Ukrainian football has faced up to some tough times over the past few years. Conflict and crisis in Ukraine is causing clubs to collapse, major disputations to the league and players fleeing the country for their safety. These are just some of the blows to football in the country that co-hosted the European Championship just four years ago.
The Panenka looks at why the war-torn country had been seeking redemption for it’s political and economic strife at Euro 2016 before being dumped out the tournament.
Over the past few years Ukraine as a country has struggled. The president has been overthrown, they’ve been at war, and lost control of the Crimea and Donbass regions to Russia. The economy has struggled and the currency has collapsed.
Many hardcore fans of local football teams were recruited as soldiers and volunteers in an attempt to stem unrest forming in numerous factions across the country and many lost their lives. While the human loss is incomparable, Ukrainian football has naturally suffered as well.
After qualifying for Euro 2016 via a play-off win against Slovenia, it was hoped that a strong performance from the national team could have brought even just a few moments of joy and happiness to a nation of people who have been run through the mill in recent times. That however was no to be the case as Mykhaylo Fomenko’s men stumbled to two straight defeats in their opening games.
In early 2014 Ukraine displaced it’s president, Viktor Yanukovych. Also know as the ‘revolution of dignity,’ the spark of discontent was lit by the then president’s decision to increase Ukrainian-Russian relations instead of strengthening ties with the European Union.
A Month later president Vladmir Putin of Russia ratified the formal takeover of the Crimea from Ukraine, despite sanctions from the EU and US. Almost simultaneously violence broke of in the Donbass region in Eastern-Ukraine where pro-Russian groups clashed with Ukrainian nationalists.
Revolution or war has been costly to Ukraine. Not least in terms of the loss of life in the country, where thousands have died and thousands more have become displaced refugees, but on the economy and the Ukrainian Premier League.
As a result of the uncertainty, foreign stars are leaving, clubs are collapsing, and crowds are shrinking. According to the Ukrainian Premier League, the past two years have seen the number of foreign top-flight players dwindle from 170 to 60. Furthermore, economic uncertainty has led to clubs’ funding being cut and the domestic division shrinking from 16 to 14 clubs.
Russia’s annexation of the Crimea region in 2014 saw two of the Black Sea peninsula’s teams leave Ukraine’s top division. Although it was a move made by no fault of the clubs themselves, it upset UEFA who barred them from joining the Russian championship.
As recently as Euro 2012, which Ukraine co-hosted with Poland, a surge of money and quality players flowed into Ukrainian football and the materialization of a strong football scene seemed credible. However, with conflict and war it brought uncertainty and fear, leaving clubs economically paralyzed and players fearing for their own safety.
“Everything is collapsing: top foreign players have gone and clubs’ budgets have been cut,” Ukrainian football analyst Artem Frankov told AFP.
Dynamo Kiev won last year’s Premier League but lost the financial backing of Nadra Bank, owned by Dmytro Firtash, who was close to the ousted regime of Viktor Yanukovych. As a result of the economic down turn, like many clubs, Dynamo has lost the majority of its best and key players
Shakhtar Donestsk, located in Eastern-Ukraine where a majority of the fighting has taken place, is one of the most affected clubs. Shakhtar’s home stadium, The Donbass Arena, is an elegant and modern structure that was built for Euro 2012. It was damaged by shelling from pro-Russian forces and forced the club to relocate to Lviv, 640 miles away.
Previous success of Shakhtar Donestsk was largely built around big money signings of imported and mainly Brazilian stars. Since the conflict however many of their best players, ones such as Luiz Adriano and Douglas Costa, have had to be sold.
Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk followed a similar model importing talent while times where good. They too lost their best players, most notably when Ukrainian international Yevhen Konoplyanka was sold to Sevilla in 2015. “The days of teams’ full funding (by billionaires) are gone. It is now hard times for all,” Shakhtar’s chief executive Sergiy Palkin told Novoye Vremyaweekly.
The decline in the standard of Ukrainian football has seen fans turn off their TV sets. Furthermore, the once vibrant and noisy stadiums have seen a drastic decline in match attendances. Since 2014 the average number of spectators at games has plummeted from 12,000 to 6,000.
Another reason for the fall in attendances is the fact that fans fear for their safety when attending matches. The mass militarization of sectors of Ukrainian society has turned football matches into war zones and a platform for far-right political activism.
One incident that was spotlighted by Ukrainian television showed Dynamo Kiev fans throw Nazi swastika-emblazoned smoke bombs onto the pitch. In a Champions League home match against Chelsea hooliganism and racist behavior saw Dynamo handed a stadium ban for their next match.
“There are not many things now in Ukraine that can really bring joy and make many people forget about the war and hardships at least for a while,” Alex Sereda, a Ukrainian journalist, told The Independent. “The Ukraine national team may become one,” he added.
At Euro 2016 Ukraine were hoping tha the team could become that beacon of joy. Drawn into a group alongside Germany, Poland and Northern Ireland, they stood little chance of reaching the knockout stages to begin with. Ukraine qualified via a play-off win against Slovenia, the first time they reached a major tournament via that method having lost at their previous few attempts.
Despite the troubles at home the national team had remained resilient on their way to France. Veteran coach Mykhaylo Fomenko is not wildly popular due to of his conservative selection and tactics but his team performed solidly in qualification, finishing third in Group C behind Spain and Slovakia. In the play-offs against Slovenia, Ukraine recorded a 3-1 aggregate victory and conceded a paltry total five goals in 12 Euro 2016 qualification matches.
Ukraine took a well-balanced squad founded on the experience of goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov and midfielders Oleh Husyev and Anatoliy Tymoshchuk. At 36, Tymoshchuk has a remarkable 140 Ukraine caps. Last year, the aging midfielder actually had to leave Russian club Zenit St Petersburg after receiving strong criticism for visiting hospitalized Ukrainian soldiers. A 2-0 defeat to Northern Ireland in the second round of fixtures ended a short lived campaign.
I qualification Ukraine’s strong defensive and experienced base was complimented by two of the best wingers in the world. Konoplyanka is arguably the best Ukrainian player of his generation and between him and Andriy Yarmolenko they have enough individual quality to breach even the toughest of defenses.
In their final group game Ukraine face Poland on June 21 in Marseille.