Could the Ukrainian Premier League (UPL) be set to return to a format of 16 clubs for the 2015-16 season? At least that was the hope expressed by Andriy Pavelko the president of the Football Federation of Ukraine when he visited the Ukrainian television channel Futbol 1 on May 6.
Speaking to Futbol 1, Pavelko made the following statement: “I like the format with 16 clubs. That would be my favourite option – to return to the format of 16 clubs. But today we face a different reality which makes [a return to such a format] difficult.”
In reality, however, even the current format might be difficult to sustain. As Oleksandr Tkach from Tribuna.com explained: “The optimistic scenario is that the league remains at 14 teams for the upcoming season, and the pessimistic scenario is that there will be actually a further reduction to 12 clubs next year.”
The current league leaders Dynamo Kyiv and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk have enjoyed successful campaigns in the Europa League. Dnipro even has a realistic chance of reaching the UEFA Europa League final in Warsaw.
But several smaller clubs are struggling to make ends meet in the current economic climate that Ukraine has found itself due to the difficult socio-political situation that the country is currently facing. Karpaty Lviv for example was hit by a 9-point reduction after a contractual dispute with Macedonian goalkeeper Martin Bogatinov.
Mariupol is also one of six clubs in the UPL that have been forced to play their matches away from home. Among these clubs are Shakhtar, Olimpik, and Metalurh from Donetsk, as well as Chornomorets Odessa, and Zorya Luhansk. Even for a rich club like Shakhtar the constant exile has been a massive drain on resources, and has seen the club in real danger of failing to qualify for next year’s Champions League.
For the smaller clubs the constant exile has meant a real battle for financial survival, and it is currently uncertain how many clubs will even meet the licencing guidelines stipulated by the UPL. At Metalurh Donetsk for example the investment group lead by Sergei Taruta and Oleg Mkrtchyan, have indicated that they may stop financing the club due to the conflict in the Donbass.
Mkrtchyan, who is also involved in Third-Party Ownership and was part of the ownership consortium that held the rights to Henrikh Mkhitaryan before he was sold to Borussia Dortmund, has now shifted his business activities to Russia, working closely together with Suleiman Kerimov at Anzhi Makhachkala. The Dagestani club is supposed to replace Metalurh as a development club for Mkrtchyan’s players before they make the jump to a bigger league.
With several UPL clubs facing a doubtful future it is difficult to imagine that the UPL could return to a 16-club format next season. There is also little hope from the Ukrainian First Division as FC Oleksandriya, which currently sits on a promotion spot has in the past refused promotion on financial grounds. With all this in mind it is safe to say that next year’s format may not be decided in the near future.