Ukraine Toasts Its World Cup Heroes

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine toasted its hero footballers on Tuesday after the team defied expectations to secure a place in the World Cup quarterfinals by beating Switzerland 3-0 in a penalty shootout.

Ukrainian fans react during the World Cup match between Ukraine and Switzerland as the match is broadcast live in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, late Monday, June 26, 2006.

"We're in the quarterfinals!" screamed the headline of one Kiev daily.

"Let's call it like it is: They're heroes," one sports commentator said at the end of a match that the Ukrainians won after the match had finished locked at 0-0 after extra-time.

Thousands of Ukrainians shouting "Uuu-krai-na!" took to the streets throughout the former Soviet republic after the game finished in the early hours of the morning.

In the capital, Kiev, fans virtually took over the central Independence Square and Khreshchatik thoroughfare for hours, waving the blue-and-yellow national standard from honking cars and motorcycles.

In the western city of Lviv, hundreds of fans converged on the central square singing the national anthem.

In the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk, the celebrations lasted until 4am local time after the game was aired live on a giant screen in the centre of town.

Ukraine -- a country that was deeply divided during the 2004 "orange revolution", where government has been in continuous turmoil since, and where another gas showdown is looming with Russia -- was in need of some good news and its football team has provided it.

"The successful playing of the Ukrainian team works to unite Ukraine and instils patriotism," President Viktor Yushchenko said after congratulating the team on its historic win, according to a statement from his office.

"The president thanked the players and training staff for the wonderful present that they have given their fans" ahead the 15th anniversary of Ukrainian independence in August, the statement said.

The victory over Switzerland was all the more sweet because it was largely unexpected from a team that is making its first appearance at the World Cup.

"I don't think that anyone really believed in us," head coach Oleg Blokhin said in a post-match interview, according to the Interfax news agency. "Many had long ago written us off, thinking that debutants can't be competitive against experienced teams."

"I'm in seventh heaven," he said.

In a nation where the average monthly wage is $185 and where nationals need a visa to get into the European Union, the number of fans able to travel to Germany to support the team has been few, and most have had to contend with watching the matches at home.

Fans watch the matches on screens set up in the nation's major cities, while bars and restaurants broadcast the games and overflow with clients.

The president calls the head of the national football federation ahead of every game and business comes to a standstill during the matches.

Several large companies have allowed employees to either leave work to watch the matches or to cheer the home team on TV screens set up at the office.

Ukraine face Italy in a quarterfinal match on Friday.

Source: AFP