As dress-rehearsals for major tournaments go, Ukraine's build-up to the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup 2013 could hardly have been any worse. In this year's Euro Beach Soccer League (EBSL), an annual summer tournament for the continent's finest, they finished second last, with shock defeats against unfancied sides such as Switzerland and Poland highlighting Ukraine's shortcomings ahead of the forthcoming global showdown.
A 4-0 thrashing of fellow Tahiti 2013 participants the Netherlands did at least restore a measure of pride at the end of the competition, but the mixed results provided further evidence of the side's inconsistency. On a good day, however, the Eastern Europeans are capable of beating anyone, as recent outings have shown.
A match for Brazil
Ukraine have featured at just two FIFA Beach Soccer World Cups so far, but each time they have made both opponents and fans sit up and take notice. The team may have been eliminated by Portugal in the quarter-finals in 2005 and failed to make it out of the group stage at the last edition, but their performances were eye-catching, especially at Ravenna 2011. There, Ukraine only succumbed to defeats against Mexico and record world champions Brazil after a penalty shoot-out.
“Of course it’s fantastic to play the way we did against Brazil,” said Andrey Yevdokymov after the 5-4 reverse. “That’s exactly how we want to play, but on the other hand it’s frustrating that we’re still left empty-handed.” That it was only the third time the South Americans had ever been forced into penalties at a FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup did at least provide some consolation.
In Tahiti Ukraine will have the chance for revenge as they face A Seleção in their second Group C game in Papeete. However, they would be well advised not to focus all their attentions on the Brazilians, as their other group stage opponents are the respective continental champions in Asia and Africa, Iran and Senegal, both of whom have more experience at the tournament than the Europeans.
Despite the quality of the participants, Brazil are still favourites to progress to the next stage. The comments to emerge from the South Americans’ camp after the draw revealed they mean business once again: “We’re very confident and want to win the title back.”
Yet Ukraine’s unpredictability could still work in their favour. Vitalii Sydorenko was named as best goalkeeper during qualifying, while coach Sergiy Kucherenko’s side boast a trio of technically gifted players up front, with Roman Pachev, Oleg Zborovskyi and captain Andriy Borsuk all possessing a keen eye for goal. The three of them netted a combined total of 22 goals in eight games at the Tahiti 2013 European qualifying tournament.
At Ravenna 2011, it was not only the team’s displays that left a lasting impression. Their yellow and blue clad fans, made up of a mixture of players’ families and hundreds of their compatriots who had travelled to Italy, were a feature throughout the tournament.
They filled one side of the stands and wholeheartedly sang their national anthem, started the Mexican waves that did the rounds of the stadium, hoisted a giant Ukrainian flag and even held up banners and placards with portraits of their players.
Given the distance to French Polynesia such avid support is unlikely to be repeated this year, but the memories of Ravenna could still spur Ukraine to greatness in Tahiti. With their undoubted ability, they should never be written off.