Vadim Furmanov –
On May 27, 2015, Ukrainian club FC Dnipro were narrowly defeated 3-2 by Sevilla in the Europa League Final in Warsaw. It was a heartbreaking end to a magical season, one during which Dnipro’s improbable run to the final united Ukraine’s football supporters and lifted the spirits of a nation reeling from war and economic crisis.
Exactly two years later, Dnipro were relegated from the Ukrainian Premier League for the first time in their history—in fact, it was the first relegation suffered by the club since 1978 when they finished bottom of the table of the Soviet Top League.
How did one of Ukraine’s most storied and celebrated clubs fall so quickly from the cusp of European glory to the ignominy of relegation?
Ihor Kolomoyskyi is the Face of the Disaster
It wasn’t long after that fateful night in Warsaw that the rot began to set in. During summer of 2015 Dnipro lost three key players that summer, including star man Yevhen Konoplyanka, and failed to acquire adequate replacements. Manager Myron Markevych openly complained about the club’s lack of transfer activity and attempted to resign, but his resignation was not accepted by Dnipro’s management.
Despite the loss of key personnel, which continued through the winter transfer market, Dnipro still performed admirably and finished the 2015-16 domestic campaign in third place. In fact, the six points they took off Shakhtar Donetsk proved decisive for Dynamo Kyiv to win the title.
But performances on the pitch have never been the cause of Dnipro’s troubles. Instead, it is a prolonged and seemingly perpetual financial crisis that has driven the club to the brink of collapse, and there is one man largely responsible for their plight: Ihor Kolomoyskyi.
Kolomoyskyi is Ukraine’s second richest man and the long-time owner and chairman of Dnipro, whose modest successes in the past decades are owed to the powerful businessman’s backing. But Kolomoyskyi’s business empire and political clout have come under threat in the past several years, and it has been widely reported that he has largely lost interest in supporting the club.
A source close to the businessman revealed that Kolomoyskyi no longer considers the club to be a priority among his vast holdings. Furthermore, while he rarely speaks to the press on the subject of football, last summer Kolomoyskyi went on the record to state that “the club will not exist in the same form as before” and that he would no longer be spending “crazy sums” to fund the team.
Kolomoyskyi’s withdrawal of financing has had a devastating impact. The players have often gone months without receiving salaries. More consequentially, former players and staff have brought legal proceedings against Dnipro due to unpaid wages.
The most serious case has involved the staff of former manager Juande Ramos, who was in charge at the club from 2010 through 2014. Their complaint over Dnipro’s debts resulted in UEFA banning the club from European competition. Even with their third place finish in 2016, Dnipro were thus not allowed to take part in the Europa League.
Dnipro – From Bad to Worse
But if 2015-16 was a disappointment, 2016-17 was a complete disaster. Markevych finally resigned, this time successfully. Many of the club’s remaining experienced players left, forcing caretaker Dmytro Mykhalenko to rely heavily on players from the youth academy.
Despite the mass exodus of talent, Dnipro finished the season with a respectable record of eight victories, thirteen draws, and ten defeats. Under normal circumstances, this would have been enough for a comfortable midtable finish.
But as the unpaid debts continued to pile up, fines turned into point deductions. First, FIFA deducted six points from Dnipro for failing to clear their aforementioned debts with Dnipro. Then the Ukrainian Premier League deducted an additional six points for not complying with a FIFA disciplinary committee decision to pay debts to former player Danilo Sousa Campos. By the end of the season, Dnipro had accumulated a total of 24 points in deductions.
The magnitude of the point deductions effectively condemned Dnipro, and on May 27 of this year, two years to the day after their appearance in a European Final, a 1-0 defeat to Vorskla Poltava ensured their relegation to the Ukrainian First League.
The Bad News did not End There
The bad news did not end there. After the conclusion of the season FIFA ordered the FFU to relegate Dnipro straight to the Ukrainian Second League, thereby skipping the second tier entirely and sending them directly to the third tier.
Dnipro’s last match of the season was marked by widespread protests against the reign of Kolomoyskyi. One banner read “the club of millions, the toy of one,” echoing a widespread sentiment that the owner treats the club as his personal plaything. Another banner painted with a caricature of Kolomoyskyi with dollar bills coming out of his ears and mouth was burned by the Dnipro supporters.
The Dnipro faithful were joined in their dissent by captain Ruslan Rotan, who scored the 2-2 equalizer against Sevilla two years ago and was one of the few of the old guard to remain at the club. He told reporters after completion of the season that “it wasn’t the team that was relegated, it was the president, if you can call him that, that was relegated.” Rotan is reportedly now on his way to Czech side Slavia Prague.
It is all too tempting to blame Dnipro’s current predicament entirely on Kolomoyskyi, especially since it’s accurate to hold him directly responsible for the club’s decline. But this affair is a natural progression of events that occurs when a club is entirely dependent on the generosity of an oligarch benefactor.
The Oligarchs Have Become Reluctant Owners
Dnipro are the most prominent example, but far from the only one. Since the economic crisis in Ukraine began and the oligarch owners began to see their fortunes fading away, they are no longer as enthusiastic to open their wallets and devote millions to running a football club.
Dnipro’s fiercest rivals Metalist Kharkiv have already gone bankrupt, unable to support themselves once their own oligarch owner fled to Moscow as a fugitive and stopped funding the club. Metalurh Zaporizhia and Metalurh Donetsk are two other victims, and many other clubs are in financially precarious situations and constantly teetering on the brink of collapse.
Dnipro’s future is now far from certain. Earlier this week the news broke that Kolomoyskyi is providing 25% of the funding for a new club called SK Dnipro 1 which also aims to compete in the Ukrainian Second League together with the original Dnipro. Some Dnipro players are reportedly on the move to the newly formed club, but thus far the details of the arrangement remain unclear.
Dnipro’s fate over the past two years offers a glimpse into the unfortunate realities of Ukrainian football and is an indictment of overreliance on oligarchs. It took just two years for Dnipro to fall from European finalists to a third-tier club with few resources and even fewer prospects for success. It is far more likely that the club will cease to exist altogether than that it will ever return to those heights.
Vadim Furmanov is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science. Originally from Ukraine, Vadim has resided in Chicago since 1994 and is a passionate supporter of both Dynamo Kyiv and the Ukrainian national team. He is also a Chicago Fire season ticket holder and a member of the Fire’s Section 8 supporters group. He writes primarily about Ukrainian football, as well as the intersection between football, politics, and history. You can follow Vadim on Twitter @vfurmanov.