Ukraine may have been UEFA Futsal EURO runners-up in 2001 and 2003, but the decade since seems to have been one of rebuilding.
Though they have never failed to qualify since, and indeed are travelling to the 2014 finals in Antwerp, this month's tournament will be something of a baptism of fire for a team much changed since reaching a second straight quarter-final two years ago. Most notably, the coach is Yevhen Ryvkin, who last year replaced the man at the helm since setting up the team in the early 1990s, Gennadiy Lysenchuk.
"For each player, a tournament of such calibre is a pinnacle," Ryvkin told UEFA.com. "So it is quite natural not to be complacent after making it to the finals, but to strive to climb higher even if one will have to wrestle with the circumstances or even oneself."
Ryvkin is overseeing a training camp over the next seven days in Kyiv which will decide the 14-man squad to face Romania and hosts Belgium in Group A. "I want every one to become a leader when it is time," he said. "Whatever the final squad is, there will be quality players in it. My task is to unite them with a common idea. If I do, I am sure this team will be capable of doing great things."
At the helm for qualifying, things did not always go smoothly for Ryvkin, notably an 8-3 loss to Slovenia that forced them into the play-offs. "It was a painful, but I hope useful, experience," the coach said. "A run of successes can make you lose sharpness. They gave us a very timely cold shower."
Eventually Ukraine squeaked past Hungary on away goals, and Ryvkin recalls: "We had to play on instinct in those matches and experiment even as the games progressed, but all's well that ends well. We fulfilled our task before we managed to define the backbone of our squad, create some connections on the pitch and fine-tune some playing models in friendlies against Italy and Croatia."
Since Belgium and Romania are playing first match in the group on 28 January, two days before Ukraine start their bid, Ryvkin will have time to assess their opposition. "We will be able to watch the other teams in action, a situation where they have to show their hand," Ryvkin said. "It gives us a certain strategic advantage. The impression you get from watching friendlies cannot be fair. Competitive level is something different."
Ryvkin decided to let his players rest during January's international window, having in October won and drawn in Italy before trading victories in Croatia the following month. "Both of our opponents were in the semi-finals of the last EURO," Ryvkin said. "So I have to deem our programme a success. We tested the lads in action, we saw their abilities. Prior to EURO, they will have to play two league matches before we gather again in Kyiv to consolidate what we learned and fine-tune what we worked on. The higher the level, the higher the demands."
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