Andrey Lukatsky/AP

Will soccer be a casualty of Ukraine’s turmoil?

Reigning champion Shakhtar Donetsk is based in the heart of the rebellion, and its foreign star players are staying away

Shakhtar Donetsk has carried the banner of eastern Ukraine in the country’s soccer league with great distinction — it won the title for the fifth consecutive year last season — but that achievement has been reliant on outside help.

Twelve members of the current first team squad are Brazilian. Although once that was a winning asset, today it’s a growing problem. Six of Shakhtar’s Latin American stars failed to show up for their season opener against fierce rival Dynamo Kiev on July 25, having refused to return to the embattled city at the heart of the war between Ukraine’s armed forces and pro-Russian separatists.

And it’s unclear when or whether they’ll return to the squad.

Click here for more coverage of Ukraine’s crisis.

Ukraine has a long tradition of footballing success, with Dynamo Kiev having been the most important team in the old Soviet Union, providing the backbone of its national side for decades and winning 13 league titles. Ukrainian striker Oleg Blokhin holds the record for goals in a USSR shirt. And since Ukraine’s independence, its national team and top league have flourished. Currently the Ukrainian Premier League is ranked by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) as the seventh-best in Europe, one spot above the Russian Premier League. 

Ukrainian clubs such as Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk now consistently feature in the group stages and latter rounds of the continentwide UEFA Champions League, and Shakhtar won the 2009 UEFA Cup. (The UEFA has taken the prudent step of ensuring the current Champion’s League draw avoids pitting Ukrainian teams against Russian rivals.)

The success of the Ukrainian league has burnished its appeal as a stepping stone for talented youngsters from Latin America and Africa, allowing them to shine on the European stage and attract the attention of scouts from bigger teams. Chelsea’s Willian and Manchester City’s Fernandinho started their European careers with Shakhtar.

Ukraine’s football progress was thrown into turmoil, however, by the rebellion that began with the Euromaidan protests in late 2013 and the subsequent fighting in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Fans from Dynamo Kiev provided loud support for the Euromaidan protests, and the attitude of hard-core fans from around the country provide interesting insight into the nuances of the ongoing battle in Ukraine. 

In a rare sign of solidarity, the ultras — hard-core fans who often fight their counterparts from rival clubs — of Shakhtar and Dynamo voiced support for the Euromaidan cause, marching in protest against the pro-Russian movement prior to last fall’s Ukrainian Cup final between the two teams. 

Even with the presence of separatists in their city or region, the hard-core fan groups of eastern Ukraine, from Donetsk to Kharkiv to Dnipropetrovsk, all came out in support of Ukrainian unity. Fans of Sevastapol FC of Crimea issued a statement declaring their support for protesters and a united Ukraine. Despite this, the two Crimean clubs in last year’s Ukrainian Premier League, Sevastopol and Tavriya, have now changed their names and applied to compete in the Russian league.

While the ultras are allied in support of a united Ukraine, they are far from saints. Much like post-Maidan Ukrainian politics, the ultras have divisions and varying opinions on the future of the country. In the past some groups of Ukrainian ultras were publicly criticized for some of their racist chants and violence against minorities, and some groups have histories of right-wing and fascist political leanings. 

The fate of Shakhtar Donetsk in the coming season is complicated by the separatists’ control of the surrounding Donbass regon. Until 2000, the Ukrainian Premier League was dominated by Dynamo Kiev, but since then, Shakhtar Donetsk has won nine league titles.

The team’s fortunes have coincided with the rise of Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man. After the assassination of Shakhtar president Akhat Bragin in 1995, Akhmetov became president and began investment in the club that would see it become a dominant force in Ukraine and a fixture of the Champions League. 

Akhmetov, with his huge business empire and wealth, has become a major power broker in eastern Ukraine. He has publicly supported a united Ukraine and opposed Pro-Russian separatists yet maintained a friendly relationship with the deposed President Viktor Yanukovych. 

Though his power base is now a contested region, Akhmetov is adamant that the club will remain in the Ukrainian Premier League. But the violence in Donetsk makes playing matches at its home ground impossible at this point. 

Instead, Shakhtar will play its Champions League matches in the western city of Lviv and has moved its headquarters to Kiev. Akhmetov may be betting that the lure of Champions League football, which features the world’s best players, will draw fans despite playing hundreds of miles from home. 

Though one of his Brazilian stars, the misfiring World Cup striker Fred, has returned, five others still refuse to go, a potentially catastrophic blow to Ahmetov’s aspirations of a deep Champions League run. The owner has warned that this will not be tolerated and that refusal to return will be met with fines and lack of pay.  

Though negotiations are ongoing between the club and players, other European clubs such as Manchester United are reported to be circling to sign the players should an agreement fail to emerge.

English club Newcastle United announced Sunday it signed Shakhtar’s Argentinian striker Facundo Ferreyra on a season-long loan. That means Ferreyra — one of the six who refused to return to the war-torn city — remains a Shakhtar player but will spend the season playing on Tyneside and Newcastle will pay his wages.

As the Ukrainian Premier League season began this Friday, clubs such as Olimpik Donetsk and Dnipro joined Shakhtar in playing their matches in the western cities of Kiev and Lviv, far from their home grounds and supporters but still generating the all-important TV revenue. 

Though the season has started, it remains to be seen if this is sustainable even with these teams avoiding playing in the more violent regions of the country. Manuel Veth, a scholar and contributor to the Eastern European football website Futbolgrad, thinks that there might be trouble ahead for the Ukrainian Premier League.  

“The current political situation makes it technically impossible to run the competition smoothly,” he said. Though Veth said the country may soon stabilize, there is also a distinct chance of a “grim” and prolonged conflict.

“It is possible that Ukrainian football might experience an Egyptian scenario, in which football could be suspended for a season or two,” he said.

In Egypt as well as other countries in its neighborhood, security officials stopped the league program, mindful of the danger posed by allowing tens of thousands of young men to mass in stadiums to express their passions. Fans of Ukrainian football will be hoping they elude the same fate in the coming season.

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Europe, Ukraine
Politics, Soccer, War

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Politics, Soccer, War

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