Ukraine’s once glorious football may yet rebound with Euro 2021

Ukrainian national football team fans at Arena Lviv. Photo: radioclub.ua, 2017. 

Ukraine

Ukraine’s once glorious football stage has been on a rocky road of mismanagement and underfunding after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, the war with Russia has hit it even harder. Against this backdrop, the fact that Ukraine qualified for Euro 2020 (to be held in 2021) is an extraordinary achievement. What are Ukraine’s chances in the Euro and which football players should you watch out for? Find out in part 2 of our series on Ukrainian football!

Editor’s Note

Read the first part of the article: During bleak times Ukrainian football may shine a light. Part 1: the history

The current state of football in Ukraine

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was not able to build off of its impressive football heritage, and many top Ukrainian players were persuaded to play for the Russian national team. The key reason was that FIFA and UEFA decided that Russia would be the official successor team of the Soviet Union.

This was extremely unfair to several east European states and especially to Ukraine, since Ukrainians formed the majority of the USSR’s national team starting lineup. In one fell swoop, Ukrainian football was weakened, and it would take several decades to begin a recovery.

Fast forward to 2020 and Russia’s continued defiance of ceasefire agreements. Six years in, Ukrainians are forced to engage in the so-called “frozen conflict” against Kremlin-backed militants.

At the same time, civil activists continue to rally against rampant corruption by oligarchs meddling in every branch of government. All of this, against the larger picture of society struggling to cope with high inflation and stagnant economic growth.

Worst of all, Russia’s attacks are not limited to military incursions. They are conducting a hybrid war, fed by Russian propaganda and permeating far beyond the east. They are attacking on every front — through media, the courts, the economy, institutions, and even the government — with all battles intended to demoralize the population and undermine Ukraine’s fragile democracy.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began to ravage countries around the globe, the biggest threat for Ukraine, throughout history, has been Russia. Their hostilities have been an ever-present danger to the nation — from seizing territory to appropriating symbols of national pride … writers, composers, artists, and even sports heroes, and, where the latter is concerned, perhaps nowhere more so than in football.

When runaway President Viktor Yanukovych tried to reject the European Union and align with Russia, he spurred a full-on revolution. Millions gathered on Kyiv’s main square, Maidan, ultimately overturning the Yanukovych government and forcing him to flee the country. Having ousted Russia’s puppet ruler, the Kremlin did not look kindly upon the Euromaidan Revolution, and inflicted their own form of punishment. In February 2014, Russia illegally annexed Crimea and the next month invaded eastern Ukraine, forcing an armed conflict in the Donbas region.

Winter 2014 Euromaidan protests on Kyiv’s Independence Square. Source.

All spheres of public engagement were affected, and as turmoil grew around the country, economic uncertainty fueled even more turbulence. As much as Ukrainian football was part of the country’s lifeblood, the upheaval left no sphere untouched, even that of sports.

The decay of the Ukrainian Premier League was inevitable, and many clubs began to struggle financially. Some of Ukraine’s most storied clubs, like FC Dnipro and FC Metalist Kharkiv, soon suffered financial demise.

Several years after the Euromaidan Revolution, over 20 professional clubs in Ukraine have ceased to exist, while many other clubs are experiencing record low attendance. With so many smaller clubs struggling, as well as bigger clubs like Metalist and Dnipro going bankrupt, the league was first reduced from 16 to 14 clubs following the 2013/14 season, and then from 14 to 12 clubs following the 2015/16 season.

Screenshot of Winter on Fire, a film about Ukraine’s EuroMaidan Revolution created by U.S.-based Russian filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky.

Another fallout due to the war has been the necessary relocation of various divisions within Ukrainian football leagues, with some teams more directly affected than others. Now exiled from Donbas, the best known of the internally-displaced refugees of Ukrainian football, Shakhtar Donetsk, have played their games more than 1,000 km west of Donetsk, in Lviv, for almost two years. The club plays home games in Kharkiv, almost 300 km to the northwest.

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The struggles of the Ukrainian domestic league has had serious implications for Ukraine’s standing in European football. The concept of the UEFA country coefficient is especially relevant. Association club coefficients are rankings “based on the results of each association’s clubs in the five previous seasons of the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League.”

These rankings are critical for clubs because they ultimately determine how many European spots will be granted to each member association for the following season. The more successful a country is in the European competitions, the more money they will receive for participating — thus, allowing clubs to manage and grow their operations. These were, and still remain, key revenue streams for Ukrainian clubs.

Russia’s incursions in the east have hurt Ukraine in many ways. Military casualties are sustained daily and the number of internally-displaced persons grows without end. The national debt has skyrocketed, and without a significant loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the 2020 Budget is unviable.

But even this is threatened. The loan, in the billions, is contingent upon regulatory safeguards to be installed in the Ukrainian banking system. Additional billion-dollar financing from other international lenders depends on the IMF loan going through. Without the loans, the country will suffer another major setback.

Among Ukraine’s affected institutions will certainly be the world of sports. Even before the current IMF dilemma, funding for sports has been in serious decline. Ukraine’s once flagship international sport — football — has vastly deteriorated. Many clubs have collapsed in the wake of financial woes, and the overall quality of the game has suffered. Once vibrant stadiums have emptied and fans have switched off their TV sets.

