Glory to Ukraine!
In their first ever knockout match at the European Championships, Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine disposed of Sweden to set up a quarter final clash with England. Ahead of the match, Cameron Wanstall tells the tale of how a country rife with conflict and unrest rallied around their golden boy and his well-drilled team of stars.
As the European Championships got underway last month, any chatter about the Ukraine national team was concerning their controversial kit, not their footballing quality.
Outrage over the contentious outline of Ukraine’s borders emblazoned across the shirt rattled noisy neighbours Russia due to the inclusion of the peninsula of Crimea and the eastern region of Donbas. Both territories have been under siege – with Crimea annexed entirely – for several years by the Russians and local pro-Russian militias.
However the map was merely a prelude to the real controversy caused by the use of a Ukrainian slogan ‘Glory to the Heroes.’ The military greeting and eventual rallying cry was stitched into the collar of the jersey, before Russia and UEFA demanded its removal after it was deemed a political gesture and later settled on it being moved into the interior of the shirt to be hidden entirely.
Meanwhile in the same time period of this squabble brewing and being settled, there was far less coverage on the Donbas conflict itself. Eastern Ukrainian cities and civilians suffered from constant shelling and heavy machine gun fire, though thankfully there were no reported deaths – a rarity in a conflict that has senselessly claimed thousands of innocent lives.
There is no substitute for the loss suffered by the blameless citizens of eastern Ukraine, or those in the west of the despondent nation watching their country be continually undermined diplomatically, but in football there is always inspiration; a feeling of hope and national pride when all is lost.
And that is exactly what manager Andriy Shevchenko, a God-like figure in Ukrainian football, and his unfancied disciples have brought to a wartime country in a continual state of suffering.
Sheva, as he’s affectionately known, is the Ukrainian national team’s record goalscorer and was thrusted into the top job with The Main Team after their shambolic showing at Euro 2016.
At his peak, he was one of the greatest footballers of his time. A complete forward; blessed with composure, power and speed, enhanced by his own high work rate and positional awareness. He is a Ballon d’Or winner, Champions League victor and domestic title hoarder. There seemed to be nothing The Eastern Wind could not do… then came that night in Istanbul when Liverpool’s Jerzy Dudek played as though he had a personal vendetta against the then AC Milan forward. A glorious career soon dwindled and was brought to an end where it all started in his homeland with Dynamo Kyiv.
His final farewell was at Euro 2012. Ukraine co-hosted the tournament and it was their first ever European Championship as an independent nation. Sheva grabbed a brace as a proud nation overwhelmed Sweden to announce themselves on the continental stage. It was a brief, fleeting moment of euphoria, however. England and France sent Sheva and Co on a very short journey home at the first stage. The retiree initially dabbled in politics before hastily retreating back into the world of football.
When Euro 2016 came around, Shevchenko was now in his first job as assistant coach to then national team manager Mykhaylo Fomenko. A nation that had been spirited in 2012, seeking to become an established European nation in both football and politics, found themselves dejected just four years on as civil unrest and war broke out across the former Soviet republic, pushing them further away from continental bliss in diplomatic terms as ever before. A squad of ageing veterans and underperformers crashed out at the group stage again – this time falling to Germany, 2012 co-hosts Poland and debutants Northern Ireland without scoring a single goal – only worsening the mood of the nation at a time of severe crisis.
Enter Sheva… as manager. Thrown into the job with zero managerial experience, but 48 goals in 111 caps and a short stint as Fomenko’s number two was enough to convince the federation that he was the right man for the job.
The man with a blank CV made a promising start in 2018 World Cup qualifying and subsequent Nations League fixtures – coming up just short in the former and gaining promotion in the latter. Then it all clicked. Rounding off a group in Euro 2020 qualification that featured European champions Portugal, a strong Serbia and a deceptively dangerous Luxembourg; Ukraine came to life. Sheva had phased out the dead wood from 2016 and brought in a supporting cast full of stars to work around Manchester City’s Oleksander Zinchenko. Andriy Yarmolenko was given more freedom in attack alongside goal getter Roman Yaremchuk and winger Viktor Tsygankov, while Mykola Matviyenko and Vitaliy Mykolenko have noticeably improved a backline that leaked goals aplenty. Portugal and Serbia were held to a stalemate on the road, but were defeated 2-1 in Kyiv and trounced 5-0 in Lviv, respectively. Luxembourg (potentially the toughest opponents faced) were quashed home and away, as were lowly Lithuania.
Then COVID-19 hit. And it hit Ukraine hard.
The crisis even reached Shevchenko’s unit. A 7-1 thrashing to France, Ukraine’s worst ever defeat, was partly due to a coronavirus outbreak within the squad. It also came down to a significant drop off in performance after the lengthy hiatus. When international football returned, Ukraine were relegated from their Nations League group before drawing all three of their opening 2022 World Cup qualifiers against France (a great result), Finland (not so great) and Kazakhstan (Scotland-esque).
Shevchenko was under pressure after a failed tactical switch to play with a back five for those three fixtures, after initially receiving praise for holding off world champions France, and headed into the delayed Euro 2020 with questions being asked about his performance in the hot seat.
In their opening match at this summer’s tournament, The Netherlands bested Ukraine by three goals to two on June 13th, but Ukraine showed their fighting spirit and resilience. The Dutch were in control, two goals ahead with just 15 minutes to play and still Sheva’s stars fought back. Yarmolenko scored a beautiful 25-yard curler to give the nation hope, before Yaremchuk announced himself on the international stage with a wonderful header to tie the game. In what must seem like typical fashion, Ukraine fell just short as a late Denzel Dumfries winner left them with zero points from three.
Sheva didn’t let Dutch disappointment derail his side on their mission to qualify for the European Championship knockouts for the first time in their history, however. Yarmolenko and Yaremchuk combined again to see off a plucky North Macedonia and give the country their first victory at the Euros since the gaffer’s double crushed Sweden just nine years ago. At 44, Shevchenko is the youngest manager at the Euros and despite his inexperience, on Tuesday evening, he sank Sweden for a second time to reach the quarter finals.
In 2012, his playing powers had begun to wane but at Hampden, he was showing glimpses that his managerial mastery is only just beginning to grow. He wasn’t afraid to revert back to the five at the back system that failed him against Finland and Kazakhstan, seeing off the sturdy Swedes that held on until the 121st minute, nor was he afraid to put Zinchenko, his primary creative outlet, into left wing-back after he continued to impress through the centre in previous performances.
All in all, Ukraine have a strong squad, but most importantly they have Shevchenko. A national hero to guide them to uncharted, yet glorious horizons; to usher in a fresh generation of prodigious talents, the likes of which the nation has never seen.
Next up is Gareth Southgate’s England. The onerous task of containing an attacking force including, to name a few, Harry Kane, Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling is second only to the gruelling mission of breaking down a backline still yet to concede at this European Championship.
As Shevchenko and his apostles head to Rome, Ukraine are, as they’ve become accustomed too, the outsiders. Consumed by conflict, the Ukrainian people will once again use football as an escape from diplomatic disappointment, pandemic woes and war. Let’s hope they won’t have to for much longer.