League Focus: Ukraine has other priorities

THE ONGOING concerns about Russian troops gathering on the border with Ukraine is a reminder there are more important things in life than football. However, football also plays a part in ensuring life goes on as normal and in difficult times, the game can act as a boost to morale. Whether the situation escalates or not, and we have to remember that Ukraine has been in state of flux for more than seven years, the uneasy tension that exists in a sensitive part of Europe should be of interest to everyone.

Ukraine’s Premier League has been in a winter break and doesn’t return until the last week in February 2022. The geo-politics may have changed by then and if there has been a turn for the worse, war may have actually broken out.

Kyiv, the capital, is as central to football as it is to most other political, social and cultural activities in the country. The two top teams, Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv, are currently playing at the same stadium owing to Shakhtar having to leave their home ground, the Donbass Arena in Donetsk in 2014, due to damage caused by the fighting between pro-Russian separatist forces against the Ukrainian military. Shakhtar have since played in Lviv, Kharkiv and now share the NSC Olympiyskiy, the 70,000-capacity home of Dynamo.

It’s almost guaranteed the title will go to one of these two clubs, for since 2008-09, Shakhtar have won nine and Dynamo four. The last team other than this duo to be champions was Tavriya Simferopol, who are currently playing in the Ukrainian Second League. 

The fear of war, which appears to be greater outside Ukraine and actually in the country itself if you believe the reports, has led to all kinds of rumours, such as the prospect of Dynamo Kyiv not returning from their winter training in Turkey. According to Times Hub of India, Dynamo’s Slovenian winger, Benjamin Verbic said some Dynamo players are very nervous about the current situation and are considering leaving Ukraine if war starts.

Dynamo’s coach, the Romanian, Mircea Lucescu, told the Turkish media he is not scared about the Ukraine-Russia situation and reminded them that during the 2014 crisis, when he was coach at Shakhtar, he remained in Donetsk at all times. 

There have been accusations of “fake news” at some of the stories emerging from the region, but one story that was definitely true was UEFA’s decision to block Ukraine and Russia meeting in the World Cup play-off. Ukraine are playing Scotland, while Russia will meet Poland. 

The gap between Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar and the rest of the Ukraine Premier League. While both were in the group stage of the Champions League this season, they were bottom-placed and failed to win a single game, but being there means they will reap some economic benefit. Three other Ukrainian teams, Zorya, Vorskla Poltava and Kolos Kovalivka all had disappointing campaigns in the Europa and Conference Leagues.

The Ukrainian Premier also has a big financial imbalance. In 2021-22, Shakhtar’s transfer expenditure amounts the equivalent of £ 53 million, while Dynamo’s totals £ 7 million. Beyond that, the sums are small. There is a distinct difference between the two clubs, as Shakhtar are aggressive buyers while Dynamo have become sellers of talent. They sold Vitaliy Mykolenko to Everton for £ 17 million in the recent transfer window, a 22 year-old highly-rated left back.

Shakhtar’s squad, which comprises 58% expatriates, includes 12 Brazilians and 13 Ukrainians, along with an Israeli and a forward from Burkina Faso. Dynamo’s squad is almost all Ukrainian and two thirds of all appearances are made by players who have been trained from their early years in football. 

The two clubs have very vocal and high profile owners. Dynamo’s is Igor Surkis, a businessman who is among the top 40 richest people in Ukraine. His brother, Hryhoriy, was the head of the Ukrainian Football Federation for more than 12 years. The Surkis’s are part of the so-called Kyivian Wonderful Seven, a group of influential people whose business activities have sometimes been controversial, such as Ometa 21st Century, which was accused of being a “ponzi” scheme.

Shakhtar’s owner is Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest person with a net worth close to US$ 12 billion. He is the founder of System Capital Management (SCM), an organisation which includes Metinvest, a mining and steel company and Ukraine’s biggest private enterprise. Some sources have suggested he has been involved in organised crime, but he has never been charged with a crime. Recently, Akhmetov and other Ukrainian oligarchs were heavily criticised for fleeing the country in their private jets as the possibility of war increases.  Akhmetov has since returned.

Football and politics rarely mix well but the tension between Ukraine and Russia over the past couple of years has extended to the game. The national team included a map of Crimea on their shirts for Euro 2020 last year, much to the annoyance of UEFA, and the fans frequently sing songs about Vladimir Putin. One assumes that when the Ukrainian Premier returns, there will be plenty of noise in protest about Russia’s manoeuvres.

UEFA will have a problem if Russia does invade Ukraine as the Champions League final is due to be held in St. Petersburg, but at the moment, the venue for a football match is the least of anyone’s worries. The world holds its breath for Ukraine.

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