Impressions from the 2016 Ukrainian Cup Final

Impressions from the 2016 Ukrainian Cup Final

Manuel Veth –

The most emotional moment of the Ukrainian Cup final came at the trophy ceremony, as Shakhtar Donetsk captain Darijo Srna insisted that it was not he that should receive the trophy but instead head coach Mircea Lucescu. Futbolgrad had already known about Lucescu’s departure from Shakhtar several days before the match—Futbolgrad has also learned that he is a serious candidate to take over the coaching position at Zenit Saint Petersburg.

Darijo Srna presented the trophy to Mircea Lucescu

Darijo Srna presented the trophy to Mircea Lucescu

Shakhtar’s cup victory in Lviv therefore was a fantastic way to end the coach’s twelve-year stint at Shakhtar Donetsk. With Shakhtar, Lucescu won eight Ukrainian championships, five Ukrainian Cups, six Ukrainian Super Cups, and the UEFA Cup.

The Ukrainian Cup Final in Lviv – A Controversial Choice

Yet days before the final at the Arena Lviv there were signs that Lucescu’s final stage in Ukrainian football could be too small to truly honour the Romanian’s achievements. The Football Federation of Ukraine had determined that the final would be played at the Arena Lviv in the very west of the country. Both finalists Shakhtar Donetsk, and Zorya Luhansk, however, hail from the Donbass, and the two clubs have been forced to play in exile—Shakhtar in Lviv, and Zorya in Zaporizhya.

Hence, both clubs felt that it would have been better to hold the final further east in either Kyiv or Kharkiv, as it would have been easier for the many displaced residents of the Donbass to travel to those venues.

The Arena Lviv, the controversial venue for the Ukrainian Cup final

The Arena Lviv, the controversial venue for the Ukrainian Cup final

The decision to hold the final in Lviv was therefore heavily criticized by Shakhtar general director Serhiy Palkin, who told Terrikon: “There was no meeting, the vote was held by fax. There was no discussion about why Lviv was chosen. The fans need to understand why this decision was taken. Today 250 tickets have been sold. This might be the most disastrous cup final in the history of Ukrainian football.”

By the time Futbolgrad arrived in Ukraine two days before the final around 8000 tickets had been officially sold, but at the same time one source told Futbolgrad that most of the tickets were free, given away to regional football associations, youth football teams, and schools.

The FFU Managed to Fill the Stadium for the Ukrainian Cup Final

Yet the FFU, in form of Roman Volynets, the general director of the marketing branch of the FFU, was adamant that the stadium in Lviv would be at least two-thirds full and could even sell out. “The finalists are slightly surprising, but I do not think this will affect the attendance,” Volynets said in an interview with the television channel Futbol 1. “If it does, the effect will be insignificant, but interest in the match will not decrease.”

Futbolgrad arrived in Lviv on Friday, the day before the final, and very little pointed to the fact that there would be a major match the following day. Very little advertisement was put up to attract fans to the match, in fact advertisement boards for the match only appeared in the outskirts of town closer to the stadium.

Then on Friday afternoon the FFU displayed the Ukrainian Cup on Rynok Square in the very centre of the city. Finally the city seemed to show some interest in the cup final played between the two exiled teams. Several people stopped to take pictures, and several tour groups also stopped with their tour guides trying to explain to them that this was the Ukrainian Cup final weekend. One American tourist exclaimed, “So it’s like the Super Bowl?”—well not quite…

The Ukrainian Cup presented on Rynok Square in the centre of Lviv

The Ukrainian Cup presented on Rynok Square in the centre of Lviv

In general the city, and the stadium itself, are an attractive location to host the final. Lviv, which is located in Galicia, is perhaps the most beautiful city in Ukraine. The Arena Lviv is generally considered the most modern stadium football only stadium in the country—aside from the Donbass Arena. At the same time, however, the region, which is stronghold of Ukrainian nationalism, has little to no attachment to the two finalists from the Russian-speaking east. Furthermore, the Arena Lviv, despite having hosted the 2012 Euros, lacks the necessary transportation infrastructure to host big games.

