Ukrainian Premier League roundup – Shakhtar vs Olimpik Derby in Exile

Ukrainian Premier League roundup – Shakhtar vs Olimpik Derby in Exile

Vadim Furmanov –

Following the bankruptcy of Metalurh Donetsk in the summer of 2015, the contest between Shakhtar and Olimpik, both also of Donetsk, remained the last local derby in the top flight of Ukrainian football. At least in theory. Both clubs are based in the war-torn Donbass region, they are now entering their third straight season in exile.

The last proper local derby in Ukrainian football took place in April of 2014 in Donetsk between Shakhtar and Metalurh at the Donbass Arena. At the time the city was at the epicenter of the pro-Russian unrest gripping the Eastern part of the country, but the full blown Russia-backed insurgency had not yet begun.

That same season Olimpik were the surprise champions of the First League, the second tier of the Ukrainian football pyramid, and were promoted to the Premier League. This was the culmination of the meteoric rise of this little-known club, which was founded in 2001 and at first competed only at the youth level.

The founder and president of the Olimpik is Vladyslav Helzin, a former vice-president of Metalurh who, up until May of 2016, held the distinction of serving as both the owner and a player. Founded on the principles of sustainability and a focus on youth, Olimpik acquired professional status in 2004 and in just eleven seasons rose through the ranks and reached the Premier League.

Their promotion coincided with the explosion of a full-blown military conflict in the Donbass, and as a result Olimpik’s Donetsk ground has never witnessed top flight football. At first they relocated to the Bannikov Stadium in Kyiv, which has a capacity of just 1,678 people.

This season Olimpik moved again, this time to the 26,000-capacity Yuvileiny Stadium in Sumy, a regional capital 200 miles to the northeast of Kyiv. The permanent tenants of the stadium are PFC Sumy from the first league; no Premier League side has ever called the city of Sumy home.

Olimpik are led by 37-year old Roman Sanzhar, a Donetsk native that has been present for the club’s entire professional history. He was a midfielder at Olimpik from 2004 through 2012, then spent a year as an assistant coach before accepting a full time managerial role in 2013.

Sanzhar has drawn praise for getting the most out of a club with limited resources who found themselves in a difficult situation. Although widely tipped to be relegated immediately, Sanzhar’s men have impressed and finished 8th and 9th, respectively, in the past two seasons, and in 2015 reached the semifinals of the domestic cup.

There is, however, a darker side to Olimpik’s success story. The club have long been dogged by match-fixing allegations, and in July the Control and Disciplinary Committee of the Football Federation of Ukraine fined them 100,000 hryvnia (less than $4,000) for fixing a U-21 match against Karpaty.

One of Olimpik’s most notorious “strange” matches came last September against Shakhtar, the last time the two teams played each other with Olimpik as the nominal host. The match was full of oddities. In one now infamous incident, Olimpik’s captain Dmytro Hryshko found himself completely out of position, which led to Shakhtar being awarded a penalty and an Olimpik player being sent off. After some halfhearted appeals to the referee, Hryshko was caught on camera laughing with Shakhtar’s winger Bernard—hardly the type of behavior befitting a captain.

That penalty equaled the score at 2-2, but instead of desperately holding on to the lead Olimpik seemed to open as much as possible and invited pressure from Shakhtar. When Shakhtar finally took the lead in stoppage time, there was a blatant offside in the build-up—but not a single Olimpik player protested to the referee.

While this is all conjecture and nothing about that match was proven, the sheer extent of these types of incidents over the course of the past two seasons—even in untelevised friendlies at training grounds—have earned Olimpik an unwelcome reputation.

On Saturday in Sumy, however, there could be no questions raised about the integrity of Olimpik’s performance. Ivan Matyazh’s 80th minute equalizer earned his side a surprise draw. Olimpik became just the second team after Dynamo Kyiv to take points from Shakhtar, who remain undefeated and remain in first place.

There has never been any doubt that Olimpik are capable of playing good football. Sanzhar is considered one of Ukraine’s brightest young managers, and as Saturday’s match demonstrated they are never an easy fixture, even for Ukraine’s elite. Olimpik now sit comfortable in sixth place in the table, and Sanzhar is determined to fight for a European spot. But shedding their dark reputation as prolific match-fixers will not be an easy task.

Ukrainian Premier League roundup – Talking points:

  • Yevhen Khacheridi’s dramatic 94th minute header leveled proceedings at the Chornomorets Stadium in Odessa. Unfortunately for the Dynamo center back, he scored on the wrong end and cost his side two points. This was a golden opportunity for Dynamo to gain ground on Shakhtar, but they were unable to take advantage after another mediocre performance. The pressure remains squarely on manager Serhiy Rebrov, who after the match was faced with some uncomfortable questions regarding the refereeing – Chornomorets were denied a clear penalty in the 10th minute, and concerns have been raised over biased officiating in favor of the defending champions.
  • Zirka Kropyvnytskyi (formerly Kirovohrad) defeated Vorskla Poltava for their third victory in their last five matches, a massive turnaround after picking up just a single point in their first six fixtures of the season. The club’s president commented on the fact that the victory coincided with the club’s 105th birthday – a dubious claim considering that Zirka has been through numerous revivals and bankruptcies since the first football team founded in the city in 1911. For Vorskla, meanwhile, this was a fourth straight defeat. “I know the reasons for the defeat,” manager Vasyl Sachko told the media. “We need to solve the problems, the figure out what’s going with the team and the club,” he continued, casting doubt on his original statement.
  • Oleksandriya are proving that last year’s impressive season was no fluke. A 2-0 defeat over Stal has propelled them to fourth place in the table, and they look set to challenge for a European spot for a second straight season. Who could have ever predicted those words two years ago, when they refused promotion from the First League to the Premier League for financial reasons.
  • Zorya may have made headlines for all the wrong reasons in England following president Serhiy Rafilov’s angry and bizarre rant against the city of Manchester, but on the domestic front they keep on winning. A 2-0 victory over Volyn puts the back in a tie for second with Dynamo, and the only two matches they have lost all season have been to Dnipro and Shakhtar.

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.