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12 January, 2012

Group D: Ukraine, England, France and Sweden. Don’t panic

They say that a theater begins with a coat stand and a European soccer championship with the draw. In the case of our national squad, pessimists use this metaphor to say the show will be a flop.

They claim that with the rivals we have in our group – England, France and Sweden – our national squad is doomed. In contrast, coach Oleh Blokhin shows reserved optimism. “If we have a death group, I should shoot myself,” he said in his characteristically sarcastic fashion as he spoke after the pompous drawing procedure which took place on December 2 in Kyiv. Pomp has become a tradition for the current government – it has learned, if anything, to build Potemkin villages in the two years of its reign.

Indeed, it is too early to speak about the death of our squad. It still stands the chance of making it to the quarterfinals. The draw has also brought some positive results. First, we are not in the same group as the Italians. Our national team has always had a hard time with Squadra Azzura, just like Ukrainian clubs have had with their Italian counterparts. Second, the first game will be played on June 11 in Kyiv against the lowest-rank rival – Sweden. By then the championship will be in full swing, and we will be spared the jitters the Poles are likely to have three days earlier. Our team has played against Sweden three times. We won by one goal in Stockholm in 2008, had a draw in Cyprus in 2011 and later lost in Kharkiv. However, as the two blue-and-yellow national squads go against each other before a capacity crowd at Olimpiysky Stadium in Kyiv this summer, Ukraine has every chance of winning.

If they lose, however, they cannot really hope to move on in the tournament, because the next two games will take place in the less comfortable city of Donetsk against top-ranked teams. In six previous games we had three draws and three losses against France. The last – and most painful – loss (1:4) came on June 6, 2011, in Donetsk. The French team has completed a transition between generations and passed the lowest point of its descent. We should not expect it to fail another big tournament. What we have to do is believe in our strength and also trust that western Ukrainian fans will be able to come to Donetsk and teach the local fans to support the national squad. (The latter have so far stubbornly ignored its games.) There are fears that when Ukraine takes on England on June 19 in Donetsk, two-thirds of the Donbass Arena will be British.

The UEFA has been unable to eradicate ticket profiteering, so scalping is likely to be a huge problem. In fact, the process is already underway. Naturally, the well-off Brits are more likely to be able to afford overpriced tickets, so the Ukrainian team may have to draw inspiration from a memory of its victory over Britain in the qualification round for the 2010 World Soccer Championship than from the cheers of its fans. England is the only top European squad we have been able to beat in an official game. This is arguably one of the main reasons to believe that we will be able to pull it off again.

Bookmakers, however, believe that our team will come third in its group and will play just three games at Euro 2012. If a miracle happens and we are able to finish second, we will again play in Donetsk in the quarterfinals. And the semifinal game – I’m daydreaming here – is also in Donetsk! Just don’t ask me why the Poles have two group games in Warsaw and one more in Wroclaw. If they move forward, they may also play in Gdansk, while our team seems to be “assigned” to Donetsk. And why were all lucrative Euro 2012-related construction contracts awarded to Donetsk companies associated with one person who also happens to be from Donetsk? Why was the Euro 2012 preparations budget drafted almost single-handedly in the office of a certain deputy prime minister? And more generally, why can't a person make his way to an administrative office without Donetsk registration? There is one answer to many such questions, but it lies outside sport and will not be to Borys Kolesnikov’s liking. After all, the draw table cannot be changed, unlike this apology for organizers of the soccer event in Ukraine.

An acquaintance of mine said: Let us just enjoy the game and Euro 2012; someone will eventually be held accountable for everything that has happened, is happening and will happen in connection with the championship. The Donbas, too, shall pass.

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