Ukraine has emerged as an increasingly competitive nation at both club and international level since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but even before then it was synonymous with football excellence. From the fervent mind of legendary coach Valeriy Lobanovskiy to the outstanding talents of its three Ballon d'Or winners, Ukraine has long been a beacon of the game in the east.
Although the present era began with the founding of the Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU) as a self-sufficient entity on 6 March 1991, the newly independent country had a rich tradition to build on as it entered the post-Soviet world. Ukraine was a dominant republic in the former USSR thanks largely to the achievements of FC Dynamo Kyiv, who ended the hegemony of the Moscow clubs by claiming their first Soviet Top League crown in 1961. The Bilo-Syni (White-Blues) went on to win a record 13 Soviet titles overall and also claimed nine Soviet Cups, the majority of those honours coming during Lobanovskiy's first two spells in charge between 1974 and 1990.
Lobanovskiy leads the way
Known as 'the Master', the innovative coach was famous for his scientific approach, detailed analysis of statistics and strategy allowing him to turn a collection of good, if not brilliant, individuals into a fearsome team. A capable winger when Dynamo won their maiden title in 1961, he steered the club to eight league triumphs, six Soviet Cups and oversaw UEFA Cup Winners' Cup glory in 1974/75 and 1985/86. He also led the USSR to the 1988 UEFA European Championship final (more on this below) and returned to Dynamo between 1997 and 2002, adding five Ukrainian titles and three Ukrainian Cups. His death in 2002 was marked by national mourning, thousands lining the streets of Kyiv as the hearse wound its way through the potholes to his final resting place at the Baykove cemetery.
Shakhtar have their say
Dynamo have been the country's most successful side since independence, amassing 13 championships and nine national cups so far, as well as reaching the UEFA Champions League semi-finals in 1998/99 with Lobanovskiy – who else? – at the helm. The very first Ukrainian title went to SC Tavriya Simferopol from the Crimea, however, and Dynamo have been pushed to the limit on the domestic scene since FC Shakhtar Donetsk clinched the first of their six crowns in 2001/02. The Pitmen have even outshone their fierce rivals in Europe of late, beating them in the semi-finals before lifting the last edition of the UEFA Cup in 2008/09.
Prolific production line
Shakhtar's success has owed much to the integration of sparkling Brazilian talent, but Ukraine has consistently produced its own gifted players. The country boasts three Ballon d'Or winners in Oleh Blokhin, Igor Belanov and Andriy Shevchenko – European Footballers of the Year in 1975, 1986 and 2004 respectively. Meanwhile, the likes of Yevhen Rudakov, Volodymyr Muntyan, Oleksiy Mykhaylychenko, Anatoliy Demyanenko, Volodymyr Bezsonov, Serhiy Rebrov and Anatoliy Tymoshchuk have all been excellent ambassadors for Ukrainian football at different periods.
'Dynamo Kyiv in disguise'
There was a strong tradition of Ukrainian players forming the backbone of the Soviet national team before independence. The republic proved a valuable resource for the side that won the inaugural UEFA European Championship in 1960 and the three teams that later finished runners-up. Lobanovskiy called up 11 players from his club for the 1988 finals, and they became known as 'Dynamo Kyiv in disguise' as they advanced to the showpiece. Eight of that Dynamo contingent featured in the final, which was lost against a Marco van Basten-inspired Netherlands team.
Ready for UEFA EURO 2012
Similar success has been elusive since Ukraine contested their first international – a 3-1 home loss to Hungary in April 1992. The country's fans have experienced much heartbreak, with play-off defeats denying them places at UEFA EURO 2000, the 1998, 2002 and 2010 FIFA World Cups. They had plenty to cheer when the breakthrough finally came in 2006, Blokhin guiding them to the quarter-finals in Germany. After four years away, the former Dynamo forward is back and ready to lead his side to another great landmark in the history of the Ukrainian game – UEFA EURO 2012.
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