribution was instant. First to strike a blow was Dynamo’s Croatian defender Domagoj Vida, followed by the Serhiy Rybalka – another Ukraine squad member. Then, critically, Yarmolenko kicked out at Stepanenko across the legs.
A mass brawl broke out and suddenly it was as if the entire national squad, the bulk of whom are drawn from these two sides, had turned upon one another. Shakhtar’s Oleksandr Kucher, who should start alongside Yarmolenko and Stepanenko in France, was next to react, hitting Yarmolenko in the face. The inevitable results were straight red cards for Yarmolenko and Kucher, as well as a second yellow for Stepanenko. The scandal reverberated around the country, and was exacerbated when the players exchanged distinctly unfriendly post-match interviews.
The grand gesture of goodwill and unity that followed was, then greeted by sighs of relief and there was a time when it might have seemed impossible. There had been an incident earlier in the season too, when Shakhtar won in Kiev – again by a 3-0 scoreline. They had swapped shirts at full-time, Yarmolenko subsequently going over to applaud the supporters and throwing Stepanenko’s jersey on the grass before walking off without it. Television cameras captured the apparent show of disrespect, but it went no further as the players quickly agreed to write it off as a small misunderstanding.
That was not the case after the game in May. While Yarmolenko stayed quiet, Stepanenko left no illusions as to his interpretation. "Lviv is currently considered to be our home ground and I just showed the crest of my team," he said. "No signs, no bad words. Then I calmly ran to my goal and was hit once, twice, three times.
"I have not seen them, but they say it was Yarmolenko. I’ll tell the whole country that my friendship with him is over after this incident. I forgave the episode with the t-shirt, but this episode was intentional. Had it been my standing leg, he could simply have broken my kneecap."
Fortunately, Pavelko achieved what many had considered impossible in brokering the reconciliation – perhaps with a little help from members of the coaching staff and some of the other players, with the captain Ruslan Rotan known in particular as a master of peace talks.
Yarmolenko’s footballing reputation precedes him. He is a prolific goalscorer and rumours that he will move to the Premier League – whether to the strongly-linked Everton or elsewhere – have been rumbling on for two years. But Stepanenko is perhaps a lesser-known quantity outside Ukraine, even if he too has professed an admiration for English football in the past. Stepanenko was born near Donetsk but received his football education in nearby Zaporizhia. He trained with a local club, Torpedo, before joining the professional team Metalurg – which went on to fold in 2015.
By then, though, Stepanenko was long gone. He joined Shakhtar, who had been charting his progress for some time, in 2010 and brought his talents to the Donbass Arena. As a child he trained in melee combat and this has sometimes spilled out on the football pitch; an excessively physical approach brings its fair share of yellow and red cards, and that is the main flaw in an otherwise fine player.
"I was a little nervous," he recalls of the day when, at just 20, he joined Shakhtar. "A lot of young players who come to Shakhtar do not make it and I wouldn’t want to repeat their fate."
He need not have worried. Stepanenko’s progress with Shakhtar has been meteoric, seeing off the challenges of players such as Mariusz Lewandowski, Tomas Hubschmann and Igor Duljaj. Exactly the same has happened in the national team, with the decorated veteran Anatoliy Tymoshchuk among those in the old guard forced into the shadows to make way for Stepanenko.
"A person who wants to achieve something reaches his goal gradually," Stepanenko says. "Good luck doesn’t simply fall onto your head from the heavens."
Shortly before Euro 2016, a member of Ukraine’s Supreme Council proposed that members of the national team who were lacking patriotism should be expelled. The defender Yaroslav Rakitsky was given as one example on account of not singing the national anthem before matches; the striker Yevhen Seleznyov’s move to Kuban Krasnodar was another. A reason for Stepanenko’s extrication was also mooted – he and his family visited Crimea, annexed by Russia, in 2015 and did not hide the fact, protesting that it is simply part of Ukraine.
Fortunately, the initiative has found little support. Despite the scandals, fallouts and accusations, Ukraine will be at full strength for the European Championship – with harmony, dedication and inspiration the orders of the day. At least, that it what their supporters hope.
Tactics and key questions
On one hand, Ukraine’s tactics are right out of the modern mould – a 4-2-3-1 as perfected by Spain. On the other, the setup adopted by Mykhaylo Fomenko’s side has its own specifics: there is a strong emphasis on the counterattack, maintaining shape and discipline until a chance – perhaps even just one during a game – materialises. At the heart of their approach is a compact defensive setup that involves between seven and nine outfield players. Even the team’s star wingers, Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka, are expected to pull their weight further back, and the three central midfielders are all responsible for protecting the back four.
