Whilst Ukraine are placed just 24th in the often mystifying FIFA World Rankings, their under-20s team have managed to stun the world by winning the Under-20 World Cup. In the tournament finale in Lodz, Poland, Ukraine beat South Korea 3-1 and it marked a remarkable turnaround for the Ukrainian team who had previously failed to qualify for the 2017 competition.
Much has been made of how the Ukraine regular team’s head coach, Andriy Shevchenko, has helped to transform the under-20 side’s fortunes. Plus with their goalkeeper Andriy Lunin, getting snapped up by Real Madrid, it seems as though Ukraine could be set to become a new footballing powerhouse.
Ukraine’s road to glory
Few football fans would have backed Ukraine to succeed in the way they did at this year’s Under-20 World Cup. The last time that the country appeared at the competition saw them cruelly beaten by Senegal on penalties in the second round of the 2015 tournament.
But the Ukraine team were reborn for this year’s contest. Ukraine breezed through the group stages to end up top of the table above the United States, Nigeria and Qatar. From here Ukraine thumped Panama 4-1 in the second round, edged past Columbia 1-0 in the quarter-finals, and beat a tough Italy side 1-0 in the semi-finals thanks to a second-half Serhiy Buletsa winner.
However, things didn’t start so well for Ukraine in their Under-20 World Cup final match against South Korea. The Korean side went ahead thanks to a Lee Kang-in penalty, and for a while it looked like Ukraine would once again be going home empty-handed. Thankfully, they could rely on Dynamo Kyiv’s Vladyslav Supriaha scoring goals either side of half-time, and his Dynamo Kyiv colleague, Heorhii Tsitaishvili was on hand to wrap the match up with a late goal.
How Shevchenko helped to guide Ukraine to greatness
Most football fans will know how Shevchenko was a legend at the Italian club, AC Milan. But since retiring from the game in 2012, he has kept himself busy with a brief foray into politics, and then found a much happier home as the head of the Ukraine national football side. Although the ex-Ukraine defender, Oleksandr Petrakov, is the official manager of the under-20 side, it’s clear that Shevchenko has had a big part to play in the team’s success.
After the disappointment of Ukraine’s group stage exit in the Euro 2016 tournament, many big-name players like Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, Vyacheslav Shevchuk and Oleh Husyev left the national stage. But Shevchenko has been key in helping talented youngsters like Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko find a place in the national side.
Such is Shevchenko’s thirst for success that he has helped create a nurturing environment for the next generation of players. Vladyslav Supriaha and Serhiy Buletsa have worked wonders for the under-20 team, and anybody who saw Lunin’s spectacular save of Lee Jae-ik’s header in the final will know why Real Madrid splashed out a cool €8.5 million for the youngster.
However, it’s worth mentioning that the side’s head coach, Oleksandr Petrakov, has stated that there aren’t any stars in the young team and it’s their teamwork that has helped them claim the trophy. Despite this admirable statement, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the following young Ukrainian footballers could be real stars in the future.
- Serheii Buletsa: Hugely promising midfielder who is currently signed with Dynamo Kyiv. Winner of the FIFA Under 20 Silver Ball award.
- Andriy Lunin: Exceptional goalkeeper, recently signed by Real Madrid. Only conceded four goals in the 2019 Under 20 World Cup.
- Yukhym Konoplia: Impressive Shakhtar Donetsk defender. Made a key play to assist in one of the final’s goals.
- Danylo Sikan: Currently on loan to Mariupol from Shakhtar Donetsk, and bagged four key goals in this year’s Under-20 World Cup.
- Vladyslav Supriaha: Recently signed a five-year deal with Dynamo Kyiv. Scored two goals to in Ukraine’s 3-1 win over South Korea in the final.
What this means for Ukraine’s footballing future
Whilst tournaments like the Under-20 World Cup rarely get much coverage, they can be an excellent guide in how things will fare in the major competitions. Ukraine’s success was part of a five-year plan engineered by Petrokov to nurture a young group of players who could grow together to take on the world.
Along with the efforts of team captain, Valerii Bondar, and the influence of Shevchenko, we can now expect to see a youthful Ukraine national team who could be a key player at the Euro 2020 championships. The Ukraine are already sailing far ahead of the competition in Group B with ten points compared to Serbia’s four and Portugal’s two.
The fact that Ukraine could somehow beat a talented Serbia team 5-0 earlier this June will have raised many eyebrows in the sporting world. Stars like Schalke’s Yevhen Konoplyanka and Dynamo Kyiv’s Viktor Tsyhankov have already raised the bar for the nation’s footballers, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how youngsters like Serheii Buletsa fit into the equation.
Obviously Premier League stars like Oleksandr Zinchenko will tend to get top billing, but there’s plenty more quality within the Ukraine ranks. West Ham fans will know all about the talents of Andriy Yarmolenko, whilst Gent’s Roman Yaremchuk has also shown how handy he can be when it comes to getting important goals.
As Ukraine failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, there were fears that the nation could be slipping into the doldrums. But with memories of their 2006 World Cup quarter-final appearance still holding sway, there’s hope that a Ukrainian footballing renaissance could be underway. And with a legend like Andriy Shevchenko at the helm, then it’s easy to see how this could become a reality.