Vadim Furmanov –
Illichivets Mariupol has won the Ukrainian First League and will return to the Ukrainian Premier League for the new season. But there are questions on whether the club can play its home games in Mariupol.
The UPL season has been over for less than a week, yet the league already finds itself embroiled in two scandals surrounding the promotion of teams from the First League.
The first scandal to emerge involves Desna Chernihiv and Veres Rivne, the clubs that finished second and third, respectively, in the 2016-16 First League campaign. Even though Desna are the rightfully promoted side according to the rules, their place in the top flight will be taken by Veres due to their failure to guarantee stable financing for the upcoming season.
Now Illichivets Mariupol, the winners of the First League, find themselves in their predicament, through no fault of their own. The club’s promotion is not in question; back in April, the head of the licensing of the Football Federation of Ukraine announced that Illichivets were the only team in the First League to meet all the requirements of participation in the Premier League.
One unresolved issue is Illichivets’ name. The club are named after the Illich Steel and Iron Works, which are themselves named in honour of the communist leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin. Ukraine’s decommunization laws outlaw all symbols associated with communism and the Soviet Union and the process requires the renaming of all public places and other entities that are named after communist-related themes.
Illichivets Mariupol – The Name Controversy
In April the club’s fans voted for FC Mariupol as the new name, and this decision is expected to be confirmed in the summer by investors. But the renaming process has been met with relatively little resistance by supporters and has not proven to be a source of controversy.
Instead, it is a factor completely outside of Illichivets’ control—their location—that is now causing concern among two Premier League clubs.
Illichivets’ home city of Mariupol is located in the Donbass region in Ukraine’s south-west that has been devastated by a protracted war between government forces and Russian-backed separatists for three years. The city saw lethal skirmishes break out in the early stages of the conflict in May of 2014 and was taken over by separatists, but soon after recaptured by the army with the support of volunteer battalions.
Illichivets played their last home match of the 2013-14 season in Kyiv, and like their counterpart, Donbass clubs were subsequently forced into exile. While Mariupol has remained under the control of the government, it has come under attack several times during the conflict. A January 2015 rocket attack by the forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic killed at least 30 civilians and injured scores more.
For the 2014-15 campaign, Illichivets relocated to the Meteor Stadium in Dnipropetrovsk (now Dnipro), 250 kilometres to the north-west.
After their relegation in 2015, Illichivets spent the next two years in the First League. A shaky ceasefire has not prevented occasional minor skirmishes on the outskirts of the city, but the club were nevertheless allowed to return from their exile and have played at their home ground in Mariupol since the start of the 2015-16 season.
Illichevets have been Playing in Close Proximity to the Conflict
Illichivets’ decision to return to and remain in Mariupol despite the proximity of the conflict has drawn praise from supporters and the media. Their homecoming has been a described as a much-needed morale boost for the residents and a sign of faith in the Ukrainian security forces, which have established a massive presence in the city.
As a further boost to morale, Illichivets were promoted to the top division following an impressive First League campaign during which they lost just three times and led the league from the fourth round of fixtures to the end of the season.
But while the nature of Illichivets’ promotion was indisputable and uncontroversial, on Friday FootBoom broke the news that Premier League sides Dynamo Kyiv and Karpaty Lviv have refused to play in Mariupol due to security concerns.
This development came as a complete surprise. Illichivets have now been playing all their home matches in Mariupol for two seasons incident-free, and no other clubs have expressed any unease at travelling to the city, let alone outright refusal.
The explanation for their decision given by Dynamo official Serhiy Mokhnyk was dubious at best. Mokhnyk explained that their team bus, with the club’s crest, prominently displayed, was a “bright, attractive target for separatists.”
This reasoning does not withstand even the slightest scrutiny. Firstly, Dynamo would not have to travel by bus through separatist-controlled territory to get to Mariupol, so the prospect of a successful separatist attack does not seem a credible threat.
Secondly, if Mokhnyk is genuinely worried about the crest making the bus an attractive target, is travelling in an unmarked bus such an arduous alternative?
Responding to a question about Mariupol’s safety during an interview that took place even before the news of Dynamo and Karpaty’s refusal to travel to the city, Illichivets manager Oleksandr Sevidov stated:
“As for safety, our club prepared a list of 22 teams that have recently come to the city—among them have been many youth teams. If having become acquainted with this list, adult teams remain afraid to come to the city, that would be amusing.”
Dynamo and Karpaty have been Widely Criticized for their Position
The position of Dynamo and Karpaty has been roundly criticised. A blog post on Tribuna points out that this decision demonstrates a complete lack of faith in Ukrainian security forces to guarantee the safety of a football match—even though such a guarantee was explicitly provided by the head police of the Donetsk region, where Mariupol is located.
The author of the post also highlights the hypocrisy of Dynamo, mentioning that the club are more than happy to publicly take a patriotic stance, but fail to live up to these sentiments. They write:
“Of course, it’s very easy and ‘patriotic’ to wear t-shirts supporting the army in Lviv and Kyiv, but without a doubt actual patriotism would be wearing them to a city that is currently suffering hostilities and to play for its residents and for those that defend their and our peaceful lives.”
Karpaty officials, perhaps mindful of the negative response to their decision, have so far not made any public statements, and the position of both clubs could still conceivably change.
If, however, they remain unwavering, Premier League official Yevhen Dikiy has assured media and fans that a compromise will be found.
What compromise can possibly be reached in such a black-and-white situation is unclear. Dikiy himself noted that Illichivets have provide strong guarantees of safety and there was no trouble at their First League matches.
All teams must play on equal terms – either Illichivets cannot be allowed to play their matches in the city, or everyone must travel to Mariupol. If Dynamo and Karpaty continue to force the issue and manage to get their matches relocated from Mariupol to a neutral venue, it would be a shameful episode exemplifying the unequal power structure of Ukrainian football.
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.