The summer of 2006 was a historic time for Ukrainian football. Under the guidance of former Dynamo Kyiv and USSR legend Oleg Blokhin, Ukraine reached the quarter-finals at their first-ever FIFA World Cup™. Leading the line for the Yellow and Blues was 2004 FIFA Ballon d’Or-winning striker Andriy Shevchenko, while Anatoliy Tymoshchuk stood firm in defensive midfield. FIFA.com spoke to Tymoshchuk on the eve of the ten-year anniversary of Ukraine's finest hour on the international footballing stage.
Ukraine made it to the World Cup at the third time of asking. They had fallen at the final qualifying hurdle on a number of occasions, both for World Cups and UEFA European Championships, so their success in reaching the finals in Germany was a major achievement. It was made all the more notable by the fact they emerged from a group containing former European champions Greece and Denmark, as well as Turkey, who had finished third in the previous World Cup in 2002.
However, in their opening game of the tournament against Spain, whose golden era had yet to begin, Ukraine were thrashed 4-0. "That was a blow," Tymoshchuk recalled. "You always want to make a good impression on your debut but we were up against Spain. We deserved to lose but we didn't beat ourselves up too much afterwards because we had an experienced spine to the team.
"Everyone understood that we didn't have a lot of time to prepare," he went on. "We forgot about the defeat and that meant we were able to put in some good work ahead of the next game. The result against Spain put us in a situation where we didn't have a choice in the following matches."
Ukraine could not afford another defeat and turned the backs-to-the wall situation to their advantage. The eastern Europeans overwhelmed Saudi Arabia in their next match, securing a morale-boosting 4-0 win of their own, before edging out Tunisia 1-0 to clinch second spot in Group H and a place in the Round of 16.
"The desire to make amends came to the fore," Tymoshchuk explained. "Our opponents weren't that bad, but we were helped by the fact we wanted to prove that the game against the Spanish was a blip. The task was to get out of the group and everybody knew the results we needed to get."
Shovkovskiy's eternal record
In the Round of 16, Ukraine and Switzerland looked evenly matched on paper and so it proved on the pitch. Both sides hit the bar but neither was able to find the net in 120 minutes. The penalty shoot-out that followed got off to the worst possible start for Ukraine: captain Andriy Shevchenko missed, just as he had done for AC Milan in the shoot-out of the UEFA Champions League final against Liverpool the year before.
"Usually the coaches ask the players: 'who is going to take one?', 'who is going to assume the responsibility?', 'who feels up to it?'. We didn't have a fixed list of penalty takers and we didn't even practise them before the game. We all were shaken by Shevchenko's miss, but I was confident in the lads who were stepping up to the spot," said Tymoshchuk, who watched from the centre circle as Artem Milevskiy, Sergei Rebrov and Oleg Gusev successfully tucked their penalties away.
At the same time, Oleksandr Shovkovskiy was writing himself into history in the Ukrainian goal. Until this day, he remains the only goalkeeper not to have been beaten in a World Cup penalty shoot-out, saving two efforts while the other rebounded off the crossbar.
"Shovkovskiy's record might never be beaten," Tymoshchuk said. "Those penalties and the intense emotions around them remain my strongest memories from that occasion for me. I also remember the support of our home fans who had travelled a long way, and the organisation of the tournament – everything ran like clockwork."
Unfortunately, the Ukrainian fairy tale did not last. Eventual champions Italy were too strong in the quarter-finals, dispatching them 3-0 to leave Tymoshchuk with a sense of disappointment that he feels to this day.
"We conceded an early goal but then we pulled ourselves together and created some chances," he said. "We played well but lost out against the team that went on to win the World Cup. It's no consolation, but perhaps we weren't ready to match Italy on that occasion."
The next major tournament for Ukraine was UEFA EURO 2012 on home soil. Despite playing well, the hosts were unable to make it out of a group containing both France and England. This year Tymoshchuk and Co have another chance to make history and once again it will be at the European Championship.
Tymoshchuk took over as captain of his country after Andriy Shevchenko's career came to a close. Today he is 37 and plays for Kairat in Kazakhstan, while continuing to represent his national team. Tymoshchuk's record of 142 matches for Ukraine is an amazing feat and it could take years for one of his team-mates to surpass his tally.
"It's an honour to play for my country and I've never thought about any personal achievement," he said. "My objective was to get pleasure out of playing football and to serve my national team. It's a special feeling when the whole country is cheering for you. Now we've got the EURO coming up and we've set ourselves the highest aims."