Wed, Jun 08, 2005 - Page 19 News List

Security Cold-War tight as Ukraine trains to face Greece

DPA , KONCHA-ZASPA, UKRAINE

Guards at the secluded soccer training camp Koncha-Zaspa, hidden in a pine forest near Kiev, never had a reputation for friendliness.

But these days, with Ukraine preparing to face Greece in a critical World Cup 2006 showdown, security at the Sovietorts center is Cold War-frigid.

"No outsiders are allowed to the team! It's forbidden!" barked a gate officer to a prospective visitor on Sunday. "You can wait until the game!"

Ukraine is within an ace of qualifying, for the first time in its history, for the finals of an international tournament. They have 20 points in their World Cup 2006 group, five ahead of their nearest rival and next opponent -- European champions Greece.

For Otto Rehhagel's Greeks the June 8 match is make-or-break. They must win or, quite realistically, face the humiliating prospect of not even qualifying for Germany.

This is perhaps why Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin, in his day one of the finest strikers the Soviet Union ever produced, has in the run-up to Greece clamped an iron curtain -- even the Kremlin would be proud of -- around his team.

Last Saturday evening, after the side, led by reigning European Footballer of the Year Andrej Schevchenko, breezed to a 2-0 victory over hapless Kazakhstan in Kiev, the Soviet-style security net already was pulling tight.

The team spent more than ninety minutes in the dressing room and prior to the players' exit, a national team spokesman gave assembled journalists the bad news: "Blokhin has ordered the players not to speak a word to any of you. So go home," reported Kiril Pankratov from the authoritative GOL! television show.

The only refusniks from the gag order turned out to be veteran midfielders Anatoly Timoschiuk and Andrei Husin, and Bayer Leverkusen forward Andreij Voronin, who after a few neutral remarks about the Kazakhs scuttled onto the team bus saying "If I don't get on board now [Blokhin] will leave without me."

The bus took the players behind the 3m high walls of the Koncha-Zaspa camp. Since then, what little the world has heard about the team's preparations for the match have come from Blokhin's grudging public remarks.

At the post-Kazakhstan press conference, Blokhin declared the upcoming fight against Greece "our biggest test yet."

Characteristically, Blokhin made clear the seriousness of the impending contest by singling out his star Schevchenko for light- hearted criticism. (The AC Milan striker in the dying minutes against Kazakhstan had visibly abandoned the game plan and to all appearances was playing for fun.)

"At the end of the game Andrei [Schevchenko] started being a bad boy. You can't do the corner kicks, and penalties, and throw-ins all yourself. I asked him ,Andriusha, what, next you're going to play in goal against Greece?'"

Voronin, usually the offensive engine of the team but less than fully fit against Kazakhstan due to the end of Bundesliga season last month, received two full barrels of Blokhin's trademark bluntness and high performance standards.

"I am going to have a very serious talk with Voronin -- five days of rest [after the end of the Bundesliga season] did him no good," Blokhin griped. "I hope we can put him into shape."

Blokhin in comments prior to the Kazakhstan game said barring injuries (and there were none) he expected no major changes to his line-up against Greece.

This story has been viewed 2500 times.
TOP top