The latter point means Ukraine have no clear No10; all three are box-to-box players. Ruslan Rotan has has considerable set-piece ability though and will take most of them, although the left-footed Yarmolenko often takes right-sided corners. There is an aerial threat from the central defenders Yevgeny Khacheridi and Olexandr Kucher, as well as the right-back Artem Fedetskiy and defensive midfielder Taras Stepanenko.
The dangers they pose are real but the cornerstone of Ukraine’s game will be that reliable defence. Certainly against Germany and Poland, and maybe even against Northern Ireland, they can be expected to play a dense, stifling game that does not eschew long balls. In this context it is easy to see why Fomenko is seen by many as a conservative coach – very similar, in fact, to his illustrious mentor Valeriy Lobanovskiy.
Fomenko has an all-or-nothing approach to man management. Players who he trusts are deeply confided in; those who have fallen out of favour are 90% certain to find a place in the starting XI, and perhaps even the squad, off limits. Marko Devic, the naturalised Ukrainian who was born in Serbia, is a prime example – the striker had an impressive 2014-15 season with Rubin Kazan in Russia but was culled after he refused to play in a friendly against Cameroon that had been organised for the day of his wedding. Devic no longer features in the team despite Ukraine’s glaring lack of options up front.
In recent months, only the young Shakhtar midfielder Viktor Kovalenko has worked his way into a stable and established squad.
Fomenko’s conservatism does mean, though, that the starting XI can be predicted with a healthy degree of confidence (alternatives in brackets):
starting XI: Pyatov; Fedetskiy, Khacheridi, Kucher (Rakitskiy), Shevchuk; Stepanenko, Rotan; Yarmolenko, Garmash (Kovalenko), Konoplyanka; Zozulya.
It would take extraordinary circumstances – injury or suspension to a key performer – to see any other player start, and this stability is a big strength of this Ukraine team. In another sense it is a weakness too, as there is little obvious depth in reserve if things are not going well and quality alternatives to first choices are thin on the ground.
That makes the decision not to select Yevhen Seleznyov, who scored one of the goals in the play-off against Slovenia, even more controversial. Earlier this year he was transferred from Dnipro to Russian strugglers Kuban Krasnodar, with the Ukrainian side in need of cash. For supporters, the sight of a Ukrainian player in the Russian league is like a red rag to a bull – they are regarded as "traitors" and "separatists". The reasons, predicated on the recent political situation, are clear and a consequence was that, in March, Ukrainian players based in Russia were not called up to national teams at any level. This was explained away using a variety of standard reasons – injury, illness and loss of form – but a number of other players were afflicted similarly and still found themselves in the squad. The striker Artem Kravets, on loan at Stuttgart, is one such example; perhaps, now that he has signed a contract to play back in Ukraine with Shakhtar, Selezhnov will have better fortune in the future.
The end product, though, is that there is not a single alternative to the centre-forward Roman Zozulya. Never mind the fact that he – along with Rotan – was banned from domestic football for six months earlier in May after attacking a referee in a Ukrainian cup semi-final; the dearth of other options means that the mindset around the national team must be pragmatic and practical.
There are still one or two small doubts surrounding Ukraine’s final 23 players. There seems little chance of the Amkar Perm right-back Bohdan Budko being involved despite a lack of cover in defensive positions, the hope appearing to be that midfielders can be redeployed if necessary. Like England and Spain, Ukraine will probably travel with just three centre-backs.
- Which Ukraine player will take everyone by surprise at Euro 2016?
At just 20, Kovalenko is the most talented and promising Ukrainian footballer of his generation – and probably the squad’s only real playmaker. He has held down a starting place at Shakhtar since the sale of Alex Teixeira and helped them to the semi-finals of the Europa League. Should Fomenko put faith in him at some stage of Euro 2016, he is capable of a very positive surprise.
- Which player could be a disappointment?
Disappointment is the difference between expectation and reality. In this respect, Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka, the pair who Ukrainian fans always look towards for miracles in attack, are vulnerable. They are both liable to be inconsistent, disappearing in some of the biggest games. Konoplyanka’s erratic season at Sevilla may count against him while the need to play well and earn himself a move to a strong league, preferably England, may weigh heavily on Yarmolenko.
Then again, it is hard to be too disappointed if you do not expect anything special from the team as a whole. Ukraine’s main danger is inconsistency, with questions marks over the exuberant natures of Yevhen Khacheridi, Denis Garmash and Zozulya and an obvious issue over the pace of 33-year-old centre-back OLeksandr Kucher, who earns too many red cards.
- How far do you think Ukraine will go and why?
