"You never forget the first time," so they say. Ukraine's first bite at the FIFA World Cup™ cherry certainly lends weight to this old adage. In their first steps on the most prestigious of stages, the erstwhile Soviet republic surprised everyone by venturing all the way to the quarter finals. Thanks in part to their admirable exploits in Germany, the eastern Europeans have made a spectacular leap up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
Born in 1991 following the break-up of the Soviet Union and adopted by the FIFA family the following year, the 15-year-old Ukrainian nation may still be an adolescent in world football terms, but the summer of 2006 brought with it early rites of passage into adulthood. Having hovered between 40th and 50th place in the world ranking for the last two years, Ukraine currently occupy a well-deserved 15th position following their commendable first FIFA World Cup campaign. In what was their first involvement in football's flagship event, Oleg Blokhin's charges went all the way to the last-eight stage before being felled by the future world champions from Italy.
This achievement is all the more remarkable given that Ukraine's debut at the tournament had begun badly. Presumably a touch overawed by the occasion, the new boys slumped to a 4-0 defeat at the hands of Group H opponents Spain. Many observers drew the conclusion that the standard of Blokhin's charges had been vastly overestimated and predicted that their stay on German soil would be a short one. One such doubter was the Saudi Arabian boss, Marcos Paqueta, who unwisely described his next opponents as "weak".
Paqueta was soon forced to eat his words, as Ukraine proceeded to silence their critics by dishing out their own 4-0 thrashing to the Sons of the Desert. The yellow and blue machine was now ticking over nicely and would not stall again until the quarter-final, by which time it had contested three encounters without conceding a single goal. "I'm not disappointed at all. In fact, I'm satisfied," declared Blokhin after their elimination by the Azzurri. "We've achieved something unique for Ukraine by reaching the quarter-finals at our first World Cup."
However, it must be remembered that Ukraine's leap of 30 places is only partly accountable to their achievements in Germany. The eastern Europeans are greatly benefitting from the reduction of the Ranking evaluation period which is now four years rather than eight. Therefore, their excellent results during the preliminary phase have helped as much their feats in Germany. So, to unearth the real reason for their rise to prominence, it is necessary to look further back.
A great player and a great coach
As recently as September 2004, Ukraine were languishing at lowly 87th place in the international ranking. They had never qualified for a major tournament and had just flunked another qualifying campaign in the race for UEFA EURO 2004 in Portugal. It was at this moment that the Ukrainian federation decided to entrust their team's destiny to Oleg Blokhin.
Crowned European Footballer of the Year in 1975 and nothing short of a living legend amongst followers of Dinamo Kiev and the former Soviet Union, the retired striker was given the task of securing qualification for the 2006 FIFA World Cup™. In a group containing reigning European champions Greece, Turkey, third-place finishers at Korea/Japan 2002™, and those veterans of major international competitions Denmark, the task facing Blokhin's boys was a daunting one. But the fledgling national coach never baulked at the challenge, predicting from day one that Ukraine would reach Germany without having to go through the play-offs.
Such bullishness provoked general incredulity on the streets of Kiev, but not for long. Just 12 matches later, Ukraine joined their German hosts in the draw for the tournament when they became the first European country to secure their place at the Finals. In the process, they had risen from their unremarkable 87th place to a healthy 45th position by May 2006, having even peaked at 35th in June 2005.
The former Ballon d'Or winner has transformed his team into a winning machine, instilling not only the self-assurance needed to compete with the best, but also the maturity and motivation required not to drop points against lesser nations. The other key to Blokhin's success has been the judicious blend created between bright young talents such as Oleg Gusev and Andriy Rusol, and reliable old hands like Serhiy Rebrov and Andriy Gusin.
Established talent confirmed and fresh buds unearthed
With such assets at their disposal, Ukraine's presence in planet football's top 15 is hardly surprising. And given the team's displays in Germany, this best-ever global ranking could well be a mere staging post on route to higher places. In the course of their feats in Germany, the FIFA World Cup novices' big-name players were able to showcase their skills while their rising stars revealed great promise for the future.
Although scarcely over a serious injury, Chelsea's new acquisition Andriy Shevchenko scored two goals at the tournament, while Bayer Leverkusen's Andriy Voronin was a thorn in the side of opposing defences before picking up an injury against Switzerland. At the back, the 23-year-old Andriy Rusol has continued to belie his years to stake his claim as one of Europe's most accomplished performers, while Oleksandr Shokovski kept his goal inviolate for three consecutive games and achieved a notable FIFA World Cup first by not conceding a single penalty in the shootout with the Swiss.
Among the revelations, midfielders Maksym Kalinichenko and Anatoliy Timoshchuk stood out on two counts: their long blond locks and prodigious ability. But the greatest hope for Ukrainian football surely lies in the feet of Artem Milevskiy, the heir apparent to the great Shevchenko and one of the four budding talents plucked by Blokhin from the U-21 side that recently finished as European runners-up.
During the tournament, the Ukrainian coach declared that "my team played results-based football." Call it what you like, but their quarter-final finish and world ranking of 15th show it is certainly effective. With the qualifying campaign for the next European Championship commencing in the autumn, Ukraine could well put the experience acquired in Germany to good advantage to claw their way a few more places up the global pecking order.
Calculation of points for a single match
P = M x I x T x C
M: points for Match result
Teams gain 3 points for a victory, 1 point for a draw and 0 points for a defeat. In a penalty shoot-out, the winning team gains 2 points and the losing team gains 1 point.
I: Importance of match
Friendly match (including small competitions): I = 1.0
FIFA World Cup™ qualifier or confederation-level qualifier: I = 2.5
Confederation-level final competition or FIFA Confederations Cup: I = 3.0
FIFA World Cup™ final competition: I = 4.0
T: strength of opposing Team
The strength of the opponents is based on the formula: 200 – the ranking position of the opponents.As an exception to this formula, the team at the top of the ranking is always assigned the value 200 and the teams ranked 150th and below are assigned a minimum value of 50. The ranking position is taken from the opponents’ ranking in the most recently published FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
C: strength of Confederation
When calculating matches between teams from different confederations, the mean value of the confederations to which the two competing teams belong is used. The strength of a confederation is calculated on the basis of the number of victories by that confederation at the last three FIFA World Cup™ competitions (see following page). Their values are as follows:
|Points Last Month|
|Points outside Ranking calculation|