Football in Ukraine Echoes of the Red Orchestra

The national team is revered as a symbol of national renewal, but coach Oleg Blokhin and his squad are products of the old school.

He doesn't get a chance to drink his coffee and smoke a cigarette in peace, and explain the making of the miracle of Kiev. Oleg Blokhin has become a magnet for flashbulbs.

Inside the Sports Bar on Kiev's Chmelnitski Street, souvenir hunters armed with cameras converge from all sides on this folk hero. Seeming neither visibly irritated nor flattered, Blokhin stands up, poses without comment, and sits down again. He takes adulation in his stride.

Blokhin is now 53. No longer constrained by the straitjacket of being a Soviet coach, he has changed a bit. Around the eyes - and around the waist. But the penetrating gaze and razor-sharp crew cut still recall the Red Scare: the Cold War-era cop in shorts who spread shock and awe in the West with his pure athletic talent.

Oleg Blokhin may well be the greatest footballer ever to emerge from the Soviet Union. He appeared 101 times in the Soviet jersey with the Cyrillic characters "CCCP" emblazoned across the chest; in 1975 he was named European Footballer of the Year by France Football. As first violin in the so-called Red Orchestra, he led his club Dynamo Kiev to victory in two European finals and the UEFA Super Cup.

For Ukrainians born after his heyday, a video clip has been running on national TV since last autumn. It features Blokhin dancing past 1974 West German World Cup winners Georg Schwarzenbeck, Franz Beckenbauer and Sepp Maier in quick succession during the 1975 Super Cup final against Bayern Munich before tapping the ball over the line. In living rooms from Kiev to Donetsk, the stunned German commentator exclaims, "That was world class!"

For older Ukrainians who remember the great Blokhin as the wunderkind of Soviet soccer, the hero appears in a new role at the end of the clip: as Ukraine's coach, 30 years on, celebrating the country's qualification for the 2006 World Cup to the soundtrack of the new national anthem, a soccer anthem.

"There was once a great country," so the song goes, "that loved Blokhin, Blokhin." But because that great country has fallen part, a new nation needs "another team like that again." And Blokhin has been chosen to launch a repeat performance. The rousing chorus, which he is sometimes compelled to intone in public, urges: "Come on, lads, bottoms up. Let's all toast Blokhin."

Blokhin shrugs off his metamorphosis from the old system's star pupil to the pride of the new Ukraine as a quirk of fate. "Every era has its good aspects," he says, sipping his cold coffee. Adding that even in the Soviet era, he had everything he could wish for. "When I was 20 I used to drive a white Volga. That was really something then. I always got the girls I wanted."

His current fame reflects on the Ukraine, which isn't bad in and of itself. But Blokhin's main interest is success and his personal role in achieving it. "When I was coaching in Greece 10 years ago, people still thought Ukraine was somewhere in Siberia. Those days are over," he says with a satisfied grin. After the draw for the World Cup finals in Leipzig, Jürgen Klinsmann went up to Blokhin and said: "Thank God we didn't get you guys."

Footballing respect bolsters the self-respect of a country trying to reinvent itself after centuries under Russian and - in its westerly areas - Austrian rule. When Dnipro's Ruslan Rotan scores the winner against Georgia on September 3, 2005, making Ukraine the first European qualifiers for the World Cup, the event is celebrated between the Carpathians and the Black Sea like an act of national liberation.

The Ukrainian football nurseries of Kiev, Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk had already supplied the nucleus of the USSR teams - 14 members of the 22-man Soviet squad at Mexico '86; 10 of the team in Italy in 1990. Following independence, when Ukraine is excluded from qualifications for the 1994 World Cup, some desert the flag and six join the Russian squad, among them tournament top scorer Oleg Salenko. In the next eight years, Ukraine twice fails to reach football's greatest event.

Blokhin is the solution, people say in Kiev. The man with the Midas touch, the only man capable of changing the country's fortunes. They even wonder why their idol hasn't returned earlier from his self-imposed exile on the sidelines.

Into his late 30s, Blokhin is still journeying from town to town for Austrian second-division team Vorwärts Steyr, earning foreign - hard - currency. Next, as a coach in Greece, he wins a single trophy in three years. "He wouldn't have lasted long at Dynamo with that record," they scoff back home. And when the country's favorite son finally returns in 1997, guards prevent him from entering the stadium that hosted his greatest triumphs.

