Mark Temnycky –
In June 2019, 24 national teams competed at the FIFA U-20 World Cup. Among the contestants were teams typically favored to win the competition, such as Argentina, France, Italy, Portugal, and Uruguay. Several predicted Argentina to win, as the South Americans had previously won the competition on six occasions, while others tipped France to win. One team that was overlooked prior to the start of the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup, however, was Ukraine.
Ukraine appeared in four U-20 competitions since its independence in 1991. The Ukrainians were eliminated in the Round of 16 during their previous three outings, and they hoped their fourth opportunity would provide different results. By the conclusion of the tournament, they exceeded all expectations as they won the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
For the first time in their history, Ukraine won a major international football tournament. While an exciting achievement for the Eastern European state, the event was not widely celebrated. Most football pundits and viewers would be forgiven for not taking stock in the FIFA U-20 World Cup. For context, only one of the last five nations to win the FIFA U-20 World Cup saw immediate success for a particular nation’s senior team. In other words, success at the U-20 level does not guarantee success at the senior level. Nonetheless, Ukraine’s achievement demonstrated that the Ukrainian senior men’s national team may have some promising stars. Who were some of the members of Ukraine’s U-20 winning team?
Andriy Lunin – Goalkeeper
Andriy Lunin began his senior career playing for FC Dnipro, where he was selected over fellow countryman Denys Boyko. Lunin became a regular for the club, where he earned 25 appearances across all competitions, and his success caught the attention of rival Ukrainian club Zorya Luhansk. Due to Dnipro’s financial struggles and forced relegation into the third tier of Ukrainian football, Lunin made his way to Zorya, where he earned 36 appearances across all competitions during the 2017/18 season.
Playing for Zorya also gained him international experience, as the Ukrainian club competed in the UEFA Europa League. While Zorya were eliminated from the competition, Lunin was exposed to clubs from Sweden, Germany, and Spain. Due to his performances, both in the Europa League and domestically in Ukraine, Lunin was eventually acquired by Real Madrid during the summer of 2018. He has yet to feature for Los Blancos, as he has been on a series of loans throughout Spain, but his quality of football has improved. This was most evident during the FIFA U-20 World Cup, where he won the golden glove award. (Lunin only conceded four goals throughout the tournament.)
While it remains to be seen if Lunin will break into Real Madrid’s senior team, as he is currently behind Thibaut Courtois and Alphonse Areola, he was tipped to become Ukraine’s number one following the eventual retirement of Andriy Pyatov.
Denys Popov – Center Back
An odd hero who emerged from Ukraine’s FIFA U-20 World Cup run was Denys Popov. The center back scored three goals throughout the tournament, where two of his goals resulted in match winners. Aside from his offensive prowess, his operated as a composed defender, where he helped earn Ukraine earn three clean sheets in the tournament. Unfortunately, he was sent off in the Semi-final against Italy, and Popov missed the Final against South Korea.
His success at U-20 international level has helped him make an impact for his club. With the departure of senior Hungarian defender Tamás Kádár, Popov has slowly begun to fill in at center back for Dynamo Kyiv. While he has a way to go, the young Ukrainian may eventually establish himself as a regular for one of Ukraine’s most prominent clubs.
Serhii Buletsa – Midfielder
Another individual from Ukraine’s U-20 winning side was Serhii Buletsa. The midfielder was praised by Ukraine’s U-20 manager Oleksandr Petrakov for being an “outstanding footballer,” and Petrakov claimed Buletsa had the ability to make precise passes while on the pitch. After the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup, Buletsa won the adidas Silver Ball, awarded to the tournament’s second most outstanding player. He scored three goals during the competition, one of which came as the match winner in Ukraine’s 1-0 Semi-final victory over Italy. He also had a series of assists during the competition.
Buletsa is currently on loan from Dynamo Kyiv to Dnipro-1, where he has featured in 19 out of 23 matches in the 2019/20 season. While not known for his goal-scoring ability, he has been able to dictate the run of play in midfield, and he will hope to guide Dnipro-1 to a UEFA Europa League playoff spot for next season.
Heorhii Tsitaishvili – Midfielder
Another standout midfielder during the tournament was Heorhii Tsitaishvili. The young playmaker, who is of Georgian descent, has a strong work ethic and has a natural dribbling ability. He can play on either wing, and his production rate shows he always moves all over the pitch. This was most apparent during his solo run and match-clinching goal in the FIFA U-20 World Cup Final against South Korea.
Tsitaishvili has yet to establish himself as a regular in the senior Dynamo Kyiv squad, but should he extend his work rate from the FIFA U-20 World Cup, he will have an opportunity to impress for Dynamo. A likely shakeup in Dynamo’s squad during the 2020 Summer Transfer Window will also help Tsitaishvili make his case.
Danylo Sikan – Forward
Danylo Sikan was Ukraine’s top scorer during the FIFA U-20 World Cup. His efforts saw Ukraine earn vital points against the United States and Nigeria during the competition’s group stage, and his goals in the knockout stages allowed the Ukrainians to advance past Panama and Columbia in the Round of 16 and the Quarter-finals, respectively. He won the adidas Silver Boot, awarded to the player who scored the second-highest amount of goals during the tournament, and the FIFA U-20 award committee commended his efforts.
While it remains to be seen how the Ukrainian senior men’s national team will prepare for the European Championships, one apparent issue with the current national team is the lack of a consistent striker. Sikan has yet to make a significant impact for his club following his success at the U-20 World Cup, but anything is possible as the Ukrainians prepare for the 2021 Euros. With a little bit of luck and fortune, he may be able to make his way into Ukraine’s senior squad. (The aging Artem Kravets, and the out of form Roman Zozulya and Artem Besyedin, where the latter was suspended for using performance enhancing drugs, may help Sikan’s case.)
Will These Players Emerge as Future Stars?
Overall, these are but a few of the players that stood out for Ukraine during the FIFA U-20 World Cup. The performances of these players warranted a mention, and thus far these footballers have started to make an impact for their respective clubs.
There are, of course, dozens of other young, talented Ukrainian professionals competing in the Ukrainian Premier Liha and abroad. Nonetheless, this piece suggests a few up and coming players to watch for both the Ukrainian senior men’s national team and for the various clubs competing in the Ukrainian Premier Liha. The future success of these footballers will be determined by their hard work ethic, their ability to play football and a little bit of luck. Will they lead the Ukrainian senior men’s national team in future competitions? Time will tell.
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