By Vadim Furmanov –
Another day, another crisis in Ukrainian football. On this occasion, it is the new Ukrainian Premier League (UPL) club Stal Dniprodzerzhynsk who have become embroiled in controversy over a change in the club’s management and a match fixing scandal in the youth team.
Stal’s entry into the Premier League before the beginning of the season had already been a point of contention. The club had been set to merge with Metalurh Donetsk, but the merger never materialized, the latter declared bankruptcy, and consequently a vacancy opened up in the league.
Officials of Illichivets Mariupol, who had been relegated, argued that their club had a legal claim to the open spot, but the executive committee of the Football Federation of Ukraine voted to grant Stal entry into the league instead. Furthermore, while Stal and Metalurh never officially merged into one entity, the structure of the clubs was combined in part, with some coaches and youth players from Metalurh transferred to Stal.
Stal Dniprodzerzhynsk – Crisis Overshadows Successful Season
Despite the controversial beginning of their UPL existence, the club had a rather successful first half of the season. They currently sit in ninth place, a respectable position for a newly promoted club, and have qualified for the quarterfinals of the Ukrainian Cup. More importantly, Stal appeared to be in a relatively stable financial situation, a rarity amongst Ukrainian clubs.
Over the past month, however, the situation has deteriorated. In late November, Vardan Israelyan, the former sporting director of Metalurh, was appointed the new president of Stal. This immediately led to a conflict between Israelyan and manager, Volodymyr Mazyar, who said in a press conference “I don’t know my fate here. If the people who invited me to work here, with whom I have worked for three years, leave the club, then I will also be forced to leave.”
After a meeting between Mazyar and Israelyan, the coach decided to remain, but just as this potential crisis was averted, another erupted. On December 24, the club announced that four players of the U-21 side, along with head coach Serhiy Shischenko and his assistant, were kicked out of club for their involvement in match fixing. In addition, a number of coaches and players from the U-19 side were accused of repeatedly chanting “Metalurh” in the dressing room before matches, and had their contracts torn up for “a lack of patriotism and undermining the prestige of the club”
Vladyslav Savin, who is one of the players kicked off the U-21 side, told Matchday that, while some members of the squad were indeed approached by people offering them large sums of cash in exchange for fixing a match, the desired result was never actually arranged. When asked if the players were prepared to defend themselves in front of the FFU, he replied:
“I think we’re ready. Even if you look at our matches, how can you talk about throwing a match if we played attacking football and played for a victory every time? That’s why all of this makes no sense to me. Especially firing the coach.”
Shischenko, the sacked coach of the U-21 squad, has also denied the charges. In an interview with Matchday, Shischenko said that he was told that some of his players were suspected of involvement in match fixing, and he immediately relayed the information to the president, Israelyan.
He claimed that the decision to fire him was made during a meeting in which neither he nor Israelyan were present, and that despite the decision, Israelyan informed him that he will remain at the club. “As for who is in charge of this community, it is difficult for me to judge,” he added.
Comments Highlight a Major Schism at Stal
These comments are a clear sign of a schism at the club, as both Shischenko and Israelyan were brought in from Metalurh and are now in open conflict with officials who were at Stal before the quasi-merger. Serhiy Kakusha, the lawyer for Stal, has stated that Israelyan’s role at the cub is strictly as a figurehead and that the authority to make the decision to fire Shischenko and the youth players lies with vice president Mykola Kolyuchiy and executive director Serhiy Burkhan. As journalist, Artem Omelyanenko, of Matchday put it, “It seems as if the club has become divided into two factions, and the management has begun an internal struggle for control of the team. How this ‘Stal massacre’ will end, and who will emerge as the winner, we will know for sure by the spring.”
As it turns out, we may not receive an answer after all. On Sunday, Kakushka announced that, due to mounting financial difficulties, Stal’s management may decide to cease operations. According to the television program Dnipro-Futbol, Stal have debts that date back to the beginning of November.
If Stal are forced to withdraw from the league, it would be another massive blow to Ukrainian football, especially given the fact that that, until recently, they seemed to be a rare example of a financially stable club. While some football officials talk about expanding the league to sixteen teams, at this point, even ending the season with the current total of fourteen would be a miracle.
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