I’LL be honest with you all now, I’m not the biggest watcher of football outside of Liverpool games. I’ll watch the big matches, of course, and I’ll stick Match Of The Day on if I’m not doing anything more exciting on a Saturday night. But past that I struggle to get myself excited for any particular games and often have to fake it when people talk to me about the performances of certain clubs over the course of the season.
In some ways it makes life much easier for me. I don’t have to constantly apologise to my girlfriend when I take over the television, for example. I also don’t have a clue when it comes to potential signings, giving me the ability to get excited over pretty much any name that’s mentioned. Is Shane Long really *that* bad a proposition? [Ed – Yes!]
I do change my habits slightly when the big tournaments come around, but I tend to have the games on in the background rather than watch them in a concentrated fashion like I would a Liverpool game. You can mention how good the 2010 World Cup was to me, but I can’t promise I’ll remember much about it.
I’ve enjoyed watching some of the Euros so far, with particular highlights being England’s draw with Russia and the 1-1 between Romania and Switzerland. In truth, though, my excitement was mainly based around the fact I had a bet on 1-1 in both games. So with all of that in mind, you’ll understand why I panicked a little bit when Neil told me he’d like me to write about a Euros team for The Anfield Wrap.
I’ve enjoyed reading other people’s work on previous tournaments and didn’t want to let anyone down. To some extent, then, it’s a good thing I got Ukraine as I know literally piss all about them, so faking it was never going to be an easy thing to do. I considered changing the remit slightly and calling my piece “You, Crane — A Look Back At Ten Seasons Of Frasier”.
Instead I did what everyone does when they’re in a pinch: I turned to social media and asked my friends if anyone knew anything about Ukraine. The responses were…mixed. The Klitschko brothers are from there, apparently, and the older brother, Vitali, went into politics after retiring from boxing in 2013. Someone else told me that things are a bit tense between them and Russia at the moment and that people from Ukraine ‘like cabbage’ and are ‘quite good in Eurovision’.
I struck gold, though, when one of my mates told me that he knows someone form Ukraine who wouldn’t mind speaking to me about his country and the football they’re playing. I decided not to open with the thing about cabbage, instead asking some mildly serious questions.
Here’s my Q & A with Oleg Osipenko:
Thanks again for agreeing to answer some questions about Ukraine. Before we get into the football perhaps you could just tell us a little about yourself: where you’re from, your background and so on?
I was born in the north of the country. I spent my university years in Kiev and grew up being a Dynamo Kiev fan.
Starting with non-football stuff, then. It’s been a bit of a turbulent time in Ukraine over the last few years, are you able to offer a brief summary of what’s gone on and where things are at at the moment?
It has been quite turbulent, but it is not Syria. In terms of what has happened, The Economist has written a lot of good articles. Pretty much all their Ukraine pieces for the past three years are spot on.
How has the political situation affected things for the national football team? Is it seen as a way to unite otherwise disparate factions or have there been some disagreements over that, too?
Surprisingly, politics doesn’t have much effect on football. Shakhtar and Dynamo players don’t always get along, but that has more to do with club loyalties rather than ethnic or political tensions. There have been fist fights before. Shakhtar have been playing incident-free in Lviv ( which is in the West of the country) for the past two years now, which is a miracle if you think of the context of the political events of the last 2 years.
Mykhaylo Fomenko’s team is seen as being organised and slightly rigid, trying to keep things tight and hitting on the counter. Do you think that’s fair?
Yes, and running out of legs on the 61st minute. We are pretty consistent in that, unfortunately.
Looking at the squad, then, Konoplyanka is a player we know a little about in Liverpool. He nearly signed for the Reds in 2014 only for the deal to fall apart on deadline day. Likewise Yarmolenko (below) has been linked with Everton quite a lot. Are they your major danger men?
Correct. We have been blessed with world class strikers for the past 15 years But it is always our defence that lets us down.
Where do you see Ukraine’s main strengths as being?
We can really run during the first 60 minutes.
And what about your weaknesses? Where do you think you’ll get exposed?
We stop running exactly on the hour. Somehow, “it ain’t over until its over” never got properly translated into Ukrainian.
You put Germany under quite a bit of pressure at times in your opening game but ultimately fell short. With Northern Ireland losing to Poland your match against them could take on extra significance. How do you think you’ll play against Michael O’Neill’s men?
Theoretically, one could argue Ukraine has a better squad. But then again, we are notorious for reserving our best efforts for when we play England, France, or Germany. And then we somehow draw against Georgia or Albania.
Do you think you’ll get out of the group? What’s your prediction for the remaining two games?
I hope we will. It will all be decided in the match against Poland. They have a team of similar strength.
There was a bit of a bust up at the end of the domestic season in Ukraine, with Yarmolenko kicking Stepanenko when the two were playing each other for Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk. Stepanenko said: “I would like the whole country to know my friendship with Yarmolenko has ended.” Has that all been sorted out now, or is it more a matter of burying heads until after the tournament?
No, it has not been sorted. And if we don’t go into next round, the press will eat them both for lunch.
Any other business? Anything else you think we should know about Ukraine? If you make it out of the group, how far do you see the team going?
We will lose to Spain in quarter-finals. I think everyone in the country would think this is a good result. I also suspect that many people would be happy with whatever result as long as we play one match more than Russia. This tradition of success measurement goes back centuries.
A team that is good in attack but poor in defence, that plays well against the big teams but lets itself down against the lesser opposition?
Turns out I might not have needed to watch teams other than Liverpool anyway…