Before the 2014 invasion, the Ukrainian Premier League was ranked by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) as the seventh-best in Europe — one spot above the Russian Premier League — giving them about five European slots for their teams. Now, Russia is in 7th place, and the Ukrainian Premier League sits in 10th place and is in danger of losing several slots.

Dutch and Australian police at the crash site on 3 August 2014. Source.

By invading Ukraine, Russia ensured a corollary blow to the nation’s highly competitive football league. Many foreign players have been leaving the Ukrainian league in favor of Russia, and Russia has been steadily climbing the UEFA coefficient. In effect, Ukraine’s rapid rise in European football was quashed with Russia’s invasion.

The cases of FC Dnipro and FC Zorya Luhansk

FC Dnipro is another storied Ukrainian club that won the Soviet Top League twice during the 1980s, and is one of Ukraine’s oldest clubs, founded in 1918. They were the best-positioned club to win the Ukrainian Premier League and break the monopoly that Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv had throughout the 1990s.

Dnipro qualified for the UEFA Europa League Final by defeating one of Italy’s best clubs, Napoli, 1–0 in Ukraine, after having drawn 1–1 in Italy. This was the first time the club had ever reached a European final. This was an absolute shocker across European football, and one of Napoli’s top players threatened to quit football, if his team failed to beat Dnipro in the Europa League.

Dnipro went to the Europa League final as one of the greatest underdogs to ever feature in a European final. They placed despite the fact they were not able to play in their home city of Dnipro, due to the proximity of the war. Not playing on home turf typically puts a team at a disadvantage.

FC Dnipro’s 2015 miracle run-up to the Europa League final ended in a 3-2 thriller, with Dnipro pushing the defending champions Sevilla to the limit in the final game in Warsaw. Back home, this win gave Ukrainians something to cheer about, during a time when the country was engulfed in war. The instability in Ukraine made Dnipro’s run even more unlikely. Their road to the final meant beating top European clubs, such as Ajax, Napoli, and Olympiacos.

Though they had returned to their home city of Dnipro for the Ukrainian Premier League fixtures, UEFA still saw the city as too risky for European ventures because of the war, and moved Dnipro’s home matches to Kyiv, over 300 km to the northwest.

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FC Dnipro captain Ruslan Rotan celebrating his goal in the 2015 Europa League Final. Source.

However, two years later Dnipro was relegated from the Ukrainian Premier League for the first time in their history. One of Ukraine’s biggest and most historical clubs began its rapid decline. Its eventual implosion was directly attributable to severe financial troubles with the oligarch owner Ihor Kolomoiskyi.

Kolomoiskyi stopped paying the club’s players, and FIFA began to take action, deducting points from Dnipro. As a result, it ultimately led to the club’s demise and they fell to the fourth tier of Ukrainian football and, shortly after, filed for bankruptcy. Only four years prior, Dnipro was gracing European football and captivating fans across the continent and, now, all of Europe saw the end of a fairy tale story with FC Dnipro dissolved.

Most of the international media has focused on how Shakhtar was forced into exile due to the war, since it was the biggest club in Ukraine. But, Zorya, too, is in exile for the foreseeable future. For a club like Zorya, every game is an away game, and there are no home games. The future does not bode well for Zorya, yet somehow the club has continued to perform and qualified for European competitions.

Yevhen Kharatin of Zorya Luhansk FC celebrating his goal against Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League group stage in 2017. Source.

Zorya Luhansk hails from the far east of Ukraine and was founded in 1923 by local factory workers. Zorya Luhansk won the Soviet Top League in 1972 and was a powerhouse in Ukrainian Soviet football. Zorya was also the first club that was not from the capital of a Soviet Republic to become champions of the USSR. The club is currently tied with Dynamo Kyiv for second place in the Ukrainian Premier League — an achievement that came prior to COVID-19 suspending football.

The black and white cat is FC Zorya’s mascot that features the club’s colors since 2010. Source.

With the Donbas invasion and the relocation of Zorya, the club faltered. They ended up with no fans and no infrastructure, not to mention staring bankruptcy in the face. They were moved 400 km southwest to the city of Zaporizhia. The club had played European games in Odesa, but was now forced to play them in the west of the country in Lviv, 1,200 km away from Luhansk — the furthest distance possible for Zorya to play away from home.

Against all odds, with everything stacked against them, in 2016 the club qualified for the Europa League. However, the local Slavutych Arena where Zorya played was nowhere near suitable for European competitions at that time. Confounding the situation further was a report that Zorya’s players had not been paid for many months.

The club would have had the opportunity to face major clubs like Manchester United in the group stages of the Europa league — one of the biggest and richest clubs in the world. Zorya continues to be far away from home, but they continue to represent Donbas and the residents of Luhansk, at a time when people need hope and unity more than ever.

Manchester United v Zorya Luhansk (1-0), Europa League, Old Trafford, Manchester, England, September 2016. Source.

