Ukraine preparing to play in its first ever World Cup

<>May 10 2006, 21:41
Kyiv Post

(AP) A lack of World Cup experience isn't going to stop Ukraine from dreaming big.

The former Soviet republic proved it was a threat to challenge for the title when it became the first European team to qualify for the final tournament. Ukraine beat out Turkey, which reached the semifinals at the last World Cup, European champion Greece and Denmark for the coveted slot.

At the World Cup, the Ukrainian team will face Spain, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia in Group H.

Led by one of the world's top strikers, AC Milan's Andriy Shevchenko, Ukraine also has a top-notch goalkeeper in Oleksandr Shovkovskiy and solid defenders.

The team allowed only seven goals in its 12 qualifying games - and three of those came in games after the team had secured its berth.

Ukraine is coached by Oleh Blokhin, a Soviet soccer star who is worshipped by his team and this nation of 47 million.

"There is a kind of euphoria now that we have for the first time in 15 years reached the World Cup finals," Blokhin said recently.

Ukraine is home to 1999 Champions League semifinalist Dynamo Kyiv, but the country has been slow to make its mark internationally. Many of the key players in the Soviet national team hailed from Ukraine, but with the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, they choose to play for Russia.

Since its independence, Ukraine saw its hopes of entering the World Cup dashed twice at the last stage. When it qualified last September, hundreds of fans turned out at the airport to cheer the exhilarated team.

Now posters of the players dot Ukraine's picturesque capital, and excitement about the tournament is building. Ukrainians also take a certain pride in the fact that they are the only ex-Soviet republic to have won a berth, while the country's former master, Russia, is sitting out.

"I don't like how so much hope is being pinned on us," Blokhin told the Ukrainian weekly news magazine Kommersant. "The boys are under huge pressure. We'll see what happens."

Ukraine got lucky with a comparably easy draw, but it’s not so lucky in that it must make its World Cup debut against group favorite Spain. Ukraine met Spain twice in 2004, drawing once and losing 2-1 after a tough battle.

"Our first task is to qualify from the group," Blokhin said.

Saudi Arabia has immersed itself in numerous back-to-back friendly matches to prepare, and Blokhin admits that team is "the biggest mystery of the group." Tunisia won the African Cup of Nations and is packed with players who play for top European clubs, he said.

Ukraine comes to the tournament as a well-coached and well-disciplined team. But critics say the team tends to rely too heavily on Shevchenko.

However, Shevchenko's star power - he won the Golden Ball in 2004 - can also be used to Ukraine's advantage. Sometimes, opposition teams concentrate all their attention on him, freeing up other players such as Bayer Leverkusen's Andrei Voronin, a powerful striker in his own right.

Ukraine also has a strong defense, with the added advantage that many play together on club teams, giving them a well-worn familiarity.

The major weaknesses: a talented midfield that doesn't always shine and the lack of experienced reserve players. If Shevchenko is struggling, the whole team struggles.

"I will not lie to you," Blokhin told Korrespondent. "I'm concerned by the level of our players, of our national team."

Blokhin, though, has expressed doubts in the past – but has still come through. He played for the Soviet Union in the 1982 and 1986 World Cups and promised that he would take Ukraine to the tournament. Many were disheartened when they saw Ukraine's qualifying group - one of the hardest - but Blokhin pulled them through.

Now, he's promised he'll get them through the World Cup's first round.

There's an attitude of "now let's go and win the competition," Blokhin said. "I think that is not the way things happen. Although all 32 countries have an equal chance."

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