As a player Oleh Blokhin had sublime talent, but ability alone is not enough to succeed at the top. Determination, dedication and the drive to keep improving are also key to the cause; this is the message the Ukraine national team coach is trying to pass on to his players – and the reason why, as his employers have pointed out, "he is never happy".
Blokhin may have been pleased last Tuesday when the Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU) gave him the vote of confidence by extending his contract as head coach of the national team until the end their 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign. But it is unlikely that he smiled.
"Blokhin is never completely happy," said FFU president Grigoriy Surkis, "but he is an optimist by nature." The 59-year-old is making no promises about the co-hosts prospects at UEFA EURO 2012 but as the most decorated footballer of the Soviet era and the most successful Ukraine coach to date, winning thoughts are never far from his mind.
This is the second time Blokhin has answered the call of the FFU after first agreeing to take charge of a national team in the doldrums in December 2003. Despite reaching the play-offs for the 1998 FIFA World Cup, UEFA EURO 2000 and the 2002 World Cup, Ukraine had fallen at the final hurdle on each occasion. A forgettable 2004 qualifying campaign left few observers in Ukraine genuinely believing this 'nearly team' could ever make the step up.
So when, at his first press conference as Ukraine coach, Blokhin promised "we will qualify for the 2006 World Cup by winning our group", not everyone took him seriously. Yet he guided the Zhovto-Blakytni all the way to the World Cup quarter-finals, where they were stopped by eventual champions Italy.
Those who believed Blokhin had just got lucky pointed to Ukraine's subsequent failure to reach UEFA EURO 2008, but a qualifying section including both the then world champions and the Azzurri's opponents in that final, France, meant progress was always going to be tough. Blokhin left, but three and a half years and another World Cup play-off loss later, the former FC Dinamo Moskva coach was again courted by the FFU.
One of Blokhin's first measures was to ease the pressure on players weighed down by perceived failure and the unrealistic expectations of the public and the media. "Of course we want to win EURO 2012 but at least ten other teams have the same goal," said Blokhin. "
Our priority is to reach the knockout stage. Then we'll see." When his side were drawn in a finals group including England, France and Sweden in Group D, Blokhin was adamant, saying: "Our goal remains unchanged."
Having known great success as a player, an inferiority complex is not a trait with which Blokhin is burdened. The 1975 Ballon d'Or winner claimed seven Soviet titles, five USSR Cups, two UEFA Cup Winners' Cups and a UEFA Super Cup with FC Dynamo Kyiv. He was capped a record 112 times by the Soviet Union scoring 42 goals and in his homeland, he is held in the highest esteem.
Back in 1997 it was he who predicted that a young Andriy Shevchenko would go on to become the best in Europe. Seven years on Sheva received his own Ballon d'Or and he is still grateful for his predecessor's contribution to his career. "I never forgot Blokhin's message," said the former AC Milan striker recently, "but the greatest reason for my recognition in 2004 was the success of the Ukrainian national team under his charge."
The two greats of Ukrainian football are reunited again, dreaming of UEFA EURO 2012 success, but Blokhin insists he will pick purely on merit, not past glories. "
We don't call up players for their beautiful eyes. In my team I only want players who are prepared to fight for our country." Blokhin has also made a point of stressing that neither Artem Milevskiy and Andriy Voronin, two of his star strikers, are assured of a place in his finals squad.
"These players need to be our leaders, but just now they are not fulfilling their potential," he said. "If this doesn't change they may not be included in my UEFA EURO 2012 selection. I don't look at the names." As recent history has shown, the demands of playing for the Ukraine national team can be severe, but no standards are higher than those set by Blokhin; no wonder he is never happy.
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