How would you do the 92 Club in Ukrainian? Exiled Sheffield United fan Adam James is about to find out.
Based in Kyiv since 2010, Adam’s got big plans for the coming season: go to see a game in each of the country’s 24 regions (‘oblasts’ in Ukrainian). It doesn’t add up to 92, making it achievable in a single season, and it offers unique challenges like avoiding a war zone.
“It has to be an official game in each region,”. Adam said “In Luhansk that’s not possible [because of the conflict with Russia]. Zorya, the Luhansk team, is playing in Zaporozhe at the moment so we’ll make a trip there to tick off Luhansk. The Donetsk teams are also playing away from their cities at the moment, but Mariupol are still playing in Donetsk Oblast.”
It’s a joint trip with Natasha, Adam’s partner of three-and-a-half years, and it’s a chance to get to know more of this large country and explore beyond the familiar sights of the capital. Early scouting trips last season gave a taste of what to expect: small towns, tight-knit communities, an ‘everyone knows everyone’ environment.
“Apart from Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk, nobody in Ukraine gets more than about 6,000 at a game,” he said. “Often you turn up and there are only 500 people there, but people are friendly, welcoming.”
Then come the so-called ‘village oligarchs’. Top flight newcomers Kolos Kovalivka are the trailblazers for a clutch of teams from small agricultural communities who are storming up the Ukrainian football system. Led by Andriy Zasukha, son of Anatoly, a former head of the regional authority, the club was formed in 2012 and has climbed from regional leagues to the Premier League in short order. Hailing from a community of barely 1,500 (roughly equivalent to Tow Law) in the Kyiv Oblast, the club patched up a derelict stadium that can house the entire population with a few hundred to spare. Last season’s promotion to the Premier League completed an unlikely journey. “Suddenly this team is on the edge of European football,” Adam added. “It’s quite bizarre.”
The voyage started this weekend in the south of the country at Balkany Zorya in Odesa Oblast. A First Division game against Rukh Vynnyky was the kick-off, an early Daniil Kondrakov goal gave the visitors the win. The home team takes its name from the ethnic Bulgarians who founded the village in the 19th century; the football club arrived in 2007 and earned the opportunity to build its own stadium after winning the Odesa Oblast cup in 2011. Another upwardly mobile village team, Balkany achieved fame in their amateur days by giving Premier League FC Dnipro a real battle before losing to a late goal in the Ukrainian Cup.
Balkany is just one of the names that hints at Ukraine’s complex history. The likes of Metalist and Metalurh reflect the Soviet era, when all institutions had to glorify the labours of the proletariat. Revolutionary ideals meet Ukrainian beer when Avangard Kramatorsk takes on Obolon Brovar, a team named after its sponsor, Kyiv’s Obolon brewery. And modern commerce gets a look in at Agrobusiness Volochysk.
The next generation
Ukraine’s success in the U20 World Cup gave the local game a much-needed boost. In the early part of the 21st century there were signs that Dynamo and Shakhtar might be capable of pushing Ukraine back to the glory days when Kyiv regularly won the Soviet championship and Valery Lobanovsky was renowned as a tactical genius.
However, since Euro 2012, the political and economic turmoil that rocked the country has taken its toll. Already struggling to keep hold of its top players since the departure of the likes of Shevchenko and Rebrov in the 1990s, Ukraine saw a new exodus of sporting talent – home-grown and imported. Adam reckons few of the U20 champions will remain at home for long once Europe’s big guns start sniffing around.
But there’s still an unlikely trade in young hopefuls looking for a chance to get into Europe and earn a pro contract in the game. Even in the depths of the amateur game, it’s possible to find imports trying to prove themselves. At Olimpik Kropyvnytskyi, the squad briefly included an influx of Africans brought over on tourist visas (hence the need to stick to the amateur leagues) by an enterprising agent.
That initiative didn’t work out too well for Olimpik, with players swiftly moving on to more lucrative gigs and leaving the team frantically plugging gaps. But for young Ukrainian players, opportunities are still there. “Youth and reserve team football is big here,” Adam explained. “In Kyiv each club, even the smaller ones, has a huge youth set-up.”
Remember the build up to Euro 2012, and the lurid predictions that fans would come home in body bags? Things didn’t quite work out that way – and the bulk of the crowd trouble at Ukrainian lower league games seems to have a homespun quality to it.
“We bumped into this group of old guys, it looked like their wives had just got sick of them around the house and sent them out for the day,” Adam recalled. “Anyway, they’d smuggled in some vodka and were making good progress with that, sitting around chatting and giggling away to each other.
“It turned out they all knew the security guard in the ground and would spend the afternoon goading him: ‘Kolya, are you going to tell us off? Are you going to take our drinks away?’”
With so many tales to tell in Ukrainian football, Adam is hopeful that this project could develop into a book.
“There’s definitely a gap in the market. Looking at my own collection, I have titles about Sankt-Pauli, about Vallecano,” he said. “There’s an interest in places that do things their own way.”