An impressive second place for Ukraine in Group B after victory over Northern Ireland and the necessary result against Poland in the third game. After that, things become completely unpredictable. The most likely means of reaching the last eight would be with a 0-0 draw and victory on penalties, as Ukraine achieved against Switzerland in the 2006 World Cup. That would be cause for a national holiday; if they reach the semi-finals, the celebrations may even begin before the game.
Secrets behind the players
- Yaroslav Rakitskiy
In May 2015 Olga Rakitskaya organised a concert, attended by her husband’s Shakhtar team-mates and their families. The evening’s main highlight was the video of her song, "Hello, my city" – a sentimental tune about a wish to return home to a city long departed. Darijo Srna’s pregnant wife even cried; the tragic tale surrounding Donetsk is well known and the Croatian right-back has became a genuine "Donchanin".
As for Yaroslav himself, many fans of the national team have been angered by the fact that he does not sing the national anthem before games. Olga explains: "Yaroslav is just so focused on the game. I sing for him, by the television set." There is also another, very trivial, reason – Rakitskiy says he simply cannot sing unless, perhaps, he is dunk.
- Denis Boyko
Ukraine’s second-choice goalkeeper is a walking tattoo museum – a recognised expert in the field by the standard of Ukrainian football. The Besiktas player had his first ink applied at the age of 17, and now has so many that he could almost take money from those interested in viewing them. The images’ meanings are not always clear and Boyko is in little rush to explain, but the names of his parents – Alexander and Irina – can be made out along with the Aquarius zodiac sign and, for whatever reason, Dracula. Boyko’s life has been full of adventures, so his tattoo craze is quite fitting.
- Oleg Gusev
Gusev, now 33, is a long-standing leader in the Dynamo Kyiv and Ukraine sides, even if the years have gradually begun to take their toll. He arrived at the top level from nowhere – starting out for the long-defunct third division club Frenzenets League 99, from the city of Sumy. It was the former Arsenal Kyiv coach Vyacheslav Grozny who first spotted his talent, opening the way for him to reach the top at Dynamo.
His progress is, in fact, something of a miracle: Gusev suffered ill health as a child and consequently was not called up for military service – a circumstance known as "getting the white ticket" in Ukraine and other ex-USSR states. Fortunately it did not stop him from playing football, and indeed the greatest threat to his life came from an opposing player. That man was Boyko, whose knee struck Gusev in the head as the pair challenged for a cross during match between Dynamo and Dnipro in 2014. Gusev fell and showed no signs of life; it turned out he had swallowed his tongue and he was saved by Dnipro’s Georgian player Jaba Kankava, who cleared his airway and began CPR. That piece of quick thinking helped Gusev come to his senses, and he escaped with little more than slight shock.
- Denys Garmash
The Dynamo Kyiv midfielder is an extraordinary player, known not only for his footballing qualities but for an explosive temper that can land both him and his team in trouble. That is little secret to those familiar with Ukrainian football; less well known is the story of his birthplace, Melovoye. Its location brings to mind the French-Italian film from 1958, "The law is the law," whose action takes place in a town that sits directly on the border between France and Italy with plenty of tragi-comic situations ensuing. Melovoye is situated squarely on the border between Ukraine and Russia, the boundary running through local gardens, streets and even a local hair salon, two-thirds of which sits in Ukraine.
Denis Bojko (Besiktas Istanbul)
Andrej Pjatow (Schachtjor Donezk)
Nikita Schewtschenko (Sarja Luhansk
Bogdan Butko (Schachtjor Donezk)
Jewgeni Chatscheridi (Dynamo Kiew)
Artjom Fedezki (Dnipro Dnipropetrowsk)
Alexander Kutscher (Schachtjor Donezk)
Jaroslaw Rakizki (Schachtjor Donezk)
Wjatscheslaw Schewtschuk (Schachtjor Donezk)
Denis Garmasch (Dynamo Kiew)
Andrej Jarmolenko (Dynamo Kiew)
Alexander Karawajew (Sarja Luhansk)
Viktor Kowalenko (Schachtjor Donezk)
Jewgeni Konopljanka (Sevilla)
Ruslan Rotan (Dnipro)
Sergej Rybalka (Dynamo Kiew)
Sergej Sidortschuk (Dynamo Kiew)
Taras Stepanenko (Schachtjor Donezk)
Anatoli Timoschtschuk (Kairat Almaty/KAZ)
Alexander Sintschenko (FK Ufa/RUS)
Filipp Budkowski (Sarja Luhansk)
Roman Sosulja (Dnipro)
Jewgeni Selesinow (Schachtjor Donezk)