Ukraine Emerges From Soviet Shadow

BERLIN, Germany -- If you look at it philosophically, the ball represents the world.

Ukraine players (L) celebrate as Tunisia players walk off the pitch after their Group H World Cup 2006 soccer match in Berlin June 23, 2006.

The world keeps turning just as the ball keeps rolling. We have to follow along with the changing, ever-turning world just as the players have to follow the ball and keep it moving.That's the point of the game, of life. That's why soccer is the world's game.

And you can track how the world changes by watching how the World Cup evolves.

Yesterday morning, I crossed Berlin and went to Checkpoint Charlie, the legendary Cold War crossing point from the western sector of Berlin to the old East Germany part of Berlin.

A replica of the hut -- the place used so often in John le Carré novels and in movies about the Cold War -- stands there, and around the corner there's a long stretch of the old Berlin Wall. All of it encapsulates what was once the great division in Europe and the world between the West and the Soviet Union.

The stretch of the wall is a bizarre, puzzling sight -- this mundane, inanimate thing, now being allowed to wither away without repair, represented the divisive situation in the world for so long.

Near Checkpoint Charlie, a group of Ukraine supporters were doing their sightseeing, distinctive in their yellow and blue shirts.

For them, citizens of a new country that could only attain independence once the wall fell, this was a day to see iconic elements of the past and consider Ukraine today, and its possible future.

They are here in Berlin because Ukraine has been an independent country now for 15 years and entitled to play on the greatest stage in the world, the World Cup -- to win or lose on the strength of its team.

Gone are the Cold War days when Ukrainians played for the Soviet Union. Russia didn't qualify this time, but Ukraine did.

There must have been exquisite satisfaction in knowing that, as the fans gazed on Checkpoint Charlie and the old wall.

Ukraine needed just a draw against Tunisia yesterday to qualify for the round of 16.

In a disastrous start to the tournament, a 4-0 loss to Spain, Ukraine did not look like it belonged here.

Timid and unsure, the team played well below the level expected. There was a comeback in a win over Saudi Arabia, but yesterday's game, against a tough Tunisia, was the key test.

Tunisia needed a win and tried every trick and tactic. The defenders harried the attacking Ukraine forwards and tackled hard.

The bustling forward Ziad Jaziri hustled for the ball in the Ukraine area and fell dramatically when a defender came near, hoping for a penalty. He soon got a yellow card for his efforts.

Ukraine moved forward in speedy, stunning waves, the ball flying in from the flanks to the slight but charismatic figure of Andriy Shevchenko. At times the Ukraine attacks were so speedy and hell for leather, they were unco-ordinated and unworkable. Ukraine was making very hard work of it.

At the end of the first half, when the 0-0 score was a fair reflection for both sides, disaster struck for Tunisia. It was Jaziri again.

A thespian before, he was then a thug, swinging a hand at the face of Anatoliy Tymoschuk, and then lunging a feet-first tackle. The referee produced a yellow card. Two yellows means a red and Jaziri was gone.

Down to 10 men, Tunisia had its back to the wall. Eight men were lined like statues in front of the Tunisia goal to protect it. All pride and pugnacity, Tunisia regained composure and surged forward again and again. This was about stubborn resistance and guts.

Ukraine was endlessly wasteful. Some players were showboating, all dribbling skills and sprints, but no constructive work toward a clear goal-scoring chance.

It took a penalty -- and a dubious one at that -- to break down Tunisia. Shevchenko fell in front of the goal after a slight push and then scored the resulting penalty himself. Tunisia wasn't crushed. It still tried, and a neutral viewer had to admire the team for its efforts in what was, in truth, a game lacking entertainment.

And then there's Tunisia in a changing world. I'd been alerted to Tunisia's team and its merits ages ago, by my father, who lives in Dublin. He knows his stuff, but he's not usually so knowledgeable about international soccer.

He gained his Tunisia knowledge through his friendship with a chap named Safieddine, who works in my father's local bar. Safieddine had been educating him about the tough Tunisia team. My dad was intrigued.

Time was, back around the time of the Cold War, the contact between an Irish person and a Tunisian could only occur if the Irish person took an expensive and exotic holiday in Tunisia. Now, as Ireland, Europe and the world changes, a Tunisian is part and parcel of an Irish bar.

Both Tunisia and Ukraine deserved to be at this World Cup, but based on yesterday's game, both would be deserving of a place in the next round. For Ukraine, a new country, it means so very much to transcend the Soviet past. For Tunisia, it's about pride, too.

The reality is that Ukraine won't go much farther here. Maybe next time both countries will progress far and do well. The world keeps changing, as the ball keeps rolling.

Source: Globe and Mail