Bayern Munich midfield dynamo Anatoliy Tymoshchuk has one overriding short-term goal right now. He and his Ukraine team-mates are determined to seal a berth at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa. That requires victory in their play-off against Greece, themselves eager for a shot at the greatest trophy in football for the first time since 1994.
The Ukraine star spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about his role in the national team, the task against the 2004 European champions, and his country's chances of making it to two FIFA World Cup finals in a row.
FIFA.com: Alongside keeper Andriy Pyatov, you've completed the highest number of minutes on the field for Ukraine in FIFA World Cup qualifying. How would you assess your role in the national team?Anatoliy Tymoshchuk: I feel very good about being part of this team. I've played for the national team for the last nine years and I have 90 caps. It's a terrific experience every time. I always try and help my team-mates. Every time I've played, I've done it for the team, my country and our fans.
You've been involved in the play-offs for the FIFA World Cup once before. Germany were your opponents in 2001. What are your memories of the double-header?
As you can imagine, not very good ones, because we lost. We played well at home, we scored and created lots of chances, but it finished one-each. We didn't show up in Germany, they were better than us and deservedly won. We spurned a huge chance of making it to a World Cup on that occasion, but they were very strong opponents and ended up contesting the World Cup Final against Brazil.
You're not the only one of the current team who was involved in the 2001 play-offs. How will you turn that experience to your advantage?
We weren't very internationally experienced back then, but now we have a number of seasoned individuals who've tasted the World Cup, the Champions League and the UEFA Cup. So the players who weren't around for the last play-offs have gained experience of the game at the highest levels – and that makes a difference. There's a good atmosphere in the dressing room, which is good for the younger players and really helps them come on. Take our game against England last month for example. I think that showed we were up for it just when it mattered, and know how to win when it's important. We'll have to turn in a terrific performance in the play-offs, because both games will be extremely tight. But if we don't give it absolutely everything now, we'll have to wait another four long years.
What would going to the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa mean to you personally, and to Ukraine in general?
When I was a boy, my biggest dream was to play at the World Cup. I reckon everyone who's ever kicked a football understands that dream. Just making it to the 2006 World Cup rated as a triumph, in my opinion. It was also a milestone for our country and the game in Ukraine. I retain unforgettable and wonderful memories of the World Cup in Germany. We threw ourselves into the task of remaining a part of it for as long as possible. Now we can hit a massive target for the second time. We'll do our best to give that to our country and our fans.
What do you think of the draw? Are you happy you avoided France, Portugal and Russia?
It makes no difference who you play. These are play-offs. The winner moves on, the losers are out. Any team would do whatever it takes to win. We'd have gone for it even if we'd been drawn against some other team. We know all the teams pretty well, and we're aware of our own strengths. Obviously, all the teams play the game a different way, but each and every one of them has the same goal, the 2010 World Cup. I have lots of friends in Russia and would have been delighted to face them, because it would have been a really intriguing game. We met in qualifying ten years ago, and we all look back fondly on the two games and the atmosphere.
Most experts regard Greece as the weakest of the seeded teams. How would you assess the UEFA EURO 2004 winners?
I for one don't think the Greeks have a weak team. I never pronounce judgement on a team before a match. It's easy to assign the roles of favourites and underdogs on paper, but I don't like it. It's all settled out on the pitch. Greece have loads of experience. Six or seven of their squad won the EURO back then, and they still have the same coach. They deserve their place in the play-offs. All the teams in the play-offs start with the same chance of booking a ticket to the World Cup. All eight teams are determined to go to South Africa and they'll fight for that to the very end. I for one am expecting two action-packed, hard-fought matches. We'll do our best to hit our target of a place at the World Cup.
You'll come up against Theofanis Gekas, the top scorer in European FIFA World Cup qualifying. What do you reckon to him, and which other Greece players will you need to keep an eye on?
Scoring so often is fantastic for him. He's proved he's a top striker with great ability. But we'll play the way we want to play. We know plenty of our opponents, we've crossed swords with a few of them in the past .
Is it an advantage to have the second game at home in front of your own fans?
I think the benefit is that we can analyse the first match, and we'll start out already knowing the result from the first leg. It means we can devise specific tactics and strategies for the return. So yes, I do think it's preferable having the first game in Greece. And it's going to be good going back to Donezk, where I spent nine seasons with Schachtjor. It'll be the first international at the new Donbass Arena. I'm sure the crowd will create a fantastic atmosphere, which will help us come away from the encounter successfully.
How much could the Greek and Ukraine fans affect the outcome of the play-off tie?
Obviously, your home fans tend to have a go at the away side. I've played more than 600 matches as a professional, nearly 200 of them international fixtures. I've stepped out at the San Siro, the Bernabeu, Wembley and Camp Nou, but I'm never affected by the crowd. I love playing a huge stadiums in front of big crowds. It can be really interesting away from home sometimes, when the home fans get after you.