Managing Ukraine to Euro Glory
Lviv native Myron Markevich is handed the challenge of building a Ukrainian national side capable of carrying the host nation’s hopes and dreams at Euro 2012
With Ukraine having narrowly failed to qualify for this summer’s World Cup Finals, the New Year period saw a changing of the guard at the National Football Federation as officials turned their thoughts towards preparationsfor the national team’s Euro 2012 bid. This was the ideal time to implement changes at the top in Ukrainian football - as co-hosts of the June 2012 tournament Ukraine do not need to qualify for the finals and so are now facing two and a half years without competitive football. This enforced break leaves Ukraine’s national team set-up facing a period which will provide both the time for a new side to take shape and also test the national squad’s ability to remain focused without the added stimulation of regular competition football. Stepping into the void is Lviv’s most celebrated footballing son, a man with a long career in professional football already behind him who now faces the enormous challenge of building a side capable of beating the likes of Germany, England and Spain at Euro 2012.
The task of shaping Ukraine’s coming ‘Class of 2012’ has fallen to Lviv born coach Myron Markevich. Markevich is a veteran purist of the Ukrainian game who made his name in the lower leagues of Soviet football before establishing himself as the grand old man of the Ukrainian Premier League with stints at the helm of his native Karpaty Lviv and his current club Metalist Kharkiv, which he has transformed into the nation’s consistently third best side. Markevich replaces former Dynamo legend Oleksiy Mikhailichenko as Ukraine’s national team
coach and represents a break from the stranglehold which the world famous Kyiv club has enjoyed over the top job in Ukrainian football ever since independence. Dynamo have provided the national side with their previous five managers and while Markevich is certainly no maverick, his appointment nevertheless represents a break with the traditional establishment ties within the Ukrainian Football Federation that bodes well for the general handling of the domestic game.
Time for a clean sweep of the old guard
It could all have been so different for Markevich’s national predecessor Oleksiy Mikhailichenko if Ukraine had not flopped on the night of their World Cup play-off second leg against Greece in Donetsk last December. Faced by a less than daunting Greek side and enjoying the relative luxury of having already secured a scoreless first leg draw in Athens, Ukraine seemed to have one foot in South Africa but fell at the final hurdle on a hugely disappointing and insipid night amid the Donbass gloom. Instead, Mikhailichenko’s expensive lineup failed to perform and lost out to a breakaway goal which the Greeks somewhat fortuitously procured in what was a rare foray out of their own half of the field. That poor performance against Greece left many questioning the commitment of Ukraine’s millionaire star players and fuelled an already growing clamour for changes in the way the national team job was being approached. With many of Ukraine’s biggest national team stars now entering the twilight of their careers (Shevchenko will be 35 in 2012, Voronin & Tymoshchuk both 33) the stage is now set
for the emergence of a new national side which fans will be hoping can blossom in time for Euro 2012.
Building on youth team’s 2009 Euro glory
Markevich has a track record of building attractive and wellorganised teams and has also achieved considerable success with sides built around young Ukrainian players – a talent that has endeared him to fans and encouraged many Ukrainian football followers to suggest that he is the ideal candidate to build a team capable of challenging for the title at Euro 2012. He will be helped in his quest by Ukraine’s current crop of teenage talent, which triumphed at UEFA’s Under 19s European Championship in August 2009. The event, which was held in Donetsk as a dress rehearsal for Euro 2012 itself, gave this emerging generation of players a taste for victory on home soil which Markevich will now seek to capitalize and build on.
The new national team coach will take up the task of guiding Ukraine’s Euro 2012 preparations while continuing in his current post as trainer at Metalist Kharkiv. Given Ukraine’s lack of competitive matches and relaxed playing schedule this is not thought to create any major obstacles, but nevertheless it will represent a further departure from modern Ukrainian footballing tradition.
This month Markevich spoke to Lviv Today about the challenges of jugging his club and national commitments and the optimism he feels for Ukraine’s Euro 2012 chances.
How do you plan to combine your responsibilities with Metalist and your commitments as national team manager? Will you be able to give 100% to both positions?
Initially the owner of Metalist Kharkiv, Oleksandr Yeroslavskyi, was against the idea of me taking over the national team as we have very ambitious plans for Metalist in the Ukrainian Premier League. However Football Federation President Hryhoriy Surkis and Igor Kolomoyskiy managed to persuade him that there might be benefits to the arrangement for Metalist and provide our Ukrainian players with additional motivation. I have taken this job on with a great sense of mission and responsibility. Every coach, no matter who they are, dreams of taking on the job of national coach. Anyone who denies that they harbour such dreams is either a coward or not telling the whole truth.
We have also found ways to accommodate my two positions. It is only logical that from now on the Ukrainiannational team will begin gathering at the Metalist training camp more and more often. Our facilities are excellent – possibly better even than the celebrated Dynamo Kyiv base located in woodland just outside the capital city.
