By Mark Temnycky –
The Ukrainians certainly knew how to make things difficult for themselves: they started their Euro 2016 campaign with a loss at home against Slovakia. Moreover, after failed attempts to overcome group winners Spain and runners-up Slovakia, Ukraine drew Slovenia in the playoffs. While it was not the prettiest of football, Ukraine finally broke its playoff curse and secured its place in France next summer.
The Breakdown (1991 – Present): Ukraine’s Unsuccessful Run in the Playoffs
Since its independence in 1991, Ukraine has only qualified for two major tournaments out of ten attempts. Ukraine qualified for the World Cup one out of five attempts, when it advanced to the quarterfinals in the FIFA 2006 World Cup in Germany. Ukraine has so far failed to qualify for the European Championships—they participated in 2012 when they co-hosted the tournament with Poland, thus bypassing the qualification process. The fact that Ukraine qualified for Euro 2016, however, serves as a motivational boost for both the nation and its fans.
Over the span of its twenty-four years of independence, Ukraine has struggled to secure a foothold in international football competitions. This was mostly due to a “playoff curse,” which began with a playoff draw against Slovenia in 1999 for Euro 2000. Moreover, throughout most of its history Ukraine finished as runners-up in its qualification groups, yet always lost in the subsequent playoffs. Notable and recent defeats were against Greece during the FIFA 2010 World Cup playoffs, and against France in the FIFA 2014 World Cup playoffs. Ukraine’s 1-1 draw against Slovenia, however, secured the Ukrainians a spot at Euro 2016, and it could not have happened in a more dramatic fashion.
It was sixteen years to the date when Slovenia defeated Ukraine to advance to Euro 2000, and Ukraine returned the favor in Ljubljana when Andriy Yarmolenko slotted home the equalizer in the seventh minute of additional time, thus winning the tie 3-1 on aggregate.
Despite Ukraine’s successful qualification for the finals in France next summer, Ukrainian National Coach Myhaylo Fomenko still faces criticism. Statistics show that Fomenko has the greatest winning percentage of any Ukrainian national team coach, yet it is his conservative mentality and tactics that have drawn criticism. Notable examples were matches against France, which led to a 3-0 Ukrainian defeat, the 0-0 draw against Slovakia, and Ukraine’s 1-0 loss at home to Spain (a win would have seen Ukraine advance as the best third-placed team, thus it would have avoided the playoffs).
With the recent addition of Andriy Shevchenko to Ukraine’s coaching staff, has brought about speculations that Fomenko could be replaced even before the tournament kicks off. Contenders for the position include new addition Shevchenko, Dnipro’s Myron Markevych, who led Ukrainian side Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk to the Europa 2014–2015 Final, or Serhiy Rebrov. Moreover, contract talks have stalled between Fomenko and the Football Federation of Ukraine; his absence at the Euro 2016 draw further outlines the unnecessary drama in Ukraine’s coaching staff.
Should Fomenko remain, it is likely that Ukraine will continue to play defensively. While this is not the worst scenario, as Ukraine recorded one of the lowest amounts of goals conceded during the Euro 2016 qualification phase, it is also goals scored that contribute to obtaining points. A managerial change to Shevchenko, Markevych, or Rebrov could perhaps lead to a Ukrainian national side that is more attacking minded in its tactics.
There are, however, consequences of managerial change. Fomenko has managed the team during two qualification campaigns (FIFA 2014; Euro 2016), thus he is familiar with the players and their abilities. A newly appointed manager would have less than six months to implement new tactics and formations, and a competition such as Euro 2016 is certainly not the place to try new strategies. Hence for the sake of Ukraine, it would be best if Fomenko remained in charge. Any change should occur after Euro 2016, which would be in line with the preparations for the FIFA 2018 World Cup qualification period.
Reformatting the Euro Championships and Ukraine’s Immediate Issues
Fortunately for Ukraine, due to UEFA’s restructuring of next summer’s tournament, it was able to qualify. UEFA decided to expand its participants from 16 members to 24 for Euro 2016, thus accounting for greater participants. Moreover, the Round of 16 has been added to the competition, thus rather than advancing from the Group Stage to the quarterfinals, successful teams will advance to the Round of 16, similar to the UEFA Champions League format.
