By Manuel Veth –
Last week Arsenal Kyiv withdrew from the Ukrainian Premier League after 13 matches of the current season. Arsenal Kyiv were a fundamental club for many left-wing fans in Ukraine and a club that provided an alternative to the multinational football corporation Dinamo Kyiv.
The announcement of bankruptcy was made by the general director of the club Viktor Golovka on the club’s official homepage. What went wrong? Arsenal had been struggling financially for months; already in April 2013 the club were close to extinction as former owner, oligarch Vadim Rabinovich, lost interest in his plaything and withdrew his funding.
The management was tasked with finding a new owner and in April 2013 Oleksandr Onyschenko, a millionaire and Olympic athlete who competed at the 2012 Olympic Games in equestrian (with little success), was appointed. Most importantly, however, Onyschenko is a member of the Partiya Regionov (Party of Regions) and it was believed that Arsenal would therefore join the circle of clubs that were especially protected by the incumbent Yanukovich government.
These clubs are all part a network that belong to a group of clubs connected closely to the Donetsk clan that is based around Rinat Akhmetov and his club Shakhtar Donetsk, who are in direct opposition to the Dnepropetrovsk clan. In some ways the conflict’s battle line can be drawn according to which television channel airs the home games of specific clubs. The clubs most closely associated to Akhmetov and Donetsk will have their home matches broadcast on the channel Futbol. These clubs and their respective owners are opposed to the Dnepropetrovsk clan who circle around Igor Kolomoiskii, himself an owner of TV stations (1+1 and 2+2) that beam Ukrainian Premier League matches every week.
Kolomoiskii’s stations, however, do this without having a formal deal in place with the Ukrainian Premier League. The TV situation is part of a bigger business conflict in Ukraine where both sides fight for market power in several sectors. Akhmetov is, however, backed by the Yanukovich regime and has slowly increased his market power with Komoloiskii in turn having been forced to focus his economic attention on Dnepropetrovsk (learn more about this Ukrainian City in Futbolgrad’s article Dnepropetrovsk – An Aberdeen Away Day).
Onyschenko – a Ukrainian Fata Morgana
As it turns out, however, Onyschenko’s ownership was a typical Ukrainian football fata morgana; in other words, it was illusionary as the club never had a solid deal in place with their ostensible owner. The club’s management, as such, had not secured the financing necessary to run a club efficiently in the Ukrainian Premier League.
It is quite possible that Arsenal are the victim of Kolomoiskii’s financial retreat to his hometown Dnepropetrovsk in southeast Ukraine having come under financial pressure from various government organizations, and was therefore forced to sell various business ventures across the country. One such example was his airline Aerosvit that stumbled into bankruptcy after the government refused permits for the airline to operate at several Ukrainian airports.
At Arsenal, Rabinovich in many ways was just the front man; the official owner of the club who barely had the authority to choose which music to blare out on the team bus. In truth Arsenal were part of a football empire that belonged to Kolomoiskii. Ravaged by political intrigue, Kolomoiskii withdrew funding from several clubs, including the football club Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih, who have also since seized to exist. The population of Kryvyi Rih, which amounts to approximately 600,000 people, will now have to make do without a professional football club. In addition, Kolomoiskii withdrew funding from a number of other clubs at the end of last season and for a while it seemed like the Ukrainian Premier League would struggle to have enough teams to function competitively.
Arsenal Kyiv – an infestation of the Ukrainian Football Cancer
The financial difficulties of many clubs and the apparent dependence on just a few oligarchs demonstrate that Ukrainian football is troubled. The truth is that Ukraine has failed to build the necessary infrastructure to support a league of 16 clubs.
Much of the predicament can be blamed on the role of Ukraine’s oligarchy, a handful of people who utilise football in order to strengthen their political and financial positions within the country. Clubs like Shakhtar, Dnipro, Metalist, and Dinamo function more or less professionally. They all have strong financial backing from oligarchs, and play in modern facilities that match those of many clubs in, for instance, Germany and England.
