Mark Temnycky –
Last week, Futbolgrad examined Shakhtar Donetsk’s peculiar success after their forced departure from the Donbas. Following the start of the conflict in 2014, Shakthar Donetsk, among other clubs, were forced to relocate to other parts of Ukraine in order to ensure the safety of their players. In the case of Shakhtar, they first relocated to Lviv in 2014, and then moved to Kharkiv in 2017, where they still reside today.
Shakhtar’s Success, 2014-2020
Shakhtar have nearly competed for six years outside of Donetsk, yet they have managed to blow away their competition. During their period in exile, the Miners won the Ukrainian Premier Liha on three of these six occasions. They were on course to win their fourth title in six years had there not been a disruption of play due to the coronavirus pandemic.
To highlight their successes, Shakhtar also amassed a series of titles from domestic cup competitions. During this six year period, Shakhtar won four Ukrainian Cups and two Ukrainian Super Cups, thus collecting a total of nine domestic trophies in six years.
Despite their achievements, however, it appears Shakhtar’s success has coincided with the decline of the Ukrainian Premier Liha. The first notable example can be seen with the final annual results of the UPL table. Following Shakhtar’s exile in 2014, the Miners won the 2016/17 and 2018/19 UPL seasons by double digits. The Miners also led the 2019/20 UPL by double digits, and they were likely to continue this trajectory were it not for the coronavirus pandemic.
Liquidation of Ukrainian Clubs, 2014-2020
While Shakhtar soared over the past six years, several Ukrainian clubs struggled. Take, for example, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. During the 2014/15 season, Dnipro advanced to the UEFA Europa League final for the first time in their history. Dnipro also finished second in the 2014/15 UPL table. Following these results, Dnipro began to decline. Due to a series of scandals and financial issues, the club was relegated to the third tier of Ukrainian football. The club was then liquidated in 2019.
Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk are not the only Ukrainian club to share such misfortunes. Metalist Kharkiv, a club which regularly competed for a European qualification spot, dissolved in 2016. Neighboring Metalurh Donetsk folded in 2015. Several Ukrainian clubs on the Crimea peninsula were also disbanded following Russia’s illegal annexation in March 2014.
While Shakhtar are certainly not to blame for the financial misfortunes and mishaps of their competitors, the decline of the state of Ukrainian football has been a cause for concern. The liquidation of several of these UPL regulars over the past few seasons stresses this point.
Ukrainian Football on the European Continent
The decline of competitive football in Ukraine has not gone unnoticed. Over the past six years, Ukraine’s country coefficient has dipped in the European rankings. Prior to 2014, the UPL was rated as the seventh-best league on the European continent. Six years later, the UPL is now rated as the tenth best league in Europe. Should Ukraine’s ranking continue to decline, the Eastern European state would be in danger of losing its automatic UEFA Champions League qualification spot.
The form of Ukrainian clubs competing in European competitions has also declined. Aside from Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk’s appearance in the Europa League final in 2014/15 and Shakhtar Donetsk’s semi-final appearance in the Europa League in 2015/16, few Ukrainian clubs have advanced outside of the Europa League’s group stage between 2014 and 2020. The form of Ukrainian clubs in the Champions League should not be mentioned.
Shakhtar Soar While Competitors Fall
What, then, are the potential causes for Shakhtar’s success and the decline of the UPL?
Shakhtar Donetsk are one of Ukraine’s wealthiest clubs, and this has allowed the Miners to prosper. The Miners are owned by Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, who is the owner of the Ukrainian industrial company System Capital Management Group. Due to Akhmetov’s backing, the Miners are able to purchase a series of talented players, most notably from Brazil. This has allowed Shakhtar to consistently challenge for the UPL and Ukraine’s domestic competitions.
Moreover, Shakhtar’s participation in the Champions League and Europa League have helped the club generate additional revenue. Due to their continual appearances in these competitions, Shakhtar became an even wealthier club, and this has created an even larger financial divide between the Miners and their Ukrainian competitors.
Consistent Management and Successful Transfers
A second reason for Shakhtar’s continued success is their stable management. For example, Romanian Mircea Lucescu managed Shakhtar Donetsk from 2004-2016. During his twelve year tenure, Lucescu established a powerful and successful Shakhtar Donetsk. The Romanian constantly made changes to his tactics, and he took advantage of the various transfer windows to strengthen his squad.
His leadership paid dividends. Between 2004-2016, the Romanian won eight UPL titles, six Ukrainian Cups, seven Super Cups and the Europa League, then known as the UEFA Cup, in 2008/09. While Lucescu earned his achievements occurred prior to Shakhtar’s exile, the Romanian’s legacy has allowed Shakhtar to prosper.
This stable leadership and consistency cannot be said for the other UPL clubs, however. As previously stated, internal disputes and other complications forced some clubs to declare bankruptcy. Meanwhile, poor managerial decisions and front office appointments have caused other teams to suffer. For example, Dynamo Kyiv rival have undergone a series of managerial changes over the past few seasons. Dynamo have also had a series of poor transfer windows. These decisions led to disruptions, as the club lacked consistent leadership between the managers, staff and players.
The Ukrainian Economy
The third but perhaps most important factor is the Ukrainian economy. Following the Great Recession in 2008, the Ukrainian economy has suffered. It has since struggled to recuperate from this financial burden. Part of this is due to the Ukrainian oligarchs and their influence in Ukraine’s economic and political matters. Due to these issues, several Ukrainian clubs suffered during this period.
By the time of the Euromaidan, Ukraine’s economy began to stabilize and the Eastern European state reported that its economy was growing. A new problem has emerged, however. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many economic experts have predicted there will be a worldwide recession. Given Ukraine’s history with financial struggles, it is likely Ukraine’s football clubs will suffer once again, thus hindering the quality of football in the Eastern European state.
How Will the UPL Cope in the Future?
With these points in mind, how will the Football Federation of Ukraine address the financial struggles of these clubs? How might the FFU enhance the quality of football?
One suggestion is to enforce a stronger financial cap on the UPL so that less wealthy clubs could compete with the likes of Shakhtar during the various transfer markets. A second would be to raise the financial incentives of weaker teams competing in Ukraine’s domestic competitions. This would provide an additional source of revenue to less wealthy Ukrainian clubs.
A third, and more likely scenario, would see the expansion of the UPL from 12 to 16 teams. While previously covered by the Futbolgrad Network, the most recent developments in regard to the expansion of the UPL will be addressed in a future Futbolgrad piece.
Overall, Shakhtar should be commended for their achievements over the past six years, but as they have earned these successes, the rest of Ukrainian football has struggled to keep up. Therefore, the FFU must act swiftly in order to revitalize the UPL. Will the FFU be able to address the decline of domestic football in Ukraine?
Mark Temnycky is an AIPS accredited journalist who covers the Ukrainian men’s national team and Ukrainian clubs competing in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League for the Futbolgrad Network. Follow him @MTemnycky