Cynics are often quick to dismiss the importance of sports for a nation and its people. Without question, the disruption and decay of the Ukrainian league is a minor inconvenience in comparison to war. However, in this divided society, football can still play a role in bringing communities together at the most difficult times.

The shackling of Ukrainian football is a reminder of how simple things like a football match — once taken for granted — can prove to be a bonding experience, fostering pride in self and in country. Even when playing the Ukrainian team against the Ukrainian team, the national sentiment is the same: United we Stand, Divided we Fall … and the true fight is with the aggressor in the east.

A WWII Match vs. the Germans

In the past, football in Ukraine has provided hope, respite, and a sense of national unity through dark times. As Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, their forces quickly pushed their way through Ukraine and occupied the capital, Kyiv. Under German occupation, all Soviet football clubs were dissolved. A famous story recounts a major dilemma faced by Ukrainian footballers under Nazi occupation — play at full capacity and defeat a team composed of the reviled occupiers (and risk dying), or intentionally give a lackluster attempt and lose, compromising their honor and pride in that defeat. The story goes like this:

Nazi German soldiers saw members of the Dynamo Kyiv football club playing in an empty lot, and offered the Ukrainian team an opportunity to train in a local stadium and play a friendly match against them. On 12 June 1942, the Ukrainian team, including several Dynamo players, were very close to defeating the German military team in a match 4-1, before the referee ended the game early. The following month, on 17 July, the Germans showcased a stronger team, but they were soundly defeated 6-0 by the Ukrainians. The Ukrainian team continued winning against the Germans and against the Hungarian team MSG Wal which was supported by the Nazis.

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Photo of Ukrainian team players in 1942. Source.

On 6 August 1942, the German team Flakelf, comprised of troops that manned anti-aircraft guns, was invited to play against the Ukrainians, with Flakelf losing the match 5-1. A rematch was proposed three days later on 9 August, in front of several thousand spectators. The German authorities did not want to let the Ukrainians continue beating the Germans in front of the public. A Gestapo officer visited the Ukrainian team before the game and told them to raise a Nazi salute on the field before the game. The Germans warned the local team to lose the match if they knew “what was good” for them. The Ukrainian team ignored the threat and beat the Germans, invigorating the Ukrainians watching with hope and pride for their country. The story ends with the Nazis taking their revenge in the most brutal way — killing several members of the Ukrainian team.

However, no formal proof of the execution of football players exists. Notwithstanding, the legend lives on. Regardless of what really happened, the match seeped into the hearts and minds of Ukrainians and remains, among footballers, a lasting symbol of courage and dignity.

At Present

Euro 2020 Qualifier, Group B – Ukraine v Lithuania – Metalist Stadium, Kharkiv, Ukraine, 11 October 2019. Players celebrate at the end of the match. Source.

For a long time football in Ukraine has been stagnant — even before the war. Today, there are almost no bright spots left. Foreign stars are leaving, clubs are collapsing, crowds are shrinking, and most of Ukraine’s football infrastructure is in severe decay.

In the face of a war with Russia that has killed thousands of people and disrupted the lives of millions, more than 20 Ukrainian clubs have been dissolved in the last few years. Many clubs no longer have youth divisions or scouts, choking Ukraine’s domestic league to death.

After six years of conflict, the chaos of war has become an all too familiar feature of childhood in eastern Ukraine. Shelling is a daily event. Landmines pollute many of the open spaces where kids play, putting about 220,000 youngsters at risk. For children who live with fear and uncertainty, football is the only hope for some normalcy.

With top clubs underperforming in Europe, Shakhtar knocked out of the Champions League, and Dynamo Kyiv crashing out of the Europa League group stage — all demoralizing — it is amazing that the Ukrainian National Team has still performed well. The perseverance of Ukrainian footballers is even more laudable, given that no Ukrainian top players are also prominent across Europe.

An honest assessment would conclude that Ukraine’s top players, such as Yevhen Konoplyanka, Andriy Yarmolenko, and Oleksandr Zinchenko are actually mediocre by footballing standards. Ukraine’s star wingers Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko are both struggling to become starters and, at times, just to remain healthy. Konoplyanka bounced around Europe between FC Sevilla (Spain) and FC Schalke 04 (Germany) and currently plays for Shakhtar Donetsk. Yarmolenko has been injured and has missed most of the season for the English FC, West Ham United. Moreover, he has been struggling for several seasons. Zinchenko is a backup left-defender for the English FC Manchester City.

With no superstars on the team, Ukraine somehow has managed to punch above its weight, to qualify for Euro 2020. Given the circumstances, Ukraine has achieved a remarkable feat, winning six of their eight qualifiers for — what will now be — Euro 2021, and only drawing their away matches in Portugal and Serbia, to secure their place.

Ukraine finishing at the top of their group was one of the biggest surprises — and upsets — in Euro 2021 qualification. The team delivered a magisterial performance, managing to finish ahead of the defending European champions, Portugal. If Ukraine can continue the form shown in qualifying, they can make it far into the knock-out stage of Euro 2021. Then, the real knock-out will be — not to the opponents in the West — but to the aggressors in the East.

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Edited by: Sonia Maryn

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