Venue: Olympic Stadium, Kiev Date: Monday 11th June Kick Off: 19:45
The fact that Euro 2012 is even being jointly held in the Ukraine has faced difficulty from the outset. For England fans, who along with this afternoon’s opponents France make up Group D, the 1,939 mile trek has put many off travelling. Concern about potential racial abuse is also deterring some. Former England Captain Sol Campbell even advised fans not to travel to the former Soviet Republic, warning they would be “risking their lives in doing so”.
A BBC Panorama Documentary Euro 2012: Stadiums of Hate aired at the end of May, depicting crowds subjecting players to “monkey chants”, reinforcing these worries.
The Ukraine kick-start their campaign against Sweden tonight with all of Europe watching closely – at incidents on and off the pitch. Many concerns over the wisdom behind bringing the Euro’s to Eastern Europe may arguably be put to bed after this evening – with Poland’s first group game happily passing without incident, viewers will hope for much of the same.
Formerly a part of the Soviet Union National Football Team, the Ukraine actually have a rich history in this competition – they won the inaugural European Championship in 1960 by beating Yugoslavia 2-1 in the final. They also finished second three times (1964, 1972, 1988).
However, this marks their debut in a European Championship since becoming a sovereign state in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, having failed to qualify since. They are widely tipped to finish bottom of Group D.
Of their twenty-three man team, two players stand out – Andriy Voronin scored six times in 28 appearances for Liverpool between 2007-08 before being loaned to Hertha Berlin. There he scored eleven goals in 33 appearances before returning to Anfield, though he failed to score again for the club and eventually joined Dynamo Moscow in 2010, where he remains today.
Former Chelsea striker Andriy Shevchenko meanwhile will be making his final appearance in a major tournament before his retirement from football. At 35, he admits his best days are behind him, though Chelsea fans may be scratching their heads in puzzlement trying to recall said “best days” – he managed just 22 goals in 77 appearances at Stamford Bridge, enjoying only a two-season tenure before being farmed out on loan to AC Milan.
However, he won the prestigious Ballon d’Or in 2004 and with 46 goals is the Ukraine’s record goalscorer. Of all 368 registered players at this summer’s tournament, Shevchenko has had the longest career, making his debut in 1995. He will be hoping to use all that experience to ensure he and the Ukraine go out with a bang rather than a whimper.
Sweden meanwhile are no strangers to the European Championships. They have featured in 4 of the last 5 competitions, reaching the semi-final whilst hosting the tournament in 1992. Then they lost out to Germany. They also reached the quarter final in 2004 but failed to get out of the Group Stages in 2008. They will be hoping to fare better this time, though with England and France in the same group face an up-hill battle if they are to avoid a repeat of that disappointment.
They are not to be underestimated though. With a side tailor-made around Zlatan Ibrahimovic, they scored 31 goals in a qualifying campaign that saw them beat 2010 World Cup finalists Holland 3-2. They also boast the attacking talents of former Arsenal winger Seb Larsson, who enjoyed a terrific debut season for Sunderland last season, notching 8 goals, as well as former Bolton striker Johan Elmander, who’s wonder goal against Wolverhampton Wanderers on 13th November 2010 was voted the best Premier League Goal of all time by The Guardian.
Sweden manager Erik Hamren, when asked how he would combat Ukraine’s passionate home support in Kiev, joked he would pretend the mass of yellow and blue supporters were Swedish – the two nations share the same national colours, but make no mistake, this is very much a home game for the Ukraine, who’s fans will be expecting nothing less than victory.
Head to Head
The two teams have met three times, all of which occurred in friendlies. The Ukraine currently have the edge on tonight’s opponents, winning two. They won 1-0 in an encounter in June 2008, and in February 2011, after a draw, came out 5-4 winners on penalties. Sweden exacted a measure of revenge though in August that same year, winning 1-0.
Did you know..?
The Ukraine are the only debutants at Euro 2012. The first four European Championships were won by newcomers.
Sweden’s Olof Mellberg will represent his country at a fifth major tournament. He hasn’t missed a single minute of any of the finals he’s been present at.
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