Mark Temnycky –
Over the past few weeks, Futbolgrad examined the current state of the Ukrainian Premier Liha. While Shakhtar Donetsk have impressed since their forced exile in 2014, the rest of the UPL has failed to keep up. Aside from Dynamo Kyiv, no other Ukrainian Premier Liha club has won silverware since the start of the Donbas conflict in 2014.
The decline of the Ukrainian Premier Liha’s competitiveness has not gone unnoticed. Due to the continued conflict in the east, as well as Ukraine’s economic struggles, several clubs were liquidated over the past six years. The impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on the Ukrainian economy will also play a factor during these troubling times. These hardships, in addition to a waning Ukrainian presence in the knockout stages of both the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europe League, led to Ukraine’s fall in the UEFA country coefficients. Should this decline continue, Ukraine will be in danger of losing its automatic Champions League group stage spot.
With this in mind, the Ukrainian Football Federation has opted to expand the Ukrainian Premier Liha from 12 teams to 14 teams in 2020/21, and then to 16 teams by 2021/22, in the hopes that this will make the UPL more competitive. (The UPL previously had 16 teams, but the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea, the start of the Donbas conflict, the financial struggles faced by some clubs and the liquidation of others forced the UFF to reduce the size of the UPL to 12 teams at the start of the 2015/16 season.)
Though the coronavirus pandemic may derail the expansion of the UPL, how might this decision alter the league’s current structure? Will it make the UPL more competitive? Will the expansion result in a greater Ukrainian presence in the Champions League and Europa League? Or will the Ukrainian Premier Liha’s expansion lead to more financial hardships to clubs in Ukraine?
Current Format of the UPL
To better understand how the league would change with the expansion to 16 teams, one must understand the format of the UPL. Prior to the reduction of the UPL, 16 teams competed in Ukraine’s top division up until the 2014/15 season. During this period, the Ukrainian Premier Liha operated similarly to that of the other top-10 European leagues, where teams would play each other twice throughout the course of the season, meaning each club would play a total of 30 league matches per season. The teams to finish within the top six spots of the Ukrainian Premier Liha would then qualify for next season’s Champions League and Europa League, either directly or via the playoffs, while the two clubs at the bottom of the UPL table would be relegated at the end of the season.
The reduction of the Ukrainian Premier Liha to 12 teams by the 2015/16 season, however, saw a change in the league’s format. Unlike the traditional model, where teams played each other twice for a total of 30 league matches, the league was broken up into two parts. The first stage would see the Ukrainian Premier Liha teams face each other, both home and away, for a total of 22 matches. After the clubs have played their opening 22 matches, the teams competing in the Ukrainian Premier Liha would be split into two groups. The top six teams of the UPL table would be placed in the first group while the bottom six teams would be placed in the second group. Point totals, goal differentials and other achievements amassed from these 22 games would be rolled over into the UPL’s second stage.
The top six teams would enter the “Championship Round”, where they would compete for the league title and the European qualification spots while the bottom six teams would enter the “Relegation Round”. In both instances, clubs would face each other both home and away for a second time. Once these ten additional games have been played, the UPL then crowns a victor. Meanwhile, the two clubs with the lowest amount of points in the “Relegation Round” would dumped into Ukraine’s second tier while the top two clubs from Ukraine’s second-tie rare promoted to the UPL.
A Return to 16 Teams in the UPL
Given the UFF announced the UPL will expand to a format of 16 clubs, this could see the league return to its previous style, where the 16 teams would play each other both home and away for a total of 30 league matches, rather than breaking up the league into two stages. This would present a welcomed change to the UPL’s format as the current clubs in the UPL would face four additional opponents each season. Under the current format, some teams play each on four occasions, thus the league play became very repetitive. It is possible this repetition led to the UPL’s declined. It is imagined that if a club had to play some its opponents on four occasions, these matches would become rather uncompetitive as there are only so many ways a manager can tinker his lineup and tactics.
While finances and the economy are reasons for the UPL declined, the return to 16 clubs and its old format could make the UPL competitive again. First, clubs would now face four new additional opponents, thus presenting a welcomed change to the league. These four clubs could also present new and exciting playstyles, unfamiliar with the current 12 teams in the UPL, thus creating greater league entertainment.
Finally, if the introduction of these four additional teams were to lead to a more competitive league, this could bode well for the Ukrainian clubs that qualify for the group stages of both the Champions League and the Europa League. Should the expansion of the UPL result in a more competitive domestic league, this could better prepare the Ukrainian clubs competing in the Champions and Europa Leagues.
Dangers of Expanding the UPL
There could be drawbacks from expanding the league, however. The most obvious would be the continued financial struggles of some of these Ukrainian clubs. One of the reasons why the UPL reduced the size of its league was because several clubs were liquidated. This was because clubs were forced to relocate due to the Donbas conflict, and these exiled teams struggled to maintain their profits while competing in their new homes.
The return to a 16 team league format could present a similar situation, particularly after the coronavirus pandemic has ended. Economists predict the coronavirus pandemic will cause a global recession, and based on what happened to various Ukrainian clubs following the economic recession in 2008 and the start of the Donbas conflict in 2014, this could lead to additional financial problems for the UPL.
Due to these constraints, a second consequence would be the inability to complete a full season. For example, one of the reasons why the UPL was reduced in size was because teams were unable to financially compete at the highest level of Ukrainian football. In these situations, teams were relegated to the lower tiers of Ukrainian football, where they were no longer pressured by these financial burdens. Others were not as fortunate, as they were liquidated due to their inability to keep up with the financial demands of the top tier of Ukrainian football.
Finally, a third potential consequence could be an even further divide between Ukraine’s top clubs and the lesser talented teams. As previously stated, only Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk have won Ukraine’s league titles and cup competitions over the past six seasons. If the newly added teams to the expanded UPL format were of lesser quality, this would ensure that Dynamo and Shakhtar would continue to run away with these trophies rather than creating a greater sense of competition.
The Only Way to Know Is to Try
Overall, the consequences of expanding the UPL from 12 teams to 16 teams will not be known until the expansion is complete by the 2021/22 season. The decision could allow for new and exciting possibilities, as it might help the UPL become more competitive. Alternatively, it could lead to additional financial hardships for some of the clubs in the Ukrainian top tier. Regardless of these outcomes, the UFF has decided to move forward with its decision to expand the UPL. Time will tell if the decision to expand the UPL was the right choice.
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