Both on the field and in the dugout, Oleg Blokhin has made a habit of setting new standards. In his playing pomp, he was one of the world’s finest strikers, his speed, power and skill earning him a record number of USSR caps (112) and goals (42).
This ability to break new ground continued into Blokhin’s coaching career, most notably when he led his native Ukraine to their first-ever FIFA World Cup™ in 2006, and onwards to the competition’s quarter-finals. Now, after a short sabbatical, and with Ukraine preparing to host UEFA EURO 2012 next summer, the 58-year-old is back in charge and, as he told FIFA.com, he's set himself the loftiest of targets: winning Europe’s top prize.
FIFA.com: Oleg, next year Ukraine will co-host EURO 2012. How excited are you to be national coach for this event?
Oleg Blokhin: In one respect, it's great to be given such a privileged post. On the other hand, I understand perfectly the huge responsibility that now rests on my shoulders. I also realise that I have a double responsibility because EURO 2012 will take place in Ukraine. The closer the tournament gets, the more pressure there will be. Of course, my previous experience with the national team when we qualified for the World Cup in 2006 should help me a lot, as I'm used to the pressure and way of working in the national team. But there is always something new: I never made it to the European Championship as a player, so it will be interesting for me to feel the atmosphere of EURO 2012 as coach.
How important is this tournament for the Ukraine, its people and football in the country?
I think we will find out just before the tournament. But it's obvious, even now, that the European Championship can provide an essential boost for the development of Ukrainian football and in the development of our country's infrastructure. At the same time, EURO 2012 is a massive challenge for our country because we are hosting such a big event for the first time, and it will be seen as a test for our readiness to stage similar events in the future. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that the Ukrainian people are waiting impatiently for the show to begin and are eager to demonstrate Ukraine's famous hospitality.
How will you prepare your team in the coming months?
We have two upcoming friendlies against Uzbekistan and France, although we won't be able to play those with our strongest squad due to four or five of our players competing in the UEFA U-21 European Championship. The interests of the main team are always paramount, of course, but after discussions with Pavlo Yakovenko [head coach of the U-21 team] I decided not to take players away from the U-21s. After all, the guys deserved to play in this tournament. So the next time you will see the full-strength Ukraine squad is for the friendly match on 10 August against Sweden. We will also have a very intensive programme in Autumn: we have already agreed away matches with Czech Republic and Bulgaria, and it's planned that we will play Germany on 11 November in the reconstructed Olympic stadium in Kyiv. Negotiations are also ongoing regarding a match with the world and European champions, Spain. So, even without the qualifying games, we will definitely have the opportunity to play against strong opponents.
What can your team achieve at EURO 2012? Who do you consider to be the favourites?
The main task before this team is to win EURO 2012. But our first target must be to qualify from the group. Of course, we will strive to achieve the maximum, but without completing the first task, the main one is impossible. So we will move step-by-step. I think there are seven or eight favourites because all best football teams are from Europe with the exception of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. France, England, Italy, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands are all traditionally contenders, and Portugal could also become involved in this fight.
What are the main strengths and weaknesses of your team?
I've not long returned to the national team, so it's difficult to say at this stage. It would be better to ask this question after the two games we have coming up. But from what I have seen, I can say that first of all we should work to improve the team's defence The midfield and attack worry me less because I see some promise there even now.
Is Andriy Shevchenko still your key player?
He is one of the veterans of the team, a player on whose experience we count, and it is obvious that he will play an important role in our gameplan. But this doesn't mean that Shevchenko is our key player. We have a year until the European Championship and of course I would like Andriy to be in good condition. But at the same time, there are talented young guys in Ukraine and everything depends on how they play in defining matches and in defining moments. Because you can be the leader by name and not to be the leader out on the pitch. The most important thing for all the players is to express leadership qualities - the more leaders on the pitch, the stronger this team will be.
Have you allowed yourself to think beyond EURO 2012 in terms of staying on to compete for a place at Brazil 2014?
Let’s wait and see. For the moment, I have a one-year contract and after that we will see what will happen. With the management of the Football Federation of Ukraine, we have decided that if everything is successful, we will find a way to continue our cooperation.
You played and coached at various different clubs. Where do you enjoy most?
In my career as a player, it is of course FC Dynamo [Kyiv], where I spent basically all my life. Although I went on to play for Vorwarts Steyr in Austria and in Cyprus with Aris Limassol, that was at the end of my career and I didn't spend much time there. As a coach, the most memorable time for me was with Olympiacos from Piraeus.
You stayed in Greece for a long time and coached several clubs. Why was that? Did you feel particularly at home in that country?
I thought I would come to Greece for a few years but as it happened I ended up staying for 12 years! It is a really good country and big on its football. Don't believe those people who say that Greece is “not a football country”. Those people are mistaken. I have the fondest memories of my time in Greece.
Before your recent return, you had been out of coaching since 2008. What have you been up to?
I spent a lot of time with my family, but at the same time I haven’t stepped aside from football: I watched games, analysed, and paid particular attention to the performance of the national team. Football is in my blood, that's why I could just put it aside. I just had enough time to spend together with my wife and children, which is time you always lack when you're coaching. But now I have one more big child – the national team of Ukraine! And I intend to care for it in a proper way. As for my own children, they are getting older and understand that their father is going to work again.
What was your most spectacular goal and game as a coach and player?
The most memorable for me are the three goals that I scored against Bayern Munich in two matches for the 1975 UEFA Super Cup. The most spectacular of the three was the goal scored in the away match when I dribbled past four defenders - people said it was fantastic at the time. And the most beautiful win in my coaching career would be with the national team in Turkey, when we won 3-0. It was a very hard game in Istanbul, but we managed to get a spectacular victory and gain a very important result. The same thing could be said about our [1-0] away win in Greece – a very difficult game and an essential win. In general, the best achievement for me as a coach was in getting first place in our 2006 World Cup qualifying group.
Do you think the style of football has changed from the last century? If so, how? And what would you say has improved?
I'm a fan of dividing football [into eras]. Every time has its own style of the game and its own great football players. People still remember the mastership of outstanding players of the last century such as Puskas, Yashin, Cruyff, Pele, Maradona. Now we have football masters like Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Every time period had good football. Of course, football changes, becoming more speedy, with more pressing, dynamic play and athleticism. One should also point out the game has become very compacted in midfield. This is the tendency of modern football.
And what remains unchanged?
The stars who create the show: Messi, Ronaldo, Iniesta, Xavi, Rooney. There still are many football fans who come to watch because those players are able to create something unforgettable.