Ukraine’s Under 19 team won the European Championship in 2009 - how many of these young players do you expect toplay a role in Ukraine’s 2012 senior side, and what lessons can be learned from the 2009 U-19 victory?
It is no secret that the national team needs as injection of fresh blood. Some of our top players are aging and will naturally find it difficult to last the whole 90 minutes at maximum pace by the time of Euro 2012. We have plenty of young talentbut all the young players currently looking to break into the national side have got a lot to learn in a relatively short period of time. We want to give all the players involved in the U-19 victory a chance to perform at full international level and we have appointed Yuriy Kalitvintsev, the man behind the U-19 championship win, as one of the national team coaches ahead of Euro 2012. I plan to hold our first training camp in May. In between now and then I will be making up my mind about the shape of the new national side. Fans can expect surprises in my initial line-ups – our game needs to be more varied and thoughtful. Analyzing the current national team’s performances in becomes clear that we lack the ability to hold onto the ball and string together 15 or 20 consecutive passes. Not every attack is going to lead to a goal but we need to get into good playing habits and keeping possession is the best habit any footballer can have. I want to teach the national side to play modern, quick football. We have the players and all that is required is to nurture a little more confidence in their skills.
Do you think that the number of foreign players playing in the Ukrainian Premier League is restricting the chances available to nurture young Ukrainian talent?
In some respects this is true but it is also important to note that the presence of so many international mercenaries significantly raises the quality of the football on offer in the domestic championship. At some clubs the situation is extreme – at Shakhtar Donetsk there will soon be more Brazilians than Ukrainians in the squad. Nevertheless I still believe that young Ukrainian talent will find an outlet in the domestic league as long as they are prepared to work to the limits of their ability and endurance. In order to compete with the best of the international market they must also excel – ultimately every manager wants to pick the strongest possible side, regardless of nationality.
How do you plan to keep the Ukraine squad focused for the next two and a half years without competitive football?
This year the national team will have a minimum of 8 matches and all our ties will be against significant footballing nations. Our first two scheduled games will take place in May – against Ghana in London and Algeria in Kharkiv. We also will play in Norway in June and face the Netherlands in August at the Donbass Arena.
Following these games at our two completed Euro 2012 host stadiums we will maintain the 2012 theme when we travel to Poland for a September clash in Warsaw. We are negotiating currently with Canada, Spain and the Czech Republic for friendly matches. You will notice that we are not organizing friendly matches against the likes of Andorra and Kazakhstan – all our opponents will be of the highest level, allowing us to assess and evaluate our progress as a team. In these coming friendly matches the result will not be all-important. Instead, I will be looking to see the side take shape and monitoring the progress of our younger players. I will also be relying on the nation’s football fans to get behind the team and boost them with their vocal support. I still have vivid memories of the recent World Cup play-off in Donetsk – one hour before kick-off the Greek side came out to warm up and were confronted with an almost totally empty stadium. It must have provided them with a considerable confidence boost to see that the home fans had stayed away. I am not saying that the lack of support was directly responsible for the defeat on that particular occasion, but it is a significant minus to be confronted by an empty stadium if you are supposed to be the home side. Our support for the national team needs to be a constant factor which the players can always rely on.
Do you see a role for Andriy Shevchenko in the 2012 side?
It has become fashionable to argue that Shevchenko is a whimsical player or a pampered celebrity, but I personally know that he is a high-level professional who can still demonstrate the kind of rare star quality which wins matches. Shevchenko will be one of many who will be vying for my attention and my job is to adopt the correct approach for each individual.
Which international managers of past and present do you admire?
Since childhood I have admired the great Ukrainian coach Valeriy Lobanovskiy.
How would you describe your basic football philosophy?
Football should bring satisfaction to everyone – to players, coaches and fans.
Who do you rate as the greatest ever Ukrainian footballer?
I am not going to sound very original in saying so but I would have to opt for Oleh Blokhin and Andriy Shevchenko, our two Golden Ball winners.
In the absence of Ukraine, which team will you be supporting during this summer’s coming world Cup in South Africa?
I just want to enjoy the tournament. There will be a wide range of different styles and abilities on display in South Africa. As a coach I tend to watch matches from a professional perspective and like to root for the underdog. I enjoy putting myself in the shoes of the manager and imagining what steps I would take.
To date, what has been your most memorable game as a manager?
There have been so many memorable games. I began coaching in the Soviet Union’s second division and have gone on to amass a record number of games in charge of Ukrainian league sides. Sometimes after a memorable game I find it difficult to sleep. Football can be a cruel game – victories are often attributed to the players while defeats almost always get blamed on the manager. I hope that as a coach I still have my best games ahead of me. I now have the ultimate challenge – to lead my nation to victory at the 2012 European Championships. I believe that we can do it and that we must do it!
Text & photography: Evgen Kraws