Preparing for their first finals as an independent nation, the co-hosts have been set a minimum target by their coach Oleg Blokhin: reaching the knockout stages from Group D
KIEV: Oleg Blokhin takes Ukraine into its home European championships as manager, hoping to inspire the team with his successes from the glory days of Soviet football in the 1970s and 1980s.
“This tournament is very important for all of us and very special for me personally as I never played at the European championships during my playing career,” Blokhin said. “So I want to catch up as a coach.”
The 59-year-old — who set an impressive series of records in his playing days with Dynamo Kiev and the USSR — took over Ukraine’s national team for the first time in December 2003 in the midst of a dreadful run of form.
Until then, all of post-Soviet Ukraine’s attempts to reach the finals stages of the football major events had ended in fiasco.
So, when Blokhin promised at his first press conference to “qualify for the 2006 World Cup by winning our group”, few people took him seriously.
But he kept his word by winning the qualifying group and leading his side all the way into the 2006 World Cup quarter-finals, where they were eliminated by eventual champions Italy.
After Ukraine’s failure to qualify for the Euro 2008, Blokhin stepped down. Three-and-a-half years later, though, he was back, when the national side failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.
One of Blokhin’s first steps was to ease up the pressure on the players weighed down by another qualification failure and the unrealistic expectations of the public and the media.
“Of course we want to win the Euro 2012 but at least 10 other teams have the same intention,” said Blokhin. “Our first goal at the event is to reach the knockout stage. Then we’ll see.”
Even after his team were drawn in Group D with England, France and Sweden, Blokhin remained adamant, saying: “Our goal remains unchanged.”
Despite serious injury worries ahead of the Euro 2012 kick-off, Blokhin has insisted that past records will count for nothing when he comes to pick his squad, warning players that none of them was assured a place.
“We don’t call up players only for their beautiful eyes.”
At a glance
Having reached the 2006 World Cup quarter-finals in their only previous major tournament appearance since independence in 1991, the co-hosts are eager to go even further at Euro 2012. The tournament is likely to be the last hurrah for Andriy Shevchenko (see right), Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and Olexandr Shovkovskiy; for the likes of Yaroslav Rakitskiy and Yevhen Konoplyanka, it could be just the start.