These clubs also formed the core of Ukrainian football during the time of the Soviet Union, thus giving them a head start as they were incorporated within a centralized system that allowed them to obtain the best players of their respective regions. Smaller clubs were simply set up as feeder clubs in the lower divisions and were expected to provide their best players to their country’s stellar teams.
It is telling that even Kyiv, with its 3.5 million citizens, is unable to support more than one club. The reason for this is clear: during the time of the Soviet Union Kyiv’s football institutions and infrastructure were moulded in order to benefit one team: Dinamo. Documents in the Party archives, as well as in government archives, revealed the large extent to which Dinamo was set up as the benefactor of a football player-making factory.
Ukraine’s other major cities also adopted, and are now stuck with, a one-club setup. Arsenal, for example, were a youth side and part of an elaborate network for Dinamo. There are, indeed, second teams in Donetsk, Kharkiv, and until recently Kyiv, but their existence is merely symbolic.
The example of Kolomoiskii and his football network highlights the Soviet system’s continuum in many respects although Kolomoiskii himself is not the sole perpetrator. It is an open secret that Akhmetov’s Shakhtar operate using a similar framework and that Metalurh Donetsk for example are a part of Shakhtar’s feeder system.
In other words, the entire league system is based on a handful of oligarchs who through their networks run several clubs unofficially at once, something that is actually against UEFA rules. But oligarchs usually operate in the form of third party ownership in order to cloak their financial activities. This system, in the context of Arsenal Kyiv, did not become apparent until Kolomoiskii withdrew funding from several clubs. This concoction guarantees that the top clubs remain as such with the lower clubs mere afterthoughts, cogs in the wheel of Ukraine’s murky football business.
Rest in Peace Ukrainian Premier League
Ukraine’s top league has a farcical dimension to it that ensures success for the chosen few, with guarantees in place that no smaller clubs can rise to the top. Furthermore, the top clubs hamper the growth of the Ukrainian national team in general as they prefer to import from abroad in order to then sell for a healthy profit. One look at the starting line ups of both Dinamo and Shakhtar will underline this issue. Dinamo, once a club that was almost a representative of the Ukrainian national team, now only field a handful of Ukrainian players.
But how can this Ukrainian football predicament be fixed? Perhaps the league can be decreased to twelve teams. Other than the above-mentioned top four clubs, FC Sevastopol, Chernomorets Odessa, and Karpaty Lviv are also more or less financially secure despite not being part of the oligarchical milieu.
This would leave the Ukrainian Premier League with seven clubs, plus Metalurh Donetsk. In other words, in the long run the league is likely to struggle to find enough clubs that are sufficiently financially secure to compete in the Ukrainian Premier League. To reduce the league’s size would make Ukraine the only country in Europe with a population over 10 million not to have at least 16 teams in their top flight. They might be embarrassed; then again they might be pioneers in promoting quality over quantity.
To a large extent the death of Arsenal Kyiv demonstrates the fact that the Ukrainian Premier League is ill, terminally perhaps. The league has a polarized combination of clubs, some of which could compete in Europe’s top leagues with others barely with the infrastructure to play in Germany’s regional leagues.
Futbolgrad’s article a New Unified League advocated the introduction of an adjoined league with Russia, and in some ways Arsenal’s death amplifies this claim; namely, that such a league might be the only way to salvage football in Ukraine. It would ensure that Ukraine’s top clubs would compete against clubs from Russia that are on a similar footing. Smaller clubs in Ukraine would be able to evolve organically as they would no longer need to spend beyond their means in order to keep up with Ukraine’s biggest clubs. Otherwise Ukraine might find itself in a similar predicament to Scotland where the dominance of Celtic and, until their liquidation in 2012, Rangers has in many respects sterilised the Scottish game.
Manuel is a PhD candidate at the University of London King’s College, London. Originally from Munich, his thesis is entitled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus