Ukraine have never tended to do things the easy way. The tone was set right from the start when the newly independent nation lost their first game 3-1 to Hungary in 1992, and it took them to be chosen as co-hosts before they were able to make their UEFA EURO debut in 2012.
As for the FIFA World Cup™, they fell agonisingly short in the play-offs for France 1998 and Korea/Japan 2002 before finally gracing the global stage in 2006. The play-off trauma nonetheless continued ahead of South Africa 2010, and Ukraine have kept the tradition alive again this year, finding themselves right back in the play-off mix. And as if that were not bad enough, they now find their route to Brazil blocked by France.
The eastern European side have undoubtedly followed a testing trajectory, but in a sense their travails chime perfectly with the career of their joint-top scorer in qualifying, Marko Devic. Originally born in Belgrade, Devic never caught the eye of the city's traditional giants Crvena Zvezda and Partizan during his years in the Serbian league. Instead, he flitted from club to club, taking in stints with Zvezdara, Zeleznik, Radnicki and Vozdovac before opting for foreign adventure when the chance arose to move to Ukraine in 2005.
It proved a shrewd decision. Devic is top scorer in the Ukrainian top flight this term with 13 goals for Metalist Kharkiv, but behind his current success lies a tale of toil and dedication. After all, the forward's first port of call in Ukraine was Volyn Lutsk, where he managed just two goals in two seasons before the club were relegated to the second division.
The easy option at that point would have been to pack his bags for Serbia, but Devic is not the type of player to give up easily and he decided to stick at his task with a switch to Metalist. Coincidence or not, the Kharkiv outfit promptly finished third in 2007, their best-ever position, and they have repeated the feat every year since, only failing to dislodge perennial powerhouses Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev.
"In the last few years, Metalist have been able to upset the established order in the race at the top of the table," the 30-year-old explained to FIFA.com, with his side currently second to Shakhtar in the standings. "Our team is getting better every year and we play attractive, spectacular football, which means that people enjoy our style."
Devic's own particular talents in front of goal have not gone unnoticed either. Top scorer in Ukraine with 19 goals in 2007/08, he earned himself a transfer to Shakhtar last year, but once again he would not have everything his own way. Instead of being given an opportunity to shine in the starting XI, he spent six months being brought off the bench.
"What went wrong?" he said. "Some say I didn't work hard enough, while others say I didn't get a chance to show what I could do. Perhaps. All I wanted was to play more than I did, but those six months weren't all wasted. Just to be able to train with a team of their quality brought me a lot."
Still, the episode was another difficult one for the striker, and he ended it by returning to Metalist. "I'm very happy to be back at Metalist. Metalist are my second family, my home, and I hope to stay here for a long time," he said, even if he admits he would love to one day test his abilities in the Bundesliga. "At Metalist, we manage to qualify for Europe every year, which is something that means so much to any player. And now our goal is to play in the Champions League."
With half the season gone, Metalist have every reason to dream of Europe's premier club competition. One point shy of leaders Shakhtar, crucially they lie four points ahead of Dynamo, as well as having played one match fewer than their two rivals. "Our competition with Shakhtar and Dynamo is definitely real," he said, determined to help his team end a duopoly that has held sway since 1992. "Of course, everyone knows that it will be very tough, and us more than anyone. Tough, but not impossible."
Those same sentiments could also apply to Ukraine's play-off against France, with Devic well aware that his side could hardly have been handed stiffer opposition. "I truly believe in our team, but I'm realistic and I think that France are favourites," he said, having made his debut in 2008, the year of his naturalisation. "Their players are all based in the leading championships. We're not heading into the unknown; we know exactly what we'll be up against: one of the best teams in the world."
The Synyo-Zhovti (Blue and yellows) are used to tackling quality opposition, however, and did well even to finish second behind England in qualifying Group H. With just two points under their belts after their first three outings, they appeared resigned to letting Roy Hodgson's men contest top spot with Poland and Montenegro.
"We started very badly, it's true," said Devic. "But after Mykhaylo Fomenko took over as coach, the team improved and we were able to make up for lost time at the end."
Most notably, they secured a goalless draw against England, a vital 1-0 victory in Poland and a sparkling 8-0 success in San Marino that featured a hat-trick from their Serbia-born marksman.
That performance possibly helped Devic address another issue in his career, the question of his standing among fans who swear by departed legends Oleg Blokhin and Andriy Shevchenko.
"It's a very good thing to be close to two people who did so much for football," explained Devic, who was coached by the former and counted the latter as a team-mate at UEFA EURO 2012. "It's an honour to have played with such a great man. He'd always been one of my idols and suddenly I found myself playing with him. I learnt a lot from him, particularly in terms of being clinical and pouncing on the slightest opportunity. He was able to score from half-chances. He was fantastic."
Devic showed he had taken those lessons on board during Ukraine's crucial meeting with England at EURO 2012, only for the referee to adjudge that John Terry had cleared his goalbound effort before it crossed the line.
"I wasn't the only one with regrets," he noted, with his side now gearing up for another vital encounter. "The whole team and the whole country were disappointed. But we can't get caught up thinking about that. That's in the past and we now have a completely different objective: to qualify for the World Cup. And we'll do everything we can to achieve it."
Should they manage it, it would hardly be the first time Ukraine and Devic have responded in style to a painful setback.