Tymoschuk a talisman for divided nation

Ukraine's totem helps heal wounds of past
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Even 15 years after the fragmentation of the USSR, Ukraine is uncomfortable about its status. Only recently has the blue-and-yellow national flag (represent-ing the sky above a cornfield) become a common sight outside official functions. That is partly because expressions of nationhood were suppressed in Soviet times, but partly because Ukraine still gives the sense of being a divided country. The name Ukraine itself means "borderland".

The west used to be part of Poland, and politically looks to Europe; the east is Russian, and looks to Moscow. The west supported Victor Yushchenko during the Orange revolution; the east Viktor Yanukovych. So sensitive was the situation that in 1994 it was deemed inappropriate for the centenary of the first football played in Ukraine to be celebrated because the match had taken place in Lviv, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Tymoschuk, though, straddles the divide. The 27-year-old was born in Lutsk, the capital of the Volynoblast, an area that has spent most of the past 1,000 years being passed between the Russians and the Poles. He could have joined Dynamo Kiev as an 18-year-old, but preferred to sign for Shakhtar Donetsk. "I could see Shakhtar were laying solid foundations for the future, and I decided I wanted to be part of that future," he explained. Given Dynamo's domination, his decision seemed baffling, but he has been vindicated, captaining Shakhtar to successive titles.

Shakhtar are the team of the Donbas, the eastern mining region that relies economically on trade with Russia. They are owned by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man, and a staunch Yanukovych supporter. Tymoschuk thus occupies a paradoxical position, a proud western Ukrainian leading the team who symbolise the east. Although he would be horrified by the description, he is a symbol of the unification that must happen if the modern Ukraine is to prosper.

He is evangelical about the need for Ukraine to play home games outside Kiev, to generate the sense that they are a truly national team. "Everywhere the national team play it's unbelievable to see the passion," he said. "When the national team play outside Kiev it's like it's the main event of the year in that region."

Quite aside from his symbolic role, Tymoschuk is also, it should not be forgotten, a very fine footballer, a powerful holding midfielder who was one of the main reasons Oleg Blokhin's side qualified for the World Cup. Shakhtar are so sure that their captain will impress in Germany that they have already announced they will sell him after the tournament.

The back four must also take credit for conceding just seven goals in 12 qualifying games, and the absence of the centre-back Serhiy Fedorov to a hip injury will be a big loss. Andriy Shevchenko, obviously, attracts most of the attention, but much is expected too of Ruslan Rotan, a touchline-hugging left-winger.

Ukraine's main strengths, though, are their balance and their self-confidence. "Playing in the World Cup is the dream of every footballer," Tymoschuk said. "We had a hard qualifying group, but Winston Churchill once said that to be successful is constantly to overcome obstacles with growing enthusiasm, and I've realised that football is the art of the possible."

Having to face Denmark, Greece and Turkey looked difficult, but Blokhin made his side believe that qualification was "possible". His claims that Ukraine could win the tournament are perhaps taking positive thinking too far, but after being grouped with Spain, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, Ukraine are looking to the second round and beyond.