How nine Ukrainians put pointless England to the sword & nearly became kings of Europe

With the two sides set to meet in a vital Euro 2012 clash on Tuesday, looks back on a previous meeting, when the co-hosts were under a different guise...
 Michael Yokhin
 Ukraine Expert Follow on

While Euro 2012 is technically the first European Championship for Ukraine, in reality such a statement could not possibly be further from truth. The Soviet Union team that went all the way to the final in 1988 was almost exclusively made up of Ukrainian players and managed by a Ukrainian coach, the legendary Valeriy Lobanovskyi.

In order to understand the reasons behind that, we have to go back to 1982, when the Soviets quite bizarrely arrived at the World Cup with three coaches, to satisfy all the players and politicians.

Apart from Lobanovskyi, who represented Ukraine and the Dynamo Kiev stars, there also was Nodar Akhalkatsi of Georgia and Dinamo Tbilisi, and the head coach, by title at least, was Konstantin Beskov of Russia and Spartak Moscow. While all those involved claimed there was harmony within the squad, it was clear that the coaches’ approaches were cardinally different, and the team suffered.

Lobanovskyi craved cohesion, and when he got the job himself for the third spell, just a few weeks ahead of 1986 World Cup, he decided to go with the players he knew best.

At the same time, his Dynamo Kiev was one of the most impressive clubs in Europe, fresh from thrashing Atletico Madrid in the Cup Winners’ Cup final. Lobanovskyi took all that team to Mexico, where they made huge headlines with brilliant attacking play, before somewhat tragically and unfairly losing to Belgium in the last 16.

Eight starters in that tournament came from Dynamo Kiev, and the trend didn't change later. Quite the opposite: players knew they had to join Lobanovskyi at Dynamo in order to improve their chances to get a starting place in the national team. That’s exactly what striker Oleg Protasov and midfield schemer Hennadiy Lytovchenko, two close friends from Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, did in 1987. Substitutes in Mexico, they became integral part of the team at Euro 88.
England’s pointless Euro 88 campaign is the most abject in their tournament history. By the time Bobby Robson’s team lost 3-1 to the USSR in their last match of a group containing both eventual finalists, they were already mathematically out of the competition.

Frustrated by Ireland, for whom keeper Pat Bonner excelled in defending an early Ray Houghton winner, they were then undone by the sublime Marco van Basten’s hat-trick in a 3-1 triumph for Netherlands. In disarray, England looked beaten from the start against the Soviets.

The deflation, articulated by an angry press, was intensified by high expectations following an impressive qualifying campaign. Indeed, given England’s decent showing in two World Cups either side of Euro ’88, their failure in West Germany was an aberration. And there were extenuating circumstances. The lethargy of goalscoring talisman Gary Lineker became understandable when he was subsequently diagnosed with Hepatitis, while defensive kingpin Terry Butcher was absent with a broken leg, leaving youngster Tony Adams cruelly exposed.

The angst continued when violence involving England fans in Dusseldorf and Frankfurt scuppered the FA’s planned request for Uefa to lift the ban on English clubs in European competition. It seemed a fitting sentence in an ignominious chapter.    

Graham Lister

That tournament was one of the best for the Soviets, and will forever be remembered as the worst for England.

Lobanovskyi’s team sensationally won 1-0 against Netherlands and, after drawing with Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland, knew that a draw versus England in the final fixture of the group would be enough to progress to the semi-finals.

By then, Bobby Robson and his players had already lost any hope of qualifying, having succumbed both to the Irish and the Dutch, the latter capitulation featuring Marco van Basten's famous hat trick.

They were supposed, however, to try and avoid the whitewash before returning home to face the merciless press. The result suggests they were not really up to the task, mentally and physically.

Lobanovskyi’s lineup for the battle in Frankfurt included no less than eight Ukrainians, all from Dynamo Kiev. Experienced Vladimir Bessonov, tough Oleg Kuznetsov and tireless Vasyl Rats were vital in the defence, with Anatoliy Demyanenko, another Lobanovskyi favourite, benched this time.

Lytovchenko, known for his long range shots, held the midfield together with the imaginative Oleksandr Zavarov and rising star Oleksiy Mykhaylychenko. Protasov partnered the rocket-fast 1986 European Player of the Year, Igor Belanov, in attack.

The only non-Ukrainian stars were Spartak Moscow veteran keeper Rinat Dasayev, his team-mate Vagiz Khidiyatullin who played as a more elegant partner to Kuznetsov in central defence, and midfield stalwart Sergei Aleinikov of Dinamo Minsk.

Ironically, it was Aleinikov who shocked England and scored the fastest ever goal at the European Championship at the time.

The Belarusian stole the ball from a careless Glenn Hoddle in midfield and surged untouched into the penalty area before fooling Dave Watson and shooting past Chris Woods, who replaced Peter Shilton for his tournament debut. Both ex-Norwich City players could hardly feel good with themselves for their part in the fiasco.

With England nowhere to be seen in midfield, the Soviets ran the show, and Protasov squandered two great chances to double the lead in the opening minute. He even hit the post from a tight angle, and the ball agonisingly bounced along the goal-line with Woods stranded.

Lobanovskyi became a bit worried on the bench when Tony Adams equalised with a towering header,and Trevor Steven hit the bar a few minutes later but English hope for some dignity was soon ruined. Rats, scorer of two famous goals - against France in 1986 and versus Netherlands in the opener at Euro '88 - turned provider this time with a fabulous cross for Mykhaylychenko to score from.

Belanov was injured near the end of the first half, and Lobanovskyi sent on a very interesting player to replace him. Viktor Pasulko was an extremely unusual animal in that team - a Ukrainian who preferred the silky Spartak style and chose to move from Odessa to Moscow in 1987.

Lobanovskyi never really trusted Beskov’s favourites, and his biggest crime was to ignore the rare talents of Fyodor Cherenkov, one of the best playmakers in the world in the 80s who is sadly virtually unknown outside his country, having never played in a major tournament. For some reason, Pasulko was taken to Euro '88, even though he was nowhere near fighting for a starting spot. This was his lucky day.

The talented midfielder played brilliantly, and seventeen minutes from time he scored his only international goal, Rats the provider once again from the left wing.

The Soviets finished top of the group and Lev Yashin, who arrived to witness the tournament, stated: “If we play against Italy in the semi-final in a similar manner and believe in ourselves, the dream will come true.”

He was right, and Lobanovskyi’s team dismantled the Azzurri 2-0, with Lytovchenko and Protasov scoring. Aleinikov strike aside, all the rest of the USSR's goals at the tournament were netted by Ukrainians. Only Netherlands managed to beat them in the final, taking sweet revenge for the group stage defeat, as Van Basten scored that goal.

Those adventures were to be the last Ukraine wins over elite teams on the big stage. Some Ukrainians were part of the CIS side at Euro 92, but after drawing with Germany and Netherlands they fell apart against Scotland and were eliminated.

Since gaining independence, Ukraine have never qualified for the European Championship, and their only World Cup may have resulted in a quarter-finals place, but they only won against Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, never really impressing.

This is their opportunity to beat a top opposition for the first time in 24 years, and they are facing England again. The circumstances are different, and only a win will be enough to continue living the dream. What if Yevhen Selin becomes Rats for 90 minutes, and Serhiy Nazarenko imagines he is Mykhaylychenko tonight?