200 up, Ukraine’s top 5 games
The upcoming FIFA World Cup game for Ukraine against Montenegro is significant as it could be a pivotal game in deciding if Ukraine can qualify for the World Cup in Brazil. However, it is also important as it marks Ukraine’s 200th game as an independent FIFA nation.
The task has been to whittle down from the 200, which games are the most significant and why. The 5 games which we have selected are placed in chronological order.
Firstly, we have decided to go back to 1992 and were it all began at the Avangard Stadium in Uzhorod, Western Ukraine. Ukraine’s very first international game was a friendly against neighbours Hungary.
Ukrainian footballers had for decades represented the Soviet Union National Team, and at times, dominated the make up of the side, in particular the 1988 European Championship squad was almost entirely made up of Ukrainian players from Dynamo Kyiv.
Despite this, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reformation of an independent nation, Ukraine as a national football side started from the bottom of the pecking order.
The game against Hungary took place in Uzhorod and ended with a solid victory for the visitors. Yet the national team of Ukraine was born and they scored their first goal courtesy of a late Ivan Hetsko free-kick.
The journey of Zbirna Ukraina had begun.
After the Hungary game, Ukraine had to continue playing in friendlies as they had not registered in time to compete in the qualification process for the 1994 FIFA World Cup in USA. The first qualifying campaign Ukraine took part in was for Euro 1996. Ukraine’s first competitive campaign was largely disappointing as Ukraine laboured to a 4th place finish in the group, however it was in the 1998 FIFA World Cup Qualifying campaign which we see the 2nd of our games in our list. It’s the Game of the Century.
This game marked the start of the qualifying campaign for WC 1998, but more significantly it marked the first meeting between Ukraine and Russia. It was labelled the game of the century in the press in Easter Europe and proved to be a classic encounter.
It took place at a packed NSC Olympiyskyi stadium in Kyiv with the Ukrainian President, Leonid Kuchma, watching. Ukraine under the stewardship of Yozhef Sabo took an early lead through Serhiy Popov and extended their advantage through a great counter attacking move finished off by Serhiy Skachenko. With the home crowd ecstatic it was until after the 2nd half that Russia got back into the game through Yevheni Varmalov. Ukraine restored a two goal cushion through a Serhiy Rebrov penalty. A late goal for Russia by Ukrainian born Viktor Onopko meant a tense finish but Ukraine held on for a famous victory.
This victory saw Ukraine firmly step out of the shadow of their neighbours and in their eyes claim their place as the best footballing nation of the former Soviet Union. After Russia took the co-efficients and the glories of the former USSR team this was a sweet victory for Ukraine and is worth of a place in Ukrainian footballing history.
A full match report can be found here.
Despite the historic victory over Russia, Ukraine could not qualify for the World Cup, and subsequent campaigns ended in similar circumstances, play-off defeats.
Oleh Blokhin took over the role of Ukraine coach and his first task was to qualify for the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Ukraine were placed in a very tough group with the likes of Denmark, Greece and Turkey. After a steady start, which included draws against group rivals Denmark and Greece, Ukraine headed to Istanbul for a true test of their credentials.
Heading into a hostile environment at the Sucru Saracoglu Stadium, (the home of Fenerbache), Ukraine were a top contender in the group and a positive result would potentially make them favourites to qualify, what followed was almost beyond the wildest imaginations of the Ukrainian fans.
An early strike from Oleh Husyev put Ukraine ahead and this was followed by a strike from Andriy Shevchenko. A further Shevchenko strike saw Ukraine take the game 3:0 away in Istanbul. It was a fantastic result and proved a catalyst as Ukraine went on to win their next 4 games in the group, including wins against Denmark and at Greece, before qualifying for the FIFA World Cup after a draw against Georgia in Tblisi.
The inspirational victory in Istanbul allowed the great run for Ukraine to qualify. A momentous victory for Ukraine is one that will go down in the memory of many fans and writers in Ukrainian football.
Ukraine opened up their World Cup campaign against European giants Spain. The game was the first time Ukraine had played at a major finals as an independent nation. Unfortunately the result was not as grand as the occasion for Ukraine.
Following the comprehensive defeat to Spain and the excuses (including some players blaming frogs for keeping them awake at night), Ukraine managed to re-group and won their first ever game at a major finals when they took on Saudi Arabia in Hamburg. For this reason it is the 4th game in our list.
Ukraine took an early lead through defender Andriy Rusol, who thus became the first player to score for the independent Ukrainian National side at a World Cup, before Serhiy Rebrov scored from long range. Captain and legend Andriy Shevchenko added the third before Maxym Kalynychenko completed the rout.
The game was Ukraine’s first ever win in an major finals, and set up a run which saw Ukraine get to the quarter finals at their first attempt. The win against Saudi Arabia was followed up by a win against Tunisia courtesy of a Andriy Shevchenko penalty. In the second round Ukraine took on Switzerland and defeated them on penalties, with Olexandr Shovkovskyi becoming the first goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet in a penalty shoot-out at the World Cup finals.
The run came to an end in the quarter finals against eventual tournament winners Italy. Ukraine had put on a fantastic performance and their world ranking rose to its highest position of 11 on the back of this run.
It was hoped that this would single the start of Ukraine confirming themselves among the elite of world football. However this didn’t go to plan, as Ukraine failed in the Euro 2008 qualifiers and lost to Greece in the play-offs for the 2010 World Cup.
Fortunately for Ukraine, they did not need to qualify as they hosted the 2012 European Championships and this is the final game on our list.
Ukraine opened their tournament against Sweden in Kyiv. The game was bound in pressure and emotion as Ukraine were making their first appearance at the European Championships and of course, they were playing in front of their home supporters.
Following the emotion before the game began, Ukraine dominated possession in the first half, but failed to break through. Sweden threatened to spoil the party when they took the lead through Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but eventually it was home town hero Andriy Shevchenko who stole the show and won the game for Ukraine.
Two headers from the legend got Ukraine in front and it remained that way as Ukraine got the win and set themselves up nicely for the rest of the tournament.
Unfortunately, this was the only success for Ukraine as they were defeated by France and England and were thus eliminated at the group stages of their own tournament.
Ukraine are now on the qualification path for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brasil. After a slow start, Ukraine have regained some initiative and the 200th game against Montenegro is crucial to determine if Ukraine will qualify for their 2nd World Cup or if they have to wait until another competition.