Huge support will take the edge off being among the underdogs when co-hosts Ukraine bid for glory at Euro 2012.
Coach Oleg Blokhin, who took over in April last year after two appointments that proved less than successful, said he has no illusions about their prospects.
“We have been set a task of winning the tournament,” he said in an interview. “I have no idea where that comes from. Of course, you have to aim for that, but you also have to take a sober view of things. First of all, we have to qualify from the group.”
Blokhin, a legendary striker for the old Soviet Union national team, took Ukraine to the World Cup quarter-finals in 2006 and is the most successful coach in Ukrainian soccer history, but, though he is a strong motivator, Blokhin, 59, will have to work hard to weld a Ukraine side of young talent and some experience into a team capable of holding their own against France, England and Sweden.
Recent form has exposed a weak and unbalanced defense, and an attack in which most of the goalscoring has come from midfielders, such as Andriy Yarmolenko, Oleh Gusev and Yevhen Konoplyanka, rather than the strikers.
On top of those problems, Ukraine’s first choice goalkeeper Oleksandr Shovkovsky has been ruled out of the championships with a shoulder injury picked up in a domestic match at the end of April that will keep him sidelined for at least three months.
The 37-year-old’s absence is a major blow for the side, with Ukraine going into the tournament with a shortage of experienced goalkeepers after Oleksandr Rybka was suspended for using a banned diuretic and Andriy Dykan is also out injured.
Ukraine have been beaten easily by Brazil, Italy, France, Uruguay and the Czech Republic in their latest friendlies — though they are hoping a 3-3 draw with Germany might mark a turning point.
“We should have refreshed the team after the World Cup [in] 2006, but it proved hard to do,” Blokhin said. “But you have got to have faith in yourself. We will never make it if we regard ourselves as underdogs to France and England.”
Blokhin was brought in after a fiasco involving 61-year-old Myron Markevic, who had originally been entrusted with shaping a team worthy of Ukraine’s ambitions.
Markevic, who combined his job as the national team boss with coaching Metalist Kharkiv, quit after the Ukraine FA accused his club of fixing a match in 2008.
Despite pulling off three victories and one draw against the Netherlands during a three-month spell, Markevic chose to stick with Metalist in protest against the federation’s ruling.
Yuri Kalitvintsev then stepped in as caretaker, but poor form in friendlies doomed his tenure and national selectors turned again to the evergreen Blokhin.
“I have had very little time. It would have been easier if I had taken the team over earlier. I would have had more time to come up with the decisions I need to make now”, Blokhin said.
Ukraine’s first European championship will also be a last chance to sparkle for 35-year-old icon Andriy Shevchenko.
Team captain and all-time top scorer, Shevchenko has been struggling with back problems since he left Chelsea in the hope of making an impact in Euro 2012.
“Everything is down to him. Names do not play football. There is a certain amount of work to be done and Andriy has problems with his health,” Blokhin said.