Ukraine: The Road To Euro 2012

The outgoing Myron Markevich

“I’ll start with the airports,” said Markiyan Lubkivsky, Tournament Director of Euro 2012. Lubkivsky then proceeded to rattle of specific dates linked to when, he thinks, each airport in Ukraine will be able to accommodate the mass of people heading there for the 2012 tournament. The director also informed that all was running smoothly to have the appropriate stadiums ready for use by June and July of 2011, despite concerns that Donetsk, the home of Shakhtar, is too small a city to provide hotel rooms for the large quantities of journalists, players and fans. The one thing that Lubkivsky could not guarantee, however, is whether the Ukrainian national team will be ready.

This week the national team was shrouded in controversy with the resignation of manager Myron Markevich due to the fact that he wanted to concentrate solely on the other facet of his managerial career: Metalist Kharkiv. In the chaos that ensued, President of the Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU), Grigoriy Surkis suggested that Markevich’s decision had been forced upon him by someone “behind the scenes.”

An added bout of board room mudslinging ensued when head of the FFU fair play committee Igor Kochetov proclaimed his view on another person acting in a dual role with both Metalist and the FFU: Sergei Storozhenko. Kochetov claimed that Storozhenko, the Vice President of the FFU, needs to decide where his loyalties lie, adding that he “doesn’t know who’s shirt he holds dearest.”

Kalitvintsev: Firefighter

In response to the back-handed jibes between members of what is essentially supposed to be a close-knit, functioning football federation, Surkis, in a tremendous display of competence, ushered in Markevich’s former assistant Yuri Kalitvintsev. Kalitvintsev is seen as a fire-fighter, guaranteeing to safeguard the future of the national side and, possibly, steady the ailing ship until the federation can solve the internal feuding and appoint a successor to guide the team to Euro 2012.

Kalitvintsev, in traditional caretaker fashion, appeared unflappable to the most probing of media questions and presented an intelligent and mild-mannered image in the wake of this troublesome period. The caretaker boss rebuffed worries stating that “there is no need for panic” whilst outlining his ambition for the national side stating that they can win the upcoming European Championships. As experienced football fans will now know, words mean little when it comes to achieving results and popularity, but Kalitvintsev moved quickly to appoint former national team hero Sergei Rebrov to the coaching staff. A smart move that will no doubt appease a portion of discontented fans.

Money talks

The notion of a caretaker also requires there to be a permanent manager instilled at some point and in predictable fashion, Ukrainian press are reporting that, inimitable cash-cow, Lord Sven-Goran of Eriksson has thrown his diamond encrusted hat into the ring. The Swede’s unmatched ability to land himself cushy, cash-laden, jobs may serve him well as a candidate and, with the fact that Ukraine, as hosts, have already qualified for the 2012 tournament Sven may just fancy a swift venture behind the long-felled Iron Curtain.

Whoever takes the reigns as the national team boss, they would do well to avoid the poisoned boardrooms of the FFU, where any snivelling directors should be greeted with great hesitancy. Ukraine, like many Eastern European sides, have technical quality in abundance but the former Soviets never seem to be able to orchestrate a fully functioning team, note the striking similarities with the FFU boardroom.

In the race to equip the country for the 2012 tournament, minds had strayed from the fortunes of the national team until the events of this week. The fact that any new manager will not have to navigate through a qualifying campaign may stunt the development of the national side but, with footballing mercenaries such as Sven out there, there should be no lack of takers for the job. And if all else fails, at least those airports will be ready!

Belarus: club football’s rising star

A version of this article (written by me) first appeared on World Football Columns

Wednesday 14th of October was strange day for Belorussian football. The national team were defeated by three goals to nill by World Cup qualifying group rivals England, in a match which ended the qualifying rounds and saw Belarus, once more, fail to qualify for a major tournament. The fact that the match ended 3-0 did much to disguise the real story of the game.

