Against the odds, wartime Ukrainian football is thriving

Against the odds, wartime Ukrainian football is thriving |

In Ukraine, the lines between football, politics, and war are indelibly blurred. The frequent disruptions of matches due to air raid alerts, coupled with the absence of fans in stadiums, stand as somber markers of the times (Photo: Bence Balla-Schottner)

Nearly two years into Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukrainian football continues to press on in its second season under wartime conditions. However, few could’ve ever predicted the current league standings as less-resourced clubs are currently leading the league. Ukrainian football fans can expect an unpredictable season, with the potential end of the dominance of Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk.

The war abruptly halted the 2021/22 season, leaving Shakhtar Donetsk just shy of a title they were on the verge of winning. During the 2022/23 season, Dnipro-1 nearly clinched the championship but faltered at the end of it, allowing Shakhtar to claim yet another title.

Now, in the 2023/24 season, the league standings have another surprise: FC Kryvbas are at the forefront, with newly-promoted Polissya Zhytomyr in close pursuit.

Firstly, a quick flashback to the 1992 season — the first ever football season in a newly independent Ukraine. Tavriya Simferopol won the title, marking the first and last time a team other than Dynamo or Shakhtar took gold. Despite their efforts, clubs like FC Metalist Kharkiv and FC Dnipro made valiant attempts to win the league, but always fell a step too short from glory.

Hailing from president Volodomyr Zelensky’s hometown of Kryvyi Rih, FC Kryvbas, a team that was once a regular top-tier competitor, met an unexpected downfall in 2013.

However, in 2020 under Zelenskyy’s vision of revitalising football in overlooked Ukrainian cities, the club was resurrected. With local mine owner, Kostyantyn Karamanyts steering the ship, the rechristened Hirnyk-Kryvyi Rih (now Kryvbas) made a thunderous return to the top flight, finishing seventh in their comeback season, under the guidance of one of Ukraine’s master tacticians, Yuriy Vernydub.

When war broke in 2022, Vernydub swapped his coaching tracksuit for a soldier’s armor, joining an artillery brigade on the frontlines. His commitment to both his nation and the sport eventually saw him juggle his military duties with managing Kryvbas, a feat that now sees them leading the Ukrainian Premier League this campaign.

Credit for Kryvbas’ impressive run goes beyond Vernydub’s tactical brilliance. The squad’s harmony, built around a blend of homegrown talent and international flair, has reaped dividends. Players like Danylo Beskorovaynyi, Maksym Zaderaka, and the dazzling Cameroonian, Yvan Dibango, have turned heads with their exemplary performances.

Off the pitch, Kryvbas’s PR team has captured the imagination of fans beyond Ukrainian borders, with viral content celebrating their on-field exploits, commemorating their fallen fans from the front and creatively raising money for the war effort.

On July 31, 2023 Kryvyi Rih was attacked by a Russian missile strike, where three people died, including a four-year old, and 33 people were injured.

The football club published a social media post reminding its fans around the world that Russia was recognised by the EU “as a state sponsor of terrorism and as a state which uses means of terrorism.”

Adapting to wartime conditions

The post concluded with this line: “31/07/23. We’ll never forgive. We hate you all.” In Ukraine, sport is not shielded from war just as normal civilians aren’t. People and sport simply adapt to the wartime conditions.

Close on Kryvbas’ heels, FC Polissya Zhytomyr’s journey is equally remarkable.

Spearheaded by billionaire Hennadiy Butkevych, they’ve risen from obscurity to challenge the might of Dynamo and Shakhtar. Under the guidance of 1990’s Dynamo Kyiv star, Yuriy Kalitvinstev, Polissya are showing they’re more than just a brief sensation. Butkevych is deeply committed to his project. The club even boasts heavyweight boxing champion Oleksandr Usyk on their roster. A debut that may be fulfilled at some stage after the annual winter break and the fighter’s upcoming bout with Tyson Fury.

Another team catching attention is Chornomorets Odesa.

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Currently amongst the top five places, their re-emergence in recent years is attributed to new leadership and the comeback of renowned coach, Roman Hryhorchuk. Under Hryhorchuk, the team once soared in the Europa League during the early 2010s. Now, they boast an exciting blend of local talent and international players.

However, a cloud hangs over the club as co-owner Borys Kaufman faces legal troubles, and its implications on the team remain uncertain.

Last year’s runners up Dnipro-1 have experienced a resurgence of their own after a disappointing start to the championship. They failed to make it past the qualifying rounds of all three UEFA competitions and saw star striker Artem Dovbyk leave to play for La Liga’s Girona. However, ever since seasoned Ukrainian coach Yuriy Maksymov’s arrival in September which coincided with the club’s return to the city of Dnipro after a year of living in Uzhhorod; the club remain unbeaten in the league and have bolted up back into the European spots.

Meanwhile, Shakhtar have been in the midst of an uncharacteristic bumpy period. After a change in leadership from Croatian coach Ihor Jovicevic to Dutchman Patrick Van Leeuwen, the club experienced instability. Despite Van Leeuwen’s departure after only 12 games, there’s hope in the form of new coach Marino Pusic who was only appointed on 24 October.

It is worth keeping in mind that the current league table may not provide the clearest picture of real standings due to varying match counts. This being a byproduct of European competition schedules.

For instance, while Dynamo Kyiv is currently seventh, they have played three fewer games than leader Kryvbas. Yet, given their recent form and a significant injury to star player Andriy Yarmolenko, nothing is guaranteed. Long-time manager, Mircea Lucescu, faces mounting pressure after the team’s European struggles that have reared themselves domestically now too.

Nonetheless, the war continually casts a shadow over football in Ukraine. In Ukraine, the lines between football, politics, and war are indelibly blurred.

There are frequent disruptions in matches because of air raid alerts, coupled with the absence of fans in stadiums, stand as somber markers of the times. A Ukrainian football spokesperson from FC Karpaty Lviv stated, “When the air raid siren goes off the match is stopped and everyone on the pitch and off the pitch goes to the bomb shelter. We cannot host our supporters in the stadium because our bomb shelter doesn’t have the capacity to host thousands of people.”

Personal tragedies have also struck some players; Dynamo Kyiv’s Oleksandr Tymchyk and Shakhtar Donetsk’s Dmytro Riznyk have both lost brothers serving in the armed forces of Ukraine. According to a survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 78 percent of Ukrainians have close relatives or friends who have been injured or killed by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Each time Ukraine’s footballers play, they represent more than just a game. They show their country’s strength and unity against Russia’s barbaric war. Their heart on the field mirrors the courage of the Ukrainian people and continuing to play sports in wartime shows that the Ukrainian people refuse to let Russia disrupt the normal functioning of society.

Amidst all the chaos and instability, having two underdogs leading Ukrainian football is a welcomed surprise and will continue to make for an interesting season.


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