The incident makes headlines. "Blokhin will only enter this stadium again over my dead body," a Kiev editor quotes Dynamo's president Grigori Surkis, one of the billionaire tycoons in President Kuchma's inner circle, as saying.

The stadium ban is payback for a stubbornness that was Blokhin's trademark even under Soviet rule. Initially, he refuses to play by the new Ukrainian rulebook. True, in 1998 he's elected to parliament, because politicians hold both the power and the purse strings, and there aren't many better job offers available. But he has no intention of lending his good name to the oligarchic "United Social Democrats" led by Dynamo boss Surkis. Blokhin keeps a low profile, conspicuous neither for fiery oration nor for a passionate commitment to committee causes. His fellow parliamentarians have difficulty determining his political ideas and objectives. He changes camps five times in his first legislative period, twice joining a communist-led bloc and twice going independent. He votes with ex-Premier Pavel Lasarenko, who is subsequently arrested in the United States; then with Yulia Timochenko - until she too is arrested.

On October 8, 2002, Oleg Blokhin finally bites the bullet. The star athlete from the communist regime buckles and defects to the big-business faction of Dynamo boss Surkis, who is also president of Ukraine's football association. Political convictions apparently play no part.

Eleven months later the enterprising parliamentarian is appointed national coach, and a football fairytale begins. His aim is to guide his team to the World Cup via the shortest route, the new man in charge announces - namely as the topplaced team in its group. Fans' ears prick up. The sports world is torn between euphoria and disbelief.

Blokhin is aiming high, but he makes no bones about his dissatisfaction with the standard of Ukraine's domestic league. It is a sign of the times that Dynamo - which could once expect 100,000 fans at big games - now sometimes struggle to draw 5,000. The gulf between the home team, with its expensive foreign mercenaries, and its provincial rivals is too wide.

Given the lack of competition in the domestic league, the national team players have lost their killer instinct. Blokhin fails to register a single victory in his first six internationals. On the field, at least. Off it, he is laying the decisive groundwork.

March 31, 2004: Macedonia are leading Ukraine 1-0 in Skopje's municipal stadium. In the 44th minute Blokhin's star striker, Andriy Shevchenko of AC Milan, blows up completely after a collision with an opponent.

Shevchenko has already cursed, gesticulated and otherwise vented his frustration at his team's pathetic showing against these minnows. Now, with blood streaming from his mouth, he loses it. Stripping off his shirt and ripping off his captain's armband, he storms off the pitch. Minutes later he is in Silvio Berlusconi's private jet, leaving the airspace over Skopje, bound for Milan.

Initially Blokhin watches Shevchenko's theatrics with detachment. Then he defends the player at the press conference, only later taking him aside for a heart-toheart. The tête-à-tête is said to revolve around appropriate behavior for a captain. And it touches on the hard truth that any player who can't help his country can kiss his international reputation goodbye.

That's the kind of argument that the ambitious Shevchenko - who earns an annual €10 million - can relate to. He already has bundles of money and shelves full of silverware. What matters now is that he doesn't end his career as a tragic figure - a superstar without a minute of World Cup playing time to his name. And what also matters is the ballon d'or of France Football's European Footballer of the Year award. An honor once won by Blokhin.

"Without the national team, you can forget about the Golden Ball," Blokhin tells his striker. The coach gambles with his authority, and wins. With his goals in the following months, Shevchenko becomes his country's key weapon in the qualifying groups, and in December 2004 is awarded France Football's accolade in Paris.

"We are a young country, and Andriy is our leading ambassador in the younger generation," says Blokhin somewhat dispassionately. He understands the media's craving for stars, he says, and Shevchenko is undoubtedly a star. But you have to draw the line somewhere with all this hero-worship.

Blokhin has always been his own man. He seldom speaks to journalists, and then only grudgingly. Firstly, because they mean nothing to him - and that goes back to his Soviet days. Secondly, because they seem less interested in football than in his young wife and the number of cigarettes he smokes during matches. And thirdly, because they are counter-productive to forming the kind of tightly-knit squad that Dynamo Kiev once boasted.

Any "exaggerated public focus" on individuals undermines the collective spirit, says Blokhin. Deep down, he argues, no one knows this better than Andriy Shevchenko: "With him you still find echoes of the Soviet style."