Arena Lviv – Fantastic Venue Terrible Infrastructure

On Friday afternoon Futbolgrad embarked on what would be a long and adventurous taxi ride—at one point we had to make a pit stop at a gas station as our taxi kept breaking down, and was out of fuel—to the stadium, which is literally built in the middle of nowhere and has little to no infrastructure to get people to and from the stadium.

But as we approached the stadium we noticed that the attendance would be indeed good, as there were thousands of people walking to the stadium. In the end the attendance would be much better than what both clubs feared, and would be indeed much closer to what the FFU expected.

The Ukrainian Cup Final had an attendance of 21,700

The Ukrainian Cup Final had an attendance of 21,700

In fact the FFU seemed to have been surprised by the success of its own marketing campaign, as the security in front of the stadium was nowhere near ready to deal with the 21,700 people who decided to come to the match.

Furthermore, Futbolgrad was told at first that they were not allowed to bring in their equipment through the stadium, as it was in a backpack. At the same time we noticed, however, that several younger men, who were obviously ultras, were allowed to take their rucksacks straight through after simply greeting the security guards. They were waved through as we argued with the security guard, who had no problems letting others in without even opening their backpacks—after all the flares had to get into the stadium somehow. It was only after we flagged down the head of security and produced our press credentials that we were allowed through.

The Ukrainian Cup Final – In the Shadow of War

At this point we had already missed the opening five minutes of the match, but were lucky that neither team opened the scoring early. Both teams played an attractive attacking football with Marlos and Taison being the most dynamic players on Shakhtar’s side, meanwhile Zorya’s Ivan Petryak was responsible for several dangerous moments at Shakhtar’s end.

In the stands the two fan groups made reference to the fact that both clubs were severely affected by the political situation of the country. 15 minutes into the game the Donetsk ultras shouted “Who are you”, which was answered by the Luhansk ultras with “Donetsk!”, in reference to the fact that in time of war the fan groups should stick together. Shortly after both fan groups sang together “There is only one free Ukraine.”

Zorya Luhansk fans at the Ukrainian Cup final

Zorya Luhansk fans at the Ukrainian Cup final

The match meanwhile carried on with both teams being about equal. But then in the 42nd minute Taison brought in a low cross into the box, which was then headed in by striker Oleksandr Gladky to make it 1-0 for Shakhtar Donetsk, which was also the score at halftime.

Then at halftime Zorya’s coach Yuri Vernydub took off Ivan Petryak—he was replaced with Andriy Totovytskyi. Futbolgrad felt that Petryak had been Zorya’s best player—a fact that might not have been unnoticed by Shakhtar, who after all own his contract.

Shakhtar fans with flares, we wonder how they managed to get those in...

Shakhtar fans with flares, we wonder how they managed to get those in…

Then eleven minutes into the second half Gladky scored his second goal after the ball fell to him in the five-meter box after a miscommunication between several Zorya defenders. After Shakhtar’s second goal it was apparent that the match was over. From then on the Miners controlled the match, and Zorya simply didn’t have the strength, or the will to overturn the result.

After the Second Goal the Match Turned into a Friendly

At that point the match often felt like a friendly rather than a national cup final, and the atmosphere and the makeup of the attendance, which was dominated by teenagers, children and families, underlined this general feeling.

Both teams also seemed to be focused on not hurting each other, as the referee only had to show three yellow cards—all to Zorya.

The last highlight came in the 88th minute when the Ukrainian national anthem was played via the stadium’s sound system; another reference to the difficult time the country is facing at the moment.

Then it was all over, and with that Mircea Lucescu’s last match in Ukrainian football. Lucescu would tell the press after the match “Yes. This was my last game. If you remember, I previously said that I would behave in a civil way until my deal expires, until my last match, and that I would neither talk to anyone nor negotiate on the future [with another club]. I did not want to risk our league performance, along with that in the Europa League and the Ukrainian Cup. So starting tomorrow, I will be a free coach who will seek another club.”

On the long taxi ride back to the city centre from the Ukrainian Cup final Futbolgrad had plenty of time to contemplate Lucescu’s next move, as he seems to have options in Turkey, France, and the most likely destination: Zenit Saint Petersburg in Russia.

Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, and PhD candidate at King’s College London. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. His thesis is entitled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, and will be defended in November. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.