Football in a time of war

Football in a time of war
Leading Ukrainian football club Metalist Kharkiv has been made homeless by the war in the Donbas.
By Robert O'Connor in Kyiv January 7, 2019

When Shakhtar Donetsk’s Champions League decider against the French football club from Lyon was re-located from Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine to the country’s capital Kyiv at barely a week’s notice, there was exasperation in the city but little surprise.

“There are very strong rumours that Shakhtar will move permanently to play in Kyiv, depending on how the game against Lyon goes,” Anton Ivanov, general manager of Metalist Kharkiv, said the evening before the game.

Metalist Kharkiv's stadium has hosted Shakhtar since 2016 when a two-year association with the western city of Lviv was terminated in favour of a stadium closer – physically and culturally – to their home city of Donetsk.

“There is a big difference between west and east in Ukraine,” says Ivanov. “Lviv which is in the west did not host Shakhtar well. They are much more Ukrainian nationalist there, the language is different. So they moved here to Kharkiv.”

Kharkiv is the closest city to the Russian occupied eastern region of the Donbas that is still under the control of the Kyiv government. Since November 26, martial law has been in effect here. UEFA took this as a prompt to shift the game against Lyon to the capital, 480km to the west. But here in Kharkiv, no one seems convinced of either the government or UEFA’s position.

“It doesn’t make sense really for the game to be moved,” says Ivanov inside the hospitality suite at Metalist Stadium. There should have been preparations being made here. Instead, the room is empty as Ivanov stirs his spiced tea. “Nothing has changed here. A few more soldiers in the street maybe, but it’s small.”

The European governing body, though, was taking no chances. With a declaration of emergency law, and with the state paying lip service to the possibility of a ground invasion from the Russian border, a prevailing wind forced UEFA’s hand.

Shakhtar drew 1-1 with Lyon in the freezing snow in Kyiv, in front of 39,000 local fans.

Not all Shakhtar fans. But as the snow fell, the atmosphere inside an admittedly half-full Olympiskiy Stadium did the job of swiftly warming up the shockingly cold air. The Ukrainian champions seemed at home in this sprawling space-age arena.

As Ivanov attests, it is widely rumoured in Kharkiv that Shakhtar will make the move to Kyiv full-time. A case can be made on either side of the bid. Certainly a permanent move to the capital would have benefits, for Metalist as well as for Shakhtar. In short, there might not be room for two clubs in Kharkiv for much longer.

Metalist Kharkiv went to the wall and was liquidated in 2016. Since then, a revived phoenix club bearing the same name has experimented with a radical new financial model in Ukrainian football.

Following time spent studying the business plans of clubs in Germany and other parts of Central Europe, general manager Ivanov successfully pitched a devolved ownership structure to his colleagues in Kharkiv.

Now, the club is propped up by a total of 18 private and public backers, each of which owns an equal stake in the business. This defends the club against the vagaries of single-party ownership, the kind that ultimately downed the club when previous backer Sergiy Kurchenko, who had been a public ally of impeached former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, pulled his vast fortune out of his Ukrainian business interests following the revolution of 2014.

Kurchenko has since been implicated in the financial scandals that contributed to the toppling of Yanukovych from office, and in October 2017 the remaining assets attached to the holding company that owned Metalist, including the stadium, were confiscated by the state. Kurchenko remains on the international most wanted list, his whereabouts unknown.

Ivanov himself is part of an ongoing court case regarding outstanding debts owed to him by the company. He’s not alone – creditors are queuing up over money owed following Kurchenko’s midnight flit. But the general manager hasn’t been dissuaded.

“With the club having so many sources for funding, there is no risk of another collapse if one person pulls out,” says Ivanov. “We’re not like Shakhtar, who are owned and paid for by the richest man in Ukraine.”

That man is Rinat Akhemtov, a close ally of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, and he has transformed Shakhtar with his financial might. Like Abramovich, he got rich off the fire sale of Soviet state assets when the USSR crumbled and its leaders committed to keeping utilities out of western business hands.

Shakhtar has been one of the great success stories of post-independence Ukraine, shattering the dominance of the once-untouchable Dynamo Kyiv and becoming something close to a European force.

They also represent one side of a massive cultural divide in Ukraine. The club is descended from the Soviet coal mining industry, hence the orange and black shirts that mimic the sight of underground workers emerging from the collieries. The Donetsk Basin, from which they hail, is a largely Russian-speaking corner of Europe’s second largest country. The region’s historical, linguistic and cultural practices differ from those of the metropolitan aesthetes of the west.

The civil war that followed the 2014 overthrow of Yanukovych owes its genesis to this split, even if most sources on the ground believe the separatist movements in Donbas could never have succeeded without financial and military backing from Moscow.

Ukraine means ‘the borderlands’ – literally, the point where the eastern world meets the west. Russia turned on its Ukrainian cousin in January 2014, just as Kyiv was preparing to sign a political cooperation deal with the EU, sticking a diplomatic two-fingers up at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposed Eurasian Economic Union.

Now, Shakhtar will have to make a new choice, between their traditional heartlands in the east, and a different kind of future in the capital.

Speaking after Wednesday’s re-arranged game in Kyiv against Lyon, boss Paulo Fonseca said: “We really like playing in Kharkiv. We are happy there. We got used to that stadium, there is a large number of our fans there.

“But in Kyiv? Why not? This match proved that Shakhtar also have a lot of fans here. In this weather, not everyone would want to come to the stadium to watch football.

“They created a fantastic atmosphere, it was very warm and pleasant. As I said yesterday, a lot of people came.”

The prospect of re-locating for a third time in four years could appeal to Shakhtar. The club is already based in the capital, flying to Kharkiv only for match days. There, they compete with Metalist for fans through the turnstiles, with their city rivals winning the battle for spectators this season despite playing in the second division.

Metalist look set to be promoted to the top league next season, and a long-term solution to the problem is urgently needed.

Certainly, a return to Donbas has never looked further out of the question.

Following events in the Crimean Sea of Azov in November, during which Russian naval forces detained Ukrainian sailors and an effective blockade of Ukraine’s coastal cities was initiated, the government introduced new restrictions on who can pass into the rebel-controlled east of the country. Since 2016, parts of the crossing have only been possible under military escort, and the new measures have ruled out any prospect of Ukrainian league football returning to the region.

Yevgeny Zakharov is the founder and chief executive of the Kharkiv human rights monitor KHPG. He believes the security situation along the line of contact with the separatists is deteriorating.

“We cannot even get our people into the occupied territories from the controlled zones,” says Zakharov. “It’s too dangerous to let people cross the border, because once they start collecting data, they will be arrested by the separatists for espionage.

“The Ukrainian state considers businesses who are operating in the occupied territories as financial terrorists, because they are funding the terrorist activities of the rebels. That’s where the situation is now between Ukraine and the east. And still there is murder and torture and shelling happening there too. There is little hope.”