Growing up in the bedroom community of Obolon on the fringes of Kiev, Shevchenko - the son of a non-commissioned officer - is a helpful, avid pupil who would run early-morning marathons around Lake Verbnoye. In the Dynamo youth academy, he always does a little more than the others. "Football is a mirror of the soul," says Shevchenko, and he works like a dog. At 18 he scores his first Champions League goal - against Bayern Munich. And, as he stands on the threshold of a great career, legendary coach Valeri Lobanovski takes charge of the jetheeled striker: the very same Lobanovski who had whipped Blokhin into shape 25 years earlier - the spiritual leader of the Dynamo school, the mentor with the maxim: "Anything is possible if you work hard enough."

Even today, when Shevchenko arrives in the pine forests of Koncha Saspa - home to Dynamo's state-of-the-art training ground where Ukraine prepares for internationals - he finds himself surrounded by framed reminders of Lobanovski's wisdom, and physicians and therapists gone gray after laboring for decades over the bodies of Kiev's athletes.

At Lobanovski's grave in Baikovo Cemetery, the staff had vowed to preserve the master's memory. The portrait gallery on the first floor of Dynamo's clubhouse includes Blokhin and Shevchenko, the first and last star pupils from the old Lobanovski school. And if any member of the national squad complains that Shevchenko has arrived in a private jet with a Japanese physiotherapist, Blokhin simply says: "Try to make a go of it in Milan yourself." Pointing to Shevchenko, he adds, "Here's an example of where hard work can get you."

At AC Milan, Shevchenko has played his way into the club's record books with nearly 130 league goals since 1999. The Milanese also revere him because he speaks fluent Italian and, unlike other Soviet expats, steers clear of alcohol and cards. In short, they love him be- cause he has class and manners - as his agent puts it, not something to be taken for granted from a man who grew up "seeing the wrong side of the Iron Curtain."

What Milan's residents interpret as Shevchenko's love affair with their city and culture is a logical consequence of the Dynamo philosophy. Whether a wet-look "Sheva" is striding along the catwalk in an Armani suit or stealing Berlusconi's son's girlfriend with wedding bells in mind - whatever he starts, he finishes, and he does so with conviction and determination.

He also makes mistakes, but rarely the same one twice. Which is why his lips are now sealed when it comes to politics. In July 2004, before the presidential elections in Ukraine, Shevchenko allows himself to be pressed into service for Viktor Yanukovych, the Kuchma regime's candidate. His club boss Surkis reads out a statement: Shevchenko is convinced that a victory for Yanukovych would bring "changes that benefit Ukrainian football."

But the appalled reaction of the country's soccer enthusiasts pales in comparison to their horror at the national coach's call to support the regime. At the height of the public uproar in November 2004, Oleg Blokhin "dedicated" the 3-0 win over Turkey in the World Cup qualifier to Yanukovych, a two-time felon.

In the end both Blokhin and Shevchenko pay with their popularity. As the people take to the streets in support of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, refusing to yield until he is declared president, the coach and his goalscorer fall further out of favor with each passing day.

After the successful World Cup qualification the new President Yushchenko boycotts the Kiev festivities, with Blokhin, Surkis and Shevchenko appearing together on the stage in Maidan, the rallying point of the revolution. The rival camps later gather around a table at Dynamo's training grounds. The mood is chilly and formal, much like a Cold War summit.

Wearing blue and yellow team tracksuits, Blokhin and Shevchenko lounge on either side of the head of state, who struggles for words. Yushchenko speaks of his country's hopes of winning the World Cup. And he says that Ukrainian soccer is "essentially European" - yet another argument for his moderately pro-Western course. The country's footballing standard-bearers express gratitude, and present him with an autographed ball. Then everyone makes a hasty exit.

When the president attends an international match, he sits behind the goal. The main stand is firmly in the hands of the oligarchs and their entourages. It is the tragedy of the country, says Kiev soccer commentator Denis Bosyanog, that the principal players in Ukraine's most recent heroic sagas have so little in common: "A nation and a football nation were born almost simultaneously. Reaching the finals was a second Bastille Day for the people - after Ukraine had finally become Ukraine."

Yet just as the physical state of matter changes when the temperature exceeds a critical point, the frozen fronts of Ukrainian society could thaw again this World Cup season - provided the ancien regime's adherents can captivate this newly democratized nation on the playing fields of Germany.

Half a dozen graduates of the Dynamo Academy have been chosen to form the core of the national team. Learning from Blokhin means learning to win. The coach has already upped the ante for his players: "No one would understand if we didn't make the semis now."

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