Mark Temnycky –
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, an independent Ukraine established the Ukrainian Premier Liha, the Football Federation of Ukraine (now the Ukrainian Association of Football) and a series of Ukrainian football competitions. During the early stages of football in independent Ukraine, the clubs were primarily filled with Ukrainian players, and the Ukrainian national team was comprised of players who competed in the UPL. Due to some of the league’s limitations and a lack of competitiveness, the Ukrainian national team generally did not perform well in international matches.
By the early 2000s, however, things began to change. Under the leadership of Oleh Blokhin, Ukraine would qualify for its first competition as an independent country. The Eastern European state would compete in the 2006 FIFA World Cup, where the Ukrainians were eventually eliminated in the quarter-finals. During this period, some members of the Ukrainian national team played abroad, where they were gaining experience in more competitive leagues. While it was only a handful of players, Andriy Shevchenko (AC Milan), Andriy Voronin (Bayer Leverkusen), Andriy Husin (Krylya Sovetov Samara) and Maksym Kalynychenko (Spartak Moskva) translated some of their club successes to their national team.
As time progressed, more of Ukraine’s young talent would move abroad to compete in Europe’s top leagues. It was their willingness to challenge themselves in a new environment, as well as Shevchenko’s managerial style, that would help Ukraine win their group in the inaugural UEFA Nations League. Shevchenko and company also won their Euro 2020 qualification group ahead of Portugal (the winners of the 2016 European Championships) and the Ukrainians recorded an undefeated football season throughout the 2019 calendar year. But who are some of the current members of the Ukrainian senior men’s national team, and where do they play?
In this piece, the Futbolgrad Network examined some current Ukrainian footballers who compete in the top European leagues. The players listed below were some of the individuals who played an important role in Ukraine’s 2019/20 UEFA Nations League and Euro 2020 qualification campaigns. (Futbolgrad will examine some of Ukraine’s domestic players and their successes at a later date.) The countries and leagues below are listed in alphabetical order, rather than in the order of their country coefficient.
Ranked as the eighth-best league in Europe, there are currently four members of the Ukrainian national team that compete in Belgium. Eduard Sobol, who is on loan to Clube Brugge from Shakhtar Donetsk, has appeared regularly in the Belgian league. The young fullback gained experience in the UEFA Champions League by playing against the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Galatasaray. He also helped guide his Belgium club to a successful first division finish, where Brugge won the 2019/20 Belgian league title.
Meanwhile, Ihor Plastun, Roman Bezus and Roman Yaremchuk have competed for Belgian club Gent. Gent finished second in the 2019/20 Belgian league, and the Belgians won their 2019/20 UEFA Europa League group against Wolfsburg and Saint-Étienne. Forward Yaremchuk has had particular success, where he scored 17 goals in 26 appearances across all competitions during the 2019/20 season. He has also started to establish himself as the central striker for his national team, where he scored four goals in seven qualification matches.
Meanwhile, two of Ukraine’s national team players compete in the English Premier League, the second most competitive league in Europe. While struggling initially, the versatile Oleksandr Zinchenko has had quite a career with Manchester City. The midfielder turned left-back has won two Premier League trophies, one FA Cup, three EFL Cups and three Community Shields. He was also ranked as one of Ukraine’s Footballers of the Year in 2019. Zinchenko has translated his success for his club at the international level, where he has become a regular for Ukraine.
Andriy Yarmolenko, one of Ukraine’s better-known players, has had a mixed career abroad, having spent a brief period at German club Borussia Dortmund before being offloaded to West Ham United. Nonetheless, he has slowly started to find his way in England, having scored against the likes of Manchester United and Everton. He has continued to put in a series of strong performances for his national team, and is currently the second-highest goalscorer for Ukraine, only after Shevchenko.
In Italy, the fourth-best league in Europe, Artem Malinovskyi has had quite a run with Atalanta. Following the 2018/19 Serie A season, Atalanta qualified for its first Champions League appearance. The Italian outfit purchased Malinovskyi from Genk, and the Ukrainian midfielder has enjoyed his time in Italy. Atalanta successfully advanced out of their Champions League group, defeated Valencia in the Round of 16 and they are now on course to compete in the Champions League’s Quarter-finals. As for the Ukrainian national team, Malinovskyi has become a reliable force in central midfield, where he also plays for Atalanta, meaning it has been a like-for-like transition for the Ukrainian for both club and country.
Ukraine Has a Strong Presence in Europe’s Top Leagues
Overall, the Ukrainian national team has been on a remarkable run after winning their group in the inaugural UEFA Nations League, winning their Euro 2020 qualification group and going undefeated in the 2019 calendar year. Ukraine has undoubtedly emerged as a surprise contender for the 2021 European Championships, and the national team owes some of their successes to these players. It will be exciting to see what the future has in store for this national team.
Mark Temnycky is an AIPS accredited journalist who covers the Ukrainian men’s national team and Ukrainian clubs competing in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League for the Futbolgrad Network. Follow him @MTemnycky