It may not be entirely irrelevant that Dmitri Khomukha, during his peak playing days with FC Zenit St Petersburg and PFC CSKA Moskva, earned himself the nickname of The Set-Play King via his singular success rate with a dead ball. And we are not talking about ancient history with leather balls and dubbined footwear. Khomukha, an accomplished playmaker, did not hang up his boots until 2006 and, when he lifted the UEFA European Under-17 Championship trophy in Zilina, he had been on the coaching staff of the Russian Football Association (RFS) for barely two years, after an introduction to the profession in the youth teams at CSKA. He became champion of Europe at the age of 43.
Khomukha had spent two years with his squad, selecting them from 120 candidates who had shown potential in regional championships as 15-year-olds. Russia's U17s had played 16 qualifying and friendly matches as a prelude to the finals in Slovakia. Before settling into their Group B basecamp in Senec, the squad assembled for a nine-day training camp in Austria, during which they played two friendlies against youth teams from SK Sturm Graz and Czech side 1. FC Slovácko. The pre-tournament concerns focused on the loss of one centre-back and two central midfielders through injury, plus a suspension which would rule the main striker out of the group stage.
Khomukha's credo is based on a desire to play "technical football with fast combinations and a good balance between attack and defence". His approach to the final tournament in Slovakia, however, was tempered by ambitions to qualify for the FIFA World Cup. "It played a big role in our thinking," he admitted, "mainly on the tactical side."
It was a dead ball which kick-started the Russian campaign in Slovakia. "We have to improve our defending because we had problems in the first half," he said after the 3-0 victory over Ukraine, "but set plays always have a big role to play in tournaments and if the set-piece master does the trick, we are happy." It was a masterly free-kick by Dzhamaldin Khodzhaniyazov which broke the ice.
In Slovakia, Khomukha and his backroom staff concentrated on preparing the squad for a physically demanding schedule, while quietly building an iron-clad will-to-win and team spirit. "We never moved away from the playing model that we had established," Khomukha maintained, "though we obviously made adjustments according to the strengths and weaknesses of our opponents." In the hotel, Khomukha preferred to keep himself to himself and to dedicate his attention to players and staff. In the technical area, he transmitted tranquillity and self-belief, issuing firm instructions but with arms calmly behind his back or folded across his chest.
Khomukha rediscovered the dead ball as a crucial ally. He was outwardly calm during the 22-penalty semi-final shoot-out which included a 'match-ball' for Sweden. And he transmitted unmitigated belief during the final's climax in which Anton Mitryushkin saved three of the 14 spot kicks to pip Italy to the title. After receiving his medal, he kept feet firmly on the ground. "If one becomes less self-demanding after a success," he insisted, "football will punish you immediately." Lifting the cup was Khomukha's reward for building a squad with exceptional mental strength, resilience, determination and, appropriately for The Set-Play King, expertise with a dead ball.