Mariupol against Dynamo and the shadow of Mariupolgate

Mariupol against Dynamo and the shadow of Mariupolgate

Vadim Furmanov –

The most anticipated fixture of the second stage of this season’s Ukrainian Premier League will take place on Sunday. But this match does not have massive implications on the title race. Shakhtar are six points clear at the top and given their domestic form are unlikely to relinquish their advantage, especially since they are now out of Europe. Nor is this a huge rivalry. That anticipation, instead, surrounds the question of will the match even take place – will Dynamo finally travel to Mariupol, or will they fail to show for the second time this season and risk being altogether kicked out of the league.

This season’s biggest scandal in Ukrainian football began last June. Dynamo announced that they would not travel to newly promoted FC Mariupol due to security concerns. The city of Mariupol is located in the war-torn Donbass region and was briefly held by Russian-led separatists in 2014, but was soon after recaptured by Ukrainian security forces and has since been controlled by the government. The local football club returned to Mariupol after a season spent in exile at the Meteor Stadium in Dnipro, and up until the beginning of last season no team had expressed any unwillingness to travel to the Azov City port, despite its proximity to the conflict.

Dynamo were not so eager. A club official expressed concerns that the team bus would be a target for separatists – despite the fact that Dynamo would not have to cross separatist territory to reach Mariupol – and president Ihor Surkis demanded “100% guarantees” of security.

Setting aside the fact that a “100% guarantee” of security is impossible even in the safest, most stable areas of the world, Dynamo did receive assurances from the local security services that the match could go ahead. Dynamo ultimately did not turn up to the match, scheduled for August 27, citing letters from the Security Service of Ukraine raising concerns over the security situation in Mariupol.

Mariupol was granted a 3-0 technical victory

The main issue was that no security agency formally prohibited the match from taking place. Mere concerns were not enough for Dynamo to prevail, and the Ukrainian Premier League declared the match a 3-0 technical victory to Mariupol. In November Dynamo abruptly changed their position and announced that they were willing to travel to Mariupol. This was reportedly at the behest of President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, who was unhappy with the media focus on the security of a government-controlled city.

But FC Mariupol themselves did not accept this request, as they had no obligation to do so, and were supported by Dynamo’s great rival Shakhtar.

Though ostensibly this is a conflict between Dynamo and FC Mariupol, the latter are very much a club within Shakhtar’s sphere of influence. FC Mariupol rely heavily on Shakhtar loanees, and through their main sponsors they are effectively controlled by Rinat Akhmetov – who also happens to be the owner of Shakhtar.

Mariupol fall within the influence of Shakhtar owner Rinat Akhmetov. (Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images)

Mariupol fall within the influence of Shakhtar owner Rinat Akhmetov. (Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images)

Given the animosity between Shakhtar and Dynamo and the potential importance of three points in the final table, it is no surprise that FC Mariupol were not amenable to compromise. The club’s social media team took advantage of the situation and began posting a seemingly endless supply of memes mocking Dynamo for failing to turn up.

After the appeals committee of the Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU) upheld the UPL’s decision, Dynamo decided to take the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland – the highest court of appeals for most matters relating to football worldwide.

Andriy Pavelko, president of the Football Federation of Ukraine, later accused the club of accepting the wrongfulness of their position by agreeing to reschedule the match, then turning around and filing a CAS appeal anyway.

He has a point. The case feels absurd – the entire controversy arose when Dynamo refused to travel to Mariupol, yet in Lausanne their lawyers were arguing that they should be allowed to travel. Three of Dynamo’s witnesses were members of the FFU executive committee – even though the FFU were the opposing party in the case.

The CAS upheld the FFU ruling

The case was heard in Lausanne in February. Dynamo announced that they would respect and abide by the decision. But when the CAS upheld the ruling of the FFU, officially confirming the 3-0 technical defeat, Surkis did not take the news well.

In an extended interview with the Ukrainian show ProFutbol, Surkis attacked Pavelko for ignoring the regulations and refusing to reach a compromise. Surkis effectively declared war against the federation, the full implications of which are yet to be realized. He also claimed that the security of Dynamo’s travelling support was a concern and stated:

“You all know full well that our supporters were some of the initiators of the Revolution of Dignity. There may be any kind of provocation, especially since supporters of Shakhtar are fighting for the other side. Not all of them, of course, but there are many.”

Moreover, Surkis seems to have a very loose grasp of how the CAS actually functions. He implied that the CAS did not adequately assess the security situation in Mariupol. This is not their role – the CAS simply looked over the proceedings of the FFU and determined if the federation made the right decision. Dynamo also produced a witness from the Kyiv regional Security Service who claimed that he received a credible threat from an anonymous source of a planned attack against Dynamo. This was the first time that this news was reported.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in favour of the FFU (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in favour of the FFU (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

According to its regulations, the CAS does not need to credit any evidence that had not been introduced earlier. In other words, if Dynamo did not bring up this alleged threat during the case at the appellate committee of the FFU, the CAS does not need to take into consideration when making its decision. If this really was Dynamo’s legal strategy, Surkis may want to consider hiring more qualified attorneys.

Surkis also claimed he would again demand security guarantees before allowing Dynamo to travel to Mariupol should they qualify for the second stage of the Ukrainian Premier League – which they did, and the match is now scheduled for April 1st.

In the buildup to the match, Surkis and the club generally have been uncharacteristically quiet. Perhaps it is knowing that Dynamo risk being removed from the championship, which they could be according to the rules. But the FFU is unlikely to take such a drastic step, and Ukrainian football would then enter a full-blown crisis that no is no one’s best interest. Perhaps it is the fact that Poroshenko himself plans on attending the match, which has taken on a symbolic value far beyond its sporting significance.

Mariupolgate, as the controversy has been dubbed in the Ukrainian press, may finally be winding down. But this could just be the calm before the real storm.

Vadim Furmanov is a first-year student at the Duke University School of Law. Originally from Ukraine, Vadim has resided in Chicago since 1994 (though currently temporarily relocated to North Carolina) and is a passionate supporter of both Dynamo Kyiv and the Ukrainian national team. He writes primarily about Ukrainian football, as well as the intersection between football, politics, and history. You can follow Vadim on Twitter @vfurmanov.