By Vadim Furmanov –
On May 17th Dynamo Kyiv beat Dnipro 1-0 at home to secure their record 14th Ukrainian Premier League title. With two matches left in the season they have yet to lose and could become the fourth team in Ukrainian history to finish a season undefeated. Furthermore Dynamo will face Shakhtar on June and a victory would give the club their first domestic double since 2007. It has been an historic first season for Dynamo’s young manager Serhiy Rebrov.
But Shakhtar Donetsk, like the other clubs from the Donbass region, have been displaced by the fighting in the war-torn region and were forced to play their matches in Lviv. Shakhtar General Director Serhiy Palkin called the Arena Lviv the second-best stadium in the country after Shakhtar’s own Donbass Arena and said that “the Lviv supporter, unlike Kyiv supporter, is not spoiled by football and really knows how to show his support.”
The UPL – A tainted competition?
The most vocal critic of the current situation in the league has been Shakhtar manager Mircea Lucescu. Following Shakhtar’s victory over Dynamo Kyiv in the Ukrainian Supercup before the start of the season, the Romanian skipper remarked: “We are not at equal conditions with Dynamo Kyiv. They will obviously have an advantage, because they are practically playing at home. While we will play all our matches away.”
This was a point that Lucescu would reiterate throughout the season. After a 4-1 victory over Hoverla in December he called the league in its current state “an abnormal championship” and said, “our opponents have a big advantage.” In March said the league was “a surrogate championship” and “artificial.”
Following a 0-0 draw with Volyn the following month he once again referred to the league as a “surrogate” and complained that “not all teams have equal chances, and unfortunately there is a lack of sporting ethics.” Shakhtar captain Darijo Srna has often repeated his manager’s words. When asked what his side’s chances of retaining the league title were, he replied, “of course the situation in the country favors Dynamo and Dnipro, but the fight for the championship will continue until the end.” Tribuna.com editor-in-chief Oleksandr Tkach succinctly described the Shakhtar mindset as “we have no chance, but we’ll fight – but as you understand, we have no chance.”
Palkin also took an active role in the media offensive. Before Shakhtar’s match against Zorya Luhansk in April Lucescu decided against allowing Zorya’s Shakhtar-owned loaned out players to face their parent-club. Many of Zorya’s best players were affected by the ban and Shakhtar easily won the match 4-1. Palkin, responded to criticism of the decision, pointing out that Dynamo did the exact same thing when playing against Hoverla in the fall and said “we, Shakhtar, with our principles of fairness, are in second place, while Dynamo is in first.”
Tensions between the two clubs worsened after Andriy Yarmolenko’s yellow card for diving in a match against Volyn Lutsk was controversially rescinded, allowing the winger to play in the upcoming all-Ukrainian Derby. Palkin accused the Disciplinary Committee of the Football Federation of Ukraine of misconduct and demanded they step down. He then alleged that Dynamo failed to pay €10 million worth of taxes, instead investing the money into their own club and infrastructure.
Both Palkin and Lucescu have legitimate complaints with the way the league was run this season. As Oleksandr Tkach wrote in an editorial about the incident, Yarmolenko’s yellow card should not have been rescinded because “even if the decision of Shvetsov [the referee] was a mistake, it was in no way an ‘obvious’ one,” and thus the original decision should have stood. The ugly episode was an example of the inconsistent application of the rules by the Disciplinary Committee and demonstrated once again that the rule of law is sorely lacking in Ukrainian football.
The controversy over loaned-out players also brought to the fore the administrative problems in Ukrainian football. As it stands, clubs like Shakhtar and Dynamo have the power to ban their loaned-out players from facing them in the league and have done so just days before matches. Without any clear regulations on the issue the practice will continue to take place until the league steps in to bring it to an end.
For example, instead of having the clubs that own the loaned-out players make the decision whether or not a player was eligible to play or not the Football Federation of Ukraine should establish clear transfer regulations. But for Palkin to take the moral high ground on the matter when his club was doing the exact same thing as Dynamo is questionable.
Dynamo’s Home Advantage
Lucescu’s criticisms were also valid, as Dynamo not only played at their home stadium in every home match of the season, but also against Metalurh Donetsk, Olimpik Donetsk, and Chornomorets Odessa because they had all relocated to the capital. Shakhtar, on the other hand, enjoyed little support outside of their high-profile clash against Bayern in the Champions League. This has without a doubt played a role in determining the outcome of the league this season.
But to suggest that Dynamo owes their success entirely to Shakhtar’s difficult situation would be doing a massive disservice to the hugely impressive work that Serhiy Rebrov has done at the club. Palkin’s claim in the wake of the Yarmolenko yellow card controversy that “if today Dynamo were in our position… their title challenge would have ended long ago” is purely speculative and comes across as nothing more than an attempt to undermine Dynamo Kyiv’s season.
As for Rebrov, he has generally avoided getting into sucked into the controversy. But in a thinly-veiled attack on Lucescu after the title-deciding victory over Dnipro, Rebrov proclaimed that only those who are “probably weak” call this an artificial championship.
The Power Shift
In the wider context, the conflict between the two clubs demonstrates the power shift occurring in Ukrainian football. For Dynamo, the end of the title drought could signal the dawn of a new “golden generation” and a return to the top of Ukrainian football after a half-decade of Shakhtar domination. Next season they will take part in the group stages of the Champions League for the first time in five years and will be recipients of the financial windfall that comes with participation in UEFA’s most prestigious and lucrative club competition.
As for their rivals, Shakhtar will have to go through the qualifying rounds of the Champions League and risk missing out on the main competition for the first time since 2009. Their continued exile in Lviv and Lucescu’s possible departure cast a shadow of doubt over the club’s future.
Furthermore, their owner Rinat Akhmetov has been facing financial difficulties due to the war in the Donbass and has seen his economic and political influence in the country decline as a result of the conflict. The presidential elections of the Football Federation of Ukraine in March led to a regime change and the ousting of Anatoly Konkov, who was widely regarded as “Akhmetov’s man.” The controversial decision to rescind Yarmolenko’s yellow card can be seen as a reflection of the new FFU leadership’s hostility toward Akhmetov and his club.
Next season Dynamo will look to defend their title, while Shakhtar will once again mount a title challenge over 1,000 kilometers away from home. It remains to be seen whether Dynamo’s return top of the top of Ukrainian football represents a temporary anomaly or a new status quo.
Vadim Furmanov is an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago. He is a supporter of Dynamo Kyiv and the Chicago Fire. Follow him @vfurmanov