Wednesday, June 07, 2006

#3: Zbirna


Where? Eastern Europe, north of the Black Sea, South of Russia.

How Big? Big. The largest country in Europe after Russia. About the size of Texas. Population is large too, about twice the size of Texas.

Something I learned from the CIA Factbook entry... Turns out I don't know my Ukrainian history very well. I didn't know that Ukraine has declared its independence from Soviet Russia not once, but twice, and they celebrate both days. The one most people know about was in 1991 after perestroika and the Communist regime fell apart. But the other one was way back in 1918, merely months after the October Revolution. Ukraine didn't have a very pleasant history prior to the Soviet revolution (and not really one after either). Portions of the area now known as Ukraine were controlled by Russia, Poland, Prussia, Austria and even Lithuania over time. During World War I, the western half of Ukraine was pretty much controlled by Austria-Hungary, while the eastern half was controlled by Russia. In the midst of the war and the Soviet Revolution, the Western Ukrainian states broke free from Austria-Hungary, and the Eastern Ukrainian states broke free from what was at the time Russia controlled by the Bolsheviks. The Western and Central Ukrainian states unified in 1920 for a short while, until Poland waged a war to take back Western Ukraine (and then the Soviets came in and took it back, and then all of Ukraine became a Soviet Socialist Republic and became part of the USSR). But they still celebrate that short "independence" period when Western and Central Ukraine were unified for like, a month. Something else is that 53% of the land is arable, the third highest percentage in the whole world (after Bangladesh and Moldova).

Geopolitical Significance? Ukraine is one of the most fertile nations on earth, and in the heyday of the USSR, Ukraine provided more than a fourth of the food for the rest of the nation. Ukraine also has a pretty advanced industry, at least in comparison to some other former Soviet republics. Ukraine is also the site of the world's worst nuclear power disaster, Chernobyl. In some ways, Ukraine could become a future power in Eastern Europe, but it's still a hard life there now.

Fun? It is pretty damn hard to find something fun about Ukraine. I mean, just about every search I do on Ukraine turns up loads of semi-disturbing websites on Ukrainian women taking their clothes off. I fear I'm going to get in trouble at home for this. There was this one website that had "fun facts" about Ukraine, but they were talking about wooden churches. It's like fun = boring. Anyway, I know a guy who used to be an accountant there in the early days of the country and he moved back to the USA with a cellar full of Ukrainian Cognac. That kind of brandy seems to be pretty stiff. OK. Poor job of this category.


Ukraine is a first time qualifier for the World Cup, but that understates Ukrainian footballing tradition. For many years, Ukrainian players were the basis of the Soviet Union national team, which occasionally played pretty well in the World Cup. In fact, some of the time the Dinamo Kyiv team made up nearly the starting XI of the USSR team. The 1982 and 1986 World Cup teams that advanced out of the first round were loaded with Ukrainian stars. And the most capped player in USSR history is Blohkin, the current manager of Ukraine. But technically, they're cup rookies, failing to qualify at the last possible moment (playoffs) in 1998 and 2002.

Further, Ukraine professional soccer has a hallowed history. The Ukrainian teams were frequently the best USSR teams, and one truly amazing story has its setting in Ukraine. During World War II, German troops formed a team and scheduled a series of games against Start, a team made up of former Dinamo Kyiv players. Start won the first game, the second, the third and every other one. Finally, the Germans had enough, took the Dinamo players to Babiy Yar and shot them all. Dinamo's stadium still has a memorial for the players, and some say the movie Victory was based in part on this.

This time around Ukraine was the first team from Europe (other than Germany as hosts) to qualify. And they did it in one of the most difficult qualifying groups, with Euro 2004 champs Greece, 2002 World Cup semifinalists Turkey, and frequent qualifier Denmark. A 6 match winning streak in the middle of the series put Ukraine in the pole position, and they sealed it with a draw in Georgia.

The roster is filled with players mostly based in Ukraine, but privatization money has actually made that league pretty solid, and not just Dinamo Kyiv (Dnipro and Shaktar both are solid). The most important name in Ukrainian football is Valeri Lobanovsky, the longtime manager for Dinamo Kyiv, USSR and Ukraine. It is Lobanovsky's style that has defined Ukrainian soccer for decades - harsh, disciplined, structured. Players were forced to play under a particular science. Each play was graded and players were punished or rewarded accordingly. The result was a methodical system that stifled improvisation and creativity, when over time Ukraine was known as "the Brazillians of the East". Since Lobanovsky's death in 2002, and even before then, Ukraine was getting back to the freedom and creativity that should bring them success. First and foremost to benefit from that is the star of the entire tournament, Andriy Shevchenko. Sheva, a young boy displaced by Chernobyl, joined the Dinamo development program at an early age and hasn't looked back since. His speed is excellent, but his nose for goal is even better. Yes, he's been injured the last month, but I think that's actually an advantage. So many of Europe's top players have been playing nonstop the last several years with clogged fixture calendars and qualifying. A little time out might be a good thing. Olympic swimmers do it; it's called tapering.

Every cup features one thing, it seems. An Eastern European team with a superstar that puts the team on his back and carries them to the semifinals. Think back... 2002 - Turkey. 1998 - Croatia and Davor Suker. 1994 - Romania and Hagi and Bulgaria and Stoichkov. 1990 - Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. 1982 - Poland. It's going to happen again. And the draw is perfect for that team to be Ukraine, and the player to carry them is Schevchenko.

The group isn't one of the tougher ones. Spain is good, but not unbeatable. The other two opponents could've been much worse.

The opener is against Spain. Sheva is a little rusty, but scores before getting subbed for in the second half. Spain equalizes, and the two best teams in the group draw, 1-1.

Saudi Arabia is the second opponent, and Ukraine plays a much more comfortable match. Shevchenko scores once and Voronin gets another. This could be an even worse match, as the Sauds do not normally play well against big European teams. 2-0.

A win or draw clinches advancement, and Tunisia is the opponent. Shevchenko really gets his act together, scoring two spectacular goals. He's got 4 in the group, among the best. 2-0, and Ukraine takes second in the group on differential.

The second place finish draws France in the first round. France is overconfident, Shevchenko is dominant. 2 goals in the first half stuns France, though Barthez could probably have been blamed for one of them. Henry gets one back, but too little, too late. Ukraine advance.

Italy is the opponent in the quarterfinals. And yes, I've predicted Sheva to have scored two goals in the last two games each. And this one too. Gilardino gets a nice one to placate Milan fans, but Ukraine shock people with another 2-1 victory.

The semifinals are much farther than anyone would have thought Ukraine would have gotten, and finally the luck runs out. Argentina finally figure out how to stop Shevchenko. Voronin scores the opener though. Tevez scores twice in the second half though to end the dream.

The third place match is fun for the Ukraine, because there is no shame in their loss to Argentina and the moment is still worth it, while Spain was hoping for more. Shevchenko scores one more, and Voronin gets another. Sheva wins the Golden Boot with 9 amazing goals.

Go against Ukraine at your own peril. But, yes, this is the best case scenario for them. Shevchenko is spectacular and he'll show it. Really, I'm making this pick because the same storylines seem to appear again and again in the World Cup. This seems like one that just fits.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Ukraine would be... George Mason, with one incredible scorer.

A poster for the match between Dinamo players and German soldiers, after which the players were executed. Now, Ukrainian soccer will get a true shot at glory, and it's in Germany. Feels like a great story there, doesn't it?