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Nobody would choose Tbilisi International Airport as a venue for a party, but after a fraught Saturday, Ukraine’s football team hardly cared.

Needing a win in Georgia to seal a first World Cup qualification this month, they were denied by Georgi Gakhokidze’s last-minute free-kick. But a few hours later, Denmark stole an injury-time equaliser against Ukraine’s closest rivals, Turkey, to guarantee Ukraine’s World Cup place.

“People will call me crazy,” said coach Oleg Blokhin, “but I believe we can win the World Cup.”

Well, yes, people will call him crazy, but then people called him crazy when he took the job two years ago and proclaimed he would lead Ukraine to the finals in Germany despite a dire European Championships qualification campaign last year, the retirement of
several players from the great Dynamo Kiev side of the late 1990s, and being drawn in what appeared to be the toughest of the European qualifying groups.

“Maybe one in a hundred fans believed him,” says
the forward Andriy Voronin. “The rest of us thought he was bluffing.”

Unsurprisingly, Ukraine’s unexpected success has been linked to the optimism that has swept the country since the Orange Revolution, and it is certainly true that in recent months the nation has experienced an unprecedented upsurge of patriotic feeling. Never before, for instance, would anybody have thought of weaving blue and yellow threads
into their hair as Voronin, Andriy Husyn and Anatoliy Tymoschuk have taken to doing in recent qualifiers.

Matters, though, are not quite that simple. When Croatia took third place in the 1998 World Cup, they rode a wave of popular nationalism, skilfully manipulated by their coach Miroslav Blazevic. Blokhin could hardly have done that.

For one thing, in his playing days, he was very much a Soviet hero; for another
he is a deputy in the Ukrainian parliament, representing
the Social Democrats, who opposed the revolution, backing Viktor Yanukovych against Viktor Yushchenko, the eventual winner of December’s elections.

This has caused problems. Deputies in Ukraine are not permitted to hold any other paid position unless they are lecturers or work in science. But it was a law that was generally overlooked, and for seven years, the first
five of them while living in Greece, Blokhin happily worked as a coach and voted along party lines. Then, last February, legal proceedings were launched against him by the parliamentary regulations committee.

The action may at first seem part of a concerted attack on the Surkis brothers, who are business oligarchs, leading members of the Social Democrats and important figures in Ukrainian football.

The elder, Hrihoriy, as president of the Ukrainian Football Federation (FFU), had appointed Blokhin, while younger brother
Ihor remains president of Dynamo Kiev. But it has also been suggested that the Surkises deliberately provoked the scandal to deflect an investigation into their own affairs.

At the same time as Blokhin’s position was questioned, Dynamo’s shares were frozen, pending inquiries into the means by which the Surkises took control of the club in the early 1990s.

Blokhin, strengthened by a victory in Albania that left Ukraine top of their qualifying group, played his hand masterfully, insisting he did not receive a salary from the FFU. “Why are they doing this now?” he asked. “Why have they waited until we are so close to qualifying for the World Cup? Millions of fans believe in us, think we will raise the prestige of the nation, and now they say we must stop because the coach is incorrect? It’s madness.”

Yanukovych supporters asked why football should be the victim of a political witch hunt; President Yushchenko’s supporters pondered the point of a deputy who never gave a speech.

After several postponements that only heightened the hysteria, Blokhin’s case was finally scheduled to
be heard on March 17. But
on March 16, he announced his resignation as national coach in parliament. His hearing was put off again and, several days later, the Kiev Appeal Court issued a statement designating coaching as a form of lecturing. Blokhin was rapidly reinstated and on March 29 Denmark were beaten 1-0.

It was the game that really made Ukrainians believe that this was to be their turn. Victory, significantly, was achieved even in the absence of their greatest
talent, the forward Andriy Shevchenko.

That demonstrated an encouraging depth to their squad and it also allowed Shevchenko publicly to make his peace with Yushchenko. The forward, presumably at the instigation of the Surkises, had joined the Social Democrats with the rest of his Dynamo team-mates in 1998, and had spoken out in favour of Yanukovych during the revolution. As Ukraine won with a
single Voronin goal, though, Shevchenko and Yushchenko watched together, making a further point by eschewing the VIP sector for the public seats.

A coach restored and opponents reconciled, football became a useful although – given the recent sacking of the government by Yushchenko – perhaps illusory symbol of a new, united Ukraine, something Blokhin has been keen to exploit.

“Motivation is the main component of the game,” he says. “If the players are not battling on the pitch, any skill or tactics has no meaning. A player must come on to the pitch with his eyes burning and devote himself totally for the national shirt. I know footballers earn big money these days but another thing exists: the prestige of the nation.”

In Ukraine there remain different conceptions of exactly what that nation is, but amid the champagne-soaked halls of Tbilisi International two weeks ago, nobody was examining his words too closely.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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