Pride and honour were the watchwords as Andriy Shevchenko discussed UEFA EURO 2012 preparations in Ukraine on and off the pitch.
Today marks 500 days before co-hosts Poland kick off UEFA EURO 2012 in Warsaw and tournament planning is well advanced. Now back playing at FC Dynamo Kyiv, national treasure Shevchenko has followed developments at close quarters and is delighted with what he is seeing.
"Preparations are going very well," the 34-year-old forward told UEFA.com in his capacity as EURO ambassador. "Ukraine has made notable progress over the last five or six months. We are taking it very seriously.
It is very important for Ukraine, not only in terms of football development but also for the development of the country and its people. I am confident we will be well prepared; it is a matter of national pride."
Swelling pride has come with growing expectations. Ukraine's Under-21 side have become a force in recent years and FC Shakhtar Donetsk's progress to the UEFA Champions League round of 16, two years after winning the UEFA Cup, is seen as proof that, once again, the country is approaching the summit of European football. "Ukraine is on the rise at club and international levels," said Shevchenko, who returned to Dynamo in 2009 after a glittering decade with AC Milan and Chelsea FC.
"I see many positive changes taking place and Ukrainian clubs are competing at the highest level. The fact Shakhtar Donetsk have qualified for the knockout stage of the Champions League is a real achievement." Such advances owe much, he added, to the decision in April 2007 to award the hosting of UEFA EURO 2012 to Poland and Ukraine, with clubs subsequently ploughing more money into "football infrastructure and youth development".
The youthful bent is increasingly reflected within the national-team set-up. Shevchenko may have won his 100th cap in October but he is among a shrinking group of wise old heads as precocious youngsters break through: Shakhtar's Taras Stepanenko, FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk striker Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko, Shevchenko's Dynamo team-mate, being chief among them.
"They are key players, the future of the Ukraine team – a new generation of players we have high hopes for," said Shevchenko, eager for another tilt at a major finals after Ukraine missed out on the 2010 FIFA World Cup, losing 1-0 to Greece in the play-offs. "We are a young team, working hard preparing for the finals. I am confident the youngsters will perform with dignity at EURO 2012. It's a matter of pride and honour for all of us."
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