- Andriy Shevchenko speaks exclusively with FIFA.com
- Ukraine coach reflects on his transition to coach, rebuilding national team
- Shevchenko: "We have very talented players"
Looking at the cold hard facts, Ukraine have enjoyed few major footballing highlights since gaining independence 27 years ago. Despite going all the way to the quarter-finals in their first and so far only FIFA World Cup™ appearance in 2006, the Yellow and Blues have frequently fallen short of expectations since, failing to progress past the group stage at UEFA EURO 2012 and 2016.
The Eastern European side have certainly not been short of talent, with Anatoliy Tymoschuk, Andriy Voronin, Andriy Shevchenko and Serhiy Rebrov all plying their trade at Europe’s top clubs during this period.
Any fears that Ukraine would go backwards after these stars hung up their boots proved to be unfounded. The appointment of Shevchenko as national coach in 2016 heralded a fresh start and a period of transition. The former goal-getter steadily and meticulously built up a new young team – and the results are starting to show.
Although Ukraine missed out on a place at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, they were the highest climbers in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, leaping six places to 29th thanks to two victories over the Czech Republic (47th, down 3) and Slovakia (26th, no change) in the UEFA Nations League in September. Last Wednesday they recorded a respectable 1-1 draw against four-time world champions Italy.
FIFA.com spoke exclusively to Shevchenko about his role as Ukraine coach, his ambitions for the national side and his choices at The Best FIFA Football Awards 2018.
FIFA.com: Before we talk about the national team, you voted for Luka Modric and Didier Deschamps at the FIFA Football Awards - both won. Why did you think the two deserved to win?
Shevchenko: Deschamps did a great job with France - and not only this year. His victory at the World Cup is the result of many years of hard work. It was a well-deserved success which must be acknowledged. Modric had a very strong season with Real Madrid. I played against him as a player and I’ve faced him as a coach too. He perfectly understands the game and is ready to adapt to any changes. His achievements this year are impressive: a third consecutive Champions League and runner up at the World Cup. Both deserve their accolades.
You have been Ukraine’s national coach since July 2016. How do you reflect on your time in charge?
I inherited the team at a difficult moment, right after a disappointing European Championships. The press, the morale of the players - everything was against us. The work on reforming the national team had to start at the beginning of a World Cup qualifying cycle. Changes were demanded of us, and so were results. There was a shortage of time and this period was probably the most difficult.
We began to build a team on the principle of ball possession. For Ukraine this is unusual as the team had never shown such football before and it is very difficult to make such fundamental changes quickly. We began the process of updating the team and have since debuted almost 20 newcomers. The defeat to Croatia, the future World Cup finalists, in our final group game proved decisive. Now, the team is approaching a balanced state and we have more potential than that which we realise in our games.
We gathered the backbone of the team, a mixture of young and experienced players. For us, it was a problem that the players did not gel, but thanks to several gatherings and a number of friendly matches, we reached a necessary mutual understanding in the team. Ukrainian football is now just getting out of the pit. I hope in a year the number of clubs in the first division will grow and that more players will also play abroad.
Ukraine didn’t qualify for Russia 2018. What went wrong?
Four teams of equal strength gathered in our group. All of them were participants at Euro 2016: Turkey, Croatia, Ukraine and Iceland. We fought to the end for one of top two places in the table. Every game was decided by fine margins. We had chances in every match but we didn’t realise our capabilities.
Ukraine will play at the FIFA U-20 World Cup next year. Do you think some of these players could help you in the senior team soon?
We work closely with youth team coaches of all ages. Of course, we are watching the U-20s because these are the guys who will knock on our door in a year or two. During the period that I have led the national team, nearly 20 recruits made their debuts, and how many young guys were called to the training camp and worked with the team? It's difficult to count. We are constantly updating the line-up and the door to the senior team is always open.
Ukraine jumped six places in the latest FIFA Ranking to 29th spot. What do you think the team can achieve in the future?
Our immediate tasks are very specific: to perform in the Nations League and EURO 2020 qualifying. Our goal is to qualify for the EURO. This is what we are most focused on.
In the UEFA Nations League, you won your opening two games. Are you satisfied, or could you still improve?
Both games were very difficult. We know our opponents well, they know us very well. These are our neighbours, Czech Republic and Slovakia, and in some ways the teams of our group are even similar to one another, if we talk about the style of the game. Two wins at the start is an excellent result, but we still have a lot of work to do to stabilise the team play.
Your squad is quite young and talented. How tough was it to make the change after older players retired?
It has taken almost a year and a half, and the process is still not finished yet. The future is always for young people, and for coaches the main thing is to have someone to work with. We have very talented players, they have a high potential, the task is to discover and realise it.
Do you have any plans to coach at club level as well at some point in the future? Now, all my thoughts are connected only with the national team of Ukraine. But I am just starting my career as a coach, and the future will show what awaits us.