Hleb: talismanic

England, eventually, ran out comfortable winners but for more than fifty minutes the former Soviets showed composure, movement and incisive passing that surprised even the most knowledgeable followers of the Eastern European outift. In the absence of talisman Aleksandr Hleb, Vitali Kutuzov proved the most menacing threat to the English. His running and eye for the acute reverse ball gave the bumbling Glen Johnson more than a tough night as the Liverpool right-back saw his movement reduced to a metaphor of bambi on ice. Metaphor’s aside, the match presented an all too familiar feeling for the millions of Belorussians watching up and down the country from the northern voblast (province) of Viciebsk to it’s southern counterpart Homiel. That feeling? The sense that however good the opening impressions are, Belarus ultimately always lose when it matters.

The simple fact is that Belarus have never qualified for a major international tournament. For all the development as a nation and the youth structure that has produced technically proficient players such as Hleb and Kutuzov, Belarus remain a failure, internationally. They boast the precarious record of being the first team since 1983 to score three goals away to Italy in an international qualifier, however, in true Belorussian fashion the team contrived to leak four goals and sink to an unsanctimonious defeat.

The country, whose name derives from the phrase “white Russia,” borders Poland, Russia, Ukraine and the Baltic states of Lithuania and Latvia but, along with Lithuania, represent the largest international flop of that less than successful group. Since the declaration of independence in 1991, Belarus have been involved in eight international qualifying campaigns and, as previously mentioned, qualified for none. Their group stage record is consistently inadequate with one 6th placed finish, one third placed finish, three fifth placed finishes and three more fourth placed finishes. Internationally Belarus have been a consistent failure but, this year, the nation has enjoyed reasonable success at club level.

The 2010/2011 season marks the first time that three Belorussian teams have reached the Europa League qualifying play-off. BATE Borisov, Dinamo Minsk and Dnepr Mogilev make up the pioneering trio of teams. At the time of writing the three teams have each contested the first leg of these play-off ties, with varying degrees of success.

Minnows Dnepr, enjoying their first European campaign for ten years, had the misfortune of drawing Spanish heavyweights Villareal and were roundly flattened 5-0 in Spain. Dnepr, who overcame the odds to claim third place in the national championship, cruised through to the play-off with a 3-1 aggregate win over Banik Ostrava in the previous round, and manager, Andrei Skorobogatko, conceded that his side were perilously ill-equipped to face a team of Villareal’s might.

“Most of our players have never played in such an important game and it is hard to say when they will have another chance to test themselves at this level,” Skorobogatko said, whilst remaining positive about his teams chances: “We have nothing to lose following the wins against Stabæk and Baník.”

Dinamo Minsk and BATE Borisov fared slightly better as Minsk went down 2-1 to Club Brugge but escaped from the Jan Breydel Stadion (see photo for an image of my trip to Bruges) with an away goal and a degree of solidarity. BATE, perhaps the most successful of Belorussian teams in recent years, claimed a 3-0 home victory over Madeira’s Maritmo. A glowing testament to the development and the establishment of clubs by the FFB (Football Federation of Belarus) is the fact that, realistically, Belarus could have two sides in the group stages of the Europa League and with the stringent aid of  a minor miracle at Dnepr, the former Soviets could have three.

Despite the fact that Belarus have only recently become established in the continental club game. BATE President Anatoliy Kapsky maintains that the landscape of Belorussian football has been strong for many years:

“We always have many gifted players in our country. Now it has started to yield results on the international club stage. What is more, our league has become more competitive since it was reduced [for this season] from 14 clubs to 12.”

Note that Kapsky praises the FBB’s decision to reduce the league size, giving players and clubs a shorter season in which they can hone their talents and focus on real development whilst also providing a solid platform for the national team to aid players in making the step up from club football. A proactive football association that is not afraid to overcome tough challenges, perhaps the English FA could learn something.

The feeling throughout Europe is that Belarus are growing stronger both at international level and at club level, with this in mind, it is surely only a matter of time until they cross the breach from perennial international failures to plucky minnows, boasting names that the BBC and ITV pronunciation departments could marvel over at upcoming international tournaments. With the 2012 European Championship’s taking place in neighbouring Ukraine and Poland, Belarus may feel that their time as a serious footballing nation is on the horizon.

the goaline technology issue solved!