Following in the footsteps of a national hero is never easy at the best of times, but a new Ukraine coach is making good progress in tackling the stern challenge. After the legendary Oleg Blokhin relinquished the national helm in favour of the hot seat at Dynamo Kiev, his successor Mikhail Fomenko announced his arrival with a marquee success. The 64-year-old has rekindled hopes of a return to the glory days for the East European nation.
In a nice twist, Fomenko celebrated his stunningly successful debut as national coach in a 2014 FIFA World Cup™ qualifier against the very country which joined forces with Ukraine less than a year ago to co-host UEFA EURO 2012. An impressive 3-1 victory away to Poland in late March saw Fomenko instantly lay down his credentials as the right man to take over from Blokhin. Three days later, the Ukrainians followed up the away win with a 2-1 home success against Moldova, injecting new life into the seemingly vain fight for a place in Brazil.
Overdue rise in world ranking
Ukraine now have eight points from five matches in European qualifying Group H, level with Poland, and lie four and six points respectively behind second-placed England (12) and surprise leaders Montenegro (14), with a game in hand on the top two. The team captained by Anatoliy Tymoshchuk has enjoyed a welcome return to form under Fomenko, reawakening hopes of a second shot at global glory following a FIFA World Cup debut in 2006. Ukraine have also benefited from a dramatic rise up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
Thanks to the victories over Poland and Moldova, Ukraine are up 11 places in the latest edition of the rankings and now lie 37th, their best placing since 35th spot in May 2011. “The most important thing is confidence. If you lack belief in yourselves, there's no point taking the field in the first place. We're aware of our strengths," Ukraine keeper Andriy Pyatov exclusively told FIFA.com. The team are now eyeing a mid-term goal in the form of a place in the global top 10. They have come close once before, back in February 2011, when their all-time best position was 11th place.
Belief and dreams
However, if they are to claim a place at the top table, Tymoshchuk and company will almost certainly need to qualify for Brazil. “I'm convinced we're good enough to do it," declared the Bayern Munich midfield anchor when he spoke to FIFA.com a couple of months ago. “We proved we’re a strong team at EURO 2012. We’re now bringing in a new generation. The virtues of fighting spirit and application were always very important in Ukrainian football. The quality and ability of our players means we have an improved chance of achieving great things."
However, that is not the whole story, as Ukraine’s footballing elite are driven on by sweet memories from the past. Pyatov fondly looks back to Germany 2006: “We made it as far as the quarter-finals in our country’s first appearance at the World Cup, and that made millions of Ukrainians happy. It felt a little bit like a real-life fairytale, and it's something I want to experience again. It'll be twice as hard this time, but it'll feel twice as good if we make it."
Hopes of a brighter future currently rest on Andriy Yarmolenko, the talented Dynamo Kiev striker who scored crucial goals against both Poland and Moldova. The 23-year-old symbolises the positive change sweeping through the Ukraine national set-up. “We're currently in a state of transition. We have a few young newcomers and a couple of seasoned veterans. For now, it might not all work out the way we want, but that's what happens when you introduce a new generation," said Pyatov, before concluding: “The most important thing is to believe in yourself and grow in confidence. That's the key to success."