So it’s Ukraine’s to lose. Finish feeble France off and the World Cup will be all the better for it.
Les Bleus were bleu-dy awful and this must rank as Ukraine’s greatest day in football – the moment the champion chokers beat a world power convincingly.
Ukraine have missed out on three World Cups in the play-offs and one Euro Championship. Anything in this crazy country is possible and they’re not yet there yet but they look a good bet for Brazil after this result.
Interest was high in the game and on the Monday, I joined a queue outside the Olimpiskii Stadium. Two hours later, I reached the front. I walked through to the office to find out it was a queue for people to collect tickets bought over the internet. Jesus. ‘Come back tomorrow to buy tickets,” I was told.
Tuesday – three queues formed outside the stadium ticket office. I cunningly chose the shortest 75 minutes before they opened. When the ticket outlet opened – typical bloody Ukraine – the desk ‘servicing’ our queue did not. So the other two queues were happy and ours missed out – a window opened after about an hour. Thousands milled around afterwards, cursing their luck. Jesus.
The remaining option was ponce class – VIP. 800 zonks – just over 60 quid. After musing for three hours, I went for it.
Scan Ukraine’s records and it’s clear that they have never really got to grips with playing the big powers of Western Europe. Single wins against England and Portugal are the only results to catch the eye.
There’s an inferiority complex and an inferior level of play in this country of 45 million. The play-off records – three World Cup misses in 98, 02 and 10 stand out and they missed out on the 2004 Euros too.
I figured France were favourites – Ukraine had never beaten them in seven games – and the key players would be Benzema and Ribery for the French and Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko for the home team.
VIP at the Olimpiskii Stadium, Kyiv
Half-expecting to sit next to an oligarch and his gun-toting private security team, it was fascinating to see who was attending.
We got beige padded seats in the front row about 20 yards from the dugout, free food and the exclusive use of a large catering area, an atrium – an ATRIUM, mark you – flunkeys by the dozen, and lifts which noiselessly swished you up and down three floors.
On the top floor, for the presidential suite, a metal detector was erected to check for guns. Outside people you assumed were oligarchs greeted each other, unsmilingly, before passing through the detector to join the 21st century equivalent of the Politburo.
It was truly awful for 60 minutes. France looked they only wanted to play on the break and that Ribery would have to provide that chance. Ukraine were much more cohesive and with Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka on the flanks looked like they would make that count against Evra, who is a weak link – why was Clichy on the bench?
Ukrainian fans, apart from the ultras, tend to watch passively rather than create an atmosphere – this was even truer in the VIP area. The atmosphere got heated only when Ukraine pushed forward and looked dangerous which wasn’t often enough.
As it turned out it was Ukrainian centre forward Zozulya, who plays for Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk (try saying that quickly) who was the key, pouncing on a loose ball in 62 minutes, hitting a weak shot which Lloris palmed just over the line for an unexpected goal.
It was pretty much one-way after that. Zozulya emerged as man of the match. He troubled the centre-halves no end constantly, gamely chasing long balls with no support yet still making his markers work hard.
After 82 minutes, he turned Abidal inside out, got clear and was brought down in the box. The admirable Yarmolenko then netted this penalty, sparking the following celebrations.
That sparked some fight from France but the panache has gone.
Kucher was sent off, quite rightly, for pulling Ribery down. He took one for the team and 2-0 should be enough. Deschamps should have played Clichy and Benzema for the start and paid for being too cautious. Ukraine played more like he used to when he was in the French side – his players don’t seem capable of working hard enough.
Benzema, a man in form, came on after 75 minutes. I don’t get it. Evra should not be in the squad, let alone starting. He’s a liability.
There’s no joie de vivre in this French side and if they now reach the finals then they’re barely worth watching.
Mind you, Ukrainian coach Fomenko at the press conference afterwards, which I managed to gatecrash, looked like his mum had died and displayed no trace of joy, or even of any emotion whatsover. But at least his team made up for that.
Best win ever
Ukraine’s come a long way. In November 2007 I watched the same two countries contest a 2-2 European Championship qualifier draw on the same site in the freezing, tubercular predecessor of the Olimpiskii.
No sense of occasion, all comforts spared, few fans.
In six years since, Ukraine seems a different place. This crazy, beautiful mess of contradictions that will drive you mad with frustration one second and then compensate with moments of unimaginable delight is becoming more confident in itself.
Ukraine is finally beginning to clean up its act. It’s looking west to try to gain EU trade benefits. It’s lucked out with a talented group of players and they’re currently Europe’s form team. Ten wins and two draws in their last 12 games.
Ukrainians no longer shrug their shoulders and settle for the worst. They’re putting their minds to things and achieving. One day they may well organise a successful piss-up in a brewery.
Afterwards, still in the VIP section, a drunken Ukrainian approached me. He offered me a bite of his apple, which I declined. He then grabbed my wrist and dragged me over to his celebrating pals on some comfy sofas who were polishing off a bottle of vodka and plates piled high with food.
One of them put his arm round me for a man hug, another gave me a funny look when I told him I was in Ukraine on holiday.
They charged their glasses, rose to their feet at their table, and roared: “Slava Ukraini (Glory to the heroes of Ukraine), Slava SomethingorOther”.
Slava Ukraini, indeed. Your time has come.