After putting on a juggling display for the amusement of his young charges before training, Ukraine coach and former Soviet star of the 1980's Alexei Mikhailichenko, somewhat reluctantly made his way over to gathered members of the press near the touchline. All were salivating for a moment with any member of one of the most protected and exciting teams at the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005.
"The players must concentrate," he said sternly, shooing disappointed Dutch camera crews away from his young star Oleksandre Aliiev. But speaking a broken English surely picked up at his time with Rangers, the former midfield dynamo from Kyiv managed to talk football for a few minutes with FIFA.com two days before the round of sixteen clash with Nigeria in Doetinchem.
Ukraine have been one of the style sides of these finals. With players like Dynamo Kyiv duo Oleksandre Aliiev and Artem Milevskyi drawing comparisons to the one-time Kyiv strike team of Andriy Shevchenko and Sergei Rebrov.
Nine of the team's eleven starters come from the fabled capital club.
"This is the first thing everyone asks me about," said the coach, who won a European Cup with Kyiv in 1986. "We are not Dynamo, but to have players that know each other is a positive thing. It is not the only thing, but maybe it brings a slight advantage if you can ever measure such things," he laughed.
The next Shevchenko?
When asked if he perhaps had the next Andrei Shevchenko in his squad, still stretching before their second training session of the day in sweltering heat and soaring humidity, he again became affably agitated.
"What kind of question is this?" he asked rhetorically with a smile. "Frankly I don't want the next Shevchenko," he said. "I want the first Aliiev, the first Milevskyi. I am not interested in copies or robots."
Protecting his players from distraction, he has pulled down a shroud of secrecy over his team that is in sharp contract to their expressive, creative and high-flying style of play. Off the field it is silence and focus, on it is something more otherworldly for fancy Ukraine.
But while impressed with his team's attack, the 42-year-old Mikhailichenko - a forward-thinking midfielder in his day - has concerns about the defence. "We scored seven goals in the first round, which is great. But we conceded six and this is not good enough. The first thing is a strong defence. After that you can think about attacking and scoring and playing forward football. We have to be better at the back."
Learning from Lobanovsky
When asked to compare football in Ukraine before and after the fall of the Soviet Union, the coach become somewhat nostalgic. "The old Soviet system was focussed on developing youth. But after Ukraine became an independent nation, everything changed, not just politics…but everything, including sport. Some of the bigger clubs have good youth programs, but it needs to get better and bigger."
An ardent admirer of 'scientific football' purveyor and former Soviet Union and Dynamo Kyiv coach Valery Lobanovsky, Mikhailichenko - who played a few matches for the independent Ukraine toward the end of his career - is still very much in the old Soviet mould.
"I listened to everything Lobanovsky said. He was strong-willed and a pure professional. I can only hope to be half the coach that he was. He was the perfect teacher."
Firm discipline and secrecy aside, the round of sixteen match between impressive Ukraine and unpredictable Nigeria is bound to produce some fireworks.
"Nigeria are a very fast team. They are physical and will attack you all the time. Their technique is fantastic and they play a very fluid kind of football. They will not be an easy opponent," he said.
One thing is certain, though. With time running out before the do-or-die showdown, Mikhailichenko will be up late studying videos in search of an answer for the Nigerians' flash and dash - an approach that would well have made his mentor, the late great Lobanovsky, proud.