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There was a new joke doing the rounds in Ukraine last week. “Mummy, mummy,” a small boy says. “What’s daddy’s job?” “He’s a footballer,” his mother replies. “And what does a footballer do?” “He disgraces his nation.”
Having been the first European nation to qualify for the World Cup, the 4-0 defeat to Spain in their opening game hurt deeply. All the eastern European sides – if you count the Czechs as central Europeans – began badly, but nobody worse than Ukraine and, the gallows humour aside, recent days have been spent in agonised soul-searching ahead of today’s crucial meeting with Saudi Arabia in Hamburg.
“The main reason for the defeat was that we didn’t control possession,” said the former Dynamo Kiev star Serhiy Shmatovlenko. “The team just hit primitive long-balls at [Andriy] Shevchenko and [Andriy] Voronin, and we couldn’t even string three passes together in the first half.” The heat in Leipzig was partly responsible, but so too was Shevchenko – “the world’s most expensive statue”, as one Ukrainian newspaper dubbed him this week – who looked far from fit after his six-week lay-off with a knee injury.
“The knee was fine,” Shevchenko said, “but my physical condition is still a long way from my optimal form.”
It was taken as evidence of the seriousness of Ukraine’s problems that, in a nation where coaches hardly ever criticise their players publicly, Oleg Blokhin laid into his side afterwards. “We were playing like the worst team in Europe,” he said, before apologising to fans for “the embarrassment” and condemning the “laziness” of his players.
Compounding the dissatisfaction were sightings of the midfielder Oleg Husyev and the defender Vladimir Yezerskyi in a bar the night after the game. Worse, they seemed to be enjoying themselves. Blokhin promised to have “serious words”.
Fans may have had rather more sympathy with the climatic explanation for Ukraine’s failings had it not been for Vladyslav Vaschuk also offering the bizarre excuse that the croaking of frogs outside his window in the team’s base in Potsdam had kept him awake. The defender has taken the brunt of his nation’s anger for his sending off in conceding a penalty just before half-time. “His suspension is not a loss but a bonus,” said Oleg Salenko, top-scorer at the 1994 World Cup.
Replacing him, though, will not be easy. Vaschuk was only playing because of the hip injury that ruled Serhiy Federov out of the tournament, and with the reserve central defenders Dmytro Chigrynskyi and Oleksandr Yatsenko still carrying knocks from last month’s European Under-21 championship, midfielder Andriy Husyn will almost certainly be asked to cover. With Husyev suffering a knee problem and forward-cum-winger Andriy Vorobey doubtful after damaging his shoulder, things could hardly be more chaotic.
“We have to pick ourselves up psychologically,” admitted Ukraine’s assistant coach Semin Altman.
Given how brutally their deficiencies were exposed, that will be difficult, but Ukraine will have drawn comfort from the sight of the Saudi Arabia team arriving for training muffled in layers of sweatshirts, coats and, in two cases, ski-caps after temperatures fell to 15 degrees.
“Like higher temperatures for Ukraine,” said their coach Marcos Paqueta, “playing in rain is very dangerous for us. I need the sun to come out.”
As well as looking to the weather forecasts, Ukraine may also seek inspiration from the past, with Blokhin considering reprising the Dynamo Kiev strike partnership of Shevchenko and Serhiy Rebrov. Seven years ago, as Dynamo Kiev reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, it was arguably the most potent pairing in European football, but since then the duo’s careers have diverged.
While Shevchenko has come to be hailed as the most complete striker since Marco van Basten and earned moves to AC Milan and Chelsea, Rebrov has stagnated, drifting from Tottenham to West Ham and then to Fenerbahçe in Turkey. A return to Dynamo, though, has rejuvenated the 32-year-old, and he was named Ukrainian Player of the Year last season.
“We feel great pressure now,” Rebrov said. “Everybody knows we have to win this next match. We wanted to play good football and to collect at least a point against Spain, but we failed.” That may not matter, as Saudi Arabia’s draw with Tunisia means wins in their next two games would take Ukraine into the next round. They would have been confident of achieving that before the tournament, but now there is a distinct edginess around the camp.
If only everybody was as calm as Hrihoriy Surkis, president of the Football Federation of Ukraine. “The way to paradise,” he said, “is not laid just with roses, but with thorns as well. We probably needed this trial, so we can rise from the humiliation and walk even further.”