While some have criticized the expansionary movement of the competition, it has presented an opportunity for more nations, who otherwise would not have qualified through traditional means, to participate Europe’s most prestigious tournament. Nonetheless, the format remains, and the draws were held on December 12, 2015. Ukraine was drawn in Group C, where it will face World Champions Germany, Slavic neighbors Poland, and first-time Euro competitors Northern Ireland.
Ukraine certainly worked hard to reach this stage of the competition, but the fact that they were placed in pot two meant that they would be drawn into a difficult group. Yet Ukraine faces immediate problems, and in order to ensure that it qualifies from the group stage, it must overcome three things. First, it must settle rumors about management, as it presents an unnecessary distraction for the coaches and their players. Second, Ukraine must abandon its mentality that it cannot compete against world-class opponents: such was the case against Spain during the Euro qualification process and the second leg against France in 2013. Third, unlike nations such as England, France, Germany, Italy, or Spain, Ukraine does not have a plethora of reserve players, which may be called upon at any given moment. In other words, though many Ukrainian players are talented, Ukraine has to rely on a limited pool of players.
Yet Ukraine has an opportunity to expand its arsenal. For several months there have been discussions of the naturalization of Shakhtar Donetsk’s Taison and Dynamo Kyiv’s Danilo Silva, which would make them eligible for the Ukrainian national team. Ukraine’s major issue is the midfield, where veterans Ruslan Rotan, Oleh Husiev, and Antoliy Tymoshchuk are already reaching their mid-thirties. Thus Taison and Danilo Silva would be vital additions to the national team, and if naturalized, would provide additional options for the Ukrainian side in France next summer.
Euro 2016: Ukraine’s Group C Opponents
Ukraine most definitely faces fierce opposition in Group C. First and foremost is World Champions Germany. To date, the Ukrainian national team has never recorded a victory over Die Mannschaft. Moreover, Ukraine’s first match in the competition will be against the Germans. There are however reasons to be optimistic about the draw: many Ukrainian and German players are competing in the UEFA 2015–2016 Europa League. Coincidently enough Shakhtar Donetsk was selected to face Schalke 04 in the Round of 32. Early exposure to the Germans in the Europa League could provide the Ukrainian players with additional preparation for the Euro finals in June (this observation, of course, works both ways).
Second, it is not every day where a derby is selected in an international draw. There is a deep history between the Ukrainians and Poles, which further contributes to the excitement of the draw. Most recently, Ukraine and Poland co-hosted Euro 2012. Furthermore, both nations were drawn in the FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualification Group H. During this campaign, Ukraine recorded two victories over its neighbors, winning 4-1 on aggregate. While Polish striker Robert Lewandowski’s form may be of concern, the Ukrainians were able to contain him on two occasions, and they are certainly up for the challenge again.
Northern Ireland is perhaps the most interesting opponent, which in turn makes them more dangerous. These two sides have not held a fixture against one another since 2003, yet history favors the Ukrainians. In four meetings Ukraine recorded two victories and two draws. While much has changed in nearly thirteen years, there are reasons for Ukraine to be hopeful. Northern Ireland progressed from a group with Romania, Hungary, Finland, Faroe Islands, and Greece, while Ukraine struggled against European Champions Spain and an ever-rising Slovakian side. Though nothing is ever certain in football, Ukraine certainly has the ability to do a number over the Norn Irons.
Ukraine certainly has the potential of progressing from its group and advance to the Round of 16. Moreover, according to the new rules and format for Euro 2016, the four best third-place teams will also advance to the Round of 16. Thus if Ukraine does not finish first or second in its group, it is still possible to advance to the next round due to points obtained in the group and its goal differential. Given these circumstances, I predict Germany will win the group, Ukraine will finish in second following a thriller on match day three against Poland, Poland will finish third (though will advance to the Round of 16) and Northern Ireland will finish in fourth.
Overall, Ukraine has the ability to make a statement in the competition. All that matters is what side arrives in France: the triumphant charisma from the FIFA 2006 World Cup or the lackluster persona from Euro 2012.
Mark Temnycky is a Ukrainian-American pursuing a joint masters degree in Public Administration and International Relations at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. Follow Mark on Twitter @MTem33