As I write England are just hours away from their most important game of football in recent years. If they win they take a huge stride towards automatic World Cup qualification at the expense of their opposition, Ukraine. As a substantial part of the former Soviet Union, the young nation has shown a gradual and impressive improvement in ability in just two decades to be on the verge of securing a place in Brazil next year.
A national identity in football was born unofficially in 1925 as the Ukrainian SSR national team, part of the Soviet Union, played in a ‘Home Nation’ style tournament against their Soviet Republic siblings including the Russian SFSR, Belarus and Transcaucasus (now Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia). Records kept of this time are sparse but they played a handful of games in the Soviet region including reaching the Soviet Nation Final, losing to Moscow.
Their official breakaway and independence in 1991 should have been the exciting start of a traditionally strong sporting region. However from the outset their promise was pegged back by bureaucracy. Playing their first official international in 1992 they were denied FIFA recognition, mainly in part to their Football Association’s disorganisation. Russia rubbed further salt into the wounds and reaped the benefits; a cluster of Ukrainian talent chose to represent the nation, a loop-hole brought about by Russia, as the defunct Soviet Union’s natural successor, being transferred their UEFA status. Ukrainian talent was clearly in abundance as seven of the line-up in the European Championship Final represented the Soviet Union. In the 1990’s Manchester United’s Andrei Kanchelskis, the prolific Oleg Salenko and the solid Viktor Onopko all decorated Europe’s top Leagues, and the Russian National Team including the World Cup 1994, with their ability. It left Ukrainians wondering what could have been.
Having to develop their national capabilities and start from scratch in 1994 it would take until the 2000s to spawn fresh, genuine footballers that could appear on the world stage. Enter the likes of free-scoring AC Milan legend Andriy Shevchenko, his partner in crime Sergei Rebrov and the combative Anatoliy Tymoshchuk. Despite failing to reach Euro 2004 their first ever appearance at the finals of a major championship came at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Taking a four-nil hiding in an opening game against Spain their resilience shone through to surprise the critics and reach the Quarterfinals, losing to eventual champions Italy. Losing only one game in 2010 World Cup qualifying they then limped out losing 1-0 over a two-legged playoff game against Greece.
As is custom the co-hosts of Euro 2012 had their finals place secured for their first European Championship, but home advantage aside, one win in the group stage was not enough to advance. Hopes are higher for Brazil as with three games to go they have every chance of topping of the group, a feat more realistic should they silence England on home soil.
The current squad, riding the wave of a four game winning streak, have a staunchly nationalistic feel with 24 of the 25 playing their club football in Ukraine; the sole exception the legendary veteran Tymoshchuk, back once again in Russia after an impossibly successful stint at Bayern Munich. The majority of the 16-team Ukrainian Premier League has no complaints about this scenario as homegrown talent has a chance to represent their nation. As Russian billionaires played real-life versions of Football Manager and catch-up with Abramovich, the trend caught on across the border. Before 2007 the Professional Football League flew the flag for the nation but effectively operated as a government subsidised charity with little commercial interest. With a traditional and rigid competition came predictable results; the heavyweights of Ukrainian football, Dynamo Kyiv, won nine out of the first 10 titles and dramatically labelled their second place finish in the debut season of 1992 as ‘The Tragedy’.
A new century came and the emergence of a serious contender; from 2001 to 2010 Shakhtar Donetsk balanced the decade and won five titles to Kyiv’s four. Critics rightly suggest that a dominant factor was the influx of foreign stars to the league; before 2000 only a few called Ukraine home but by 2004 almost 40% of the players were born overseas. Shakhtar introduced a South American flavour to their arctic temperature home, with 13 Brazilians arriving in eight years to 2010 including Douglas Silva, Willian and Luiz Adriano; a UEFA Cup triumph duly followed in 2009 to add to the trophy cabinet.
Limits on foreign players were introduced as complaints flooded that the national team would be affected, resulting in a maximum limit of seven overseas players allowed to take to the field at any one time. It did little to affect Shakhtar’s fortunes as their dominance has increased, pushing Kyiv into the background as they revel in taking the last four league championships with no sign of abating. Dynamo Kyiv still reign with a total of 13 titles but Shakhtar will look to eclipse that this decade, as every other Ukrainian club look to gain their first ever (with the exception of Tavriya Simferopol’s debut season win).
An obstacle prevalent across world football currently is the almost inevitable cancer of match fixing and corruption. In August this year Metalist Kharkiv were banned from the Champions League after it was found they fixed a Ukrainian League Match in 2008 and the rest of the league nervously waits for the next revelation.
The future for the league may not be so predictable after-all if some senior club CEOs get their wish. Since 2012 it has been widely discussed between the top Russian and Ukrainian clubs that a merger between the two leagues will create increased competition and ability. Hardcore fans of the clubs disagree stating potential backer, Russia’s state gas company Gazprom, would be abusing their purse of public money. Many more suspect the real reason is that fans of Dynamo refuse to see Russian teams blocking their attempt to gain back dominance from their Donetsk rivals and stop the league’s monopoly. Arguably this might be the kind of drastic change to take the league forward. And if Ukraine’s national team manage to beat England tonight and secure two final solid results, football fever will raise the temperature of the nation with a Brazilian summer of promise in 2014.