Ukraine: Where War And Football Collide

BY: Florian Gheorghe

In the war-shattered country of Ukraine, the capital Kyiv has the edge against all foes whether it is politics or football.

War changes everything, from the everyday life of the common folk to the way business is handled at the micro and macro level. Sports in general and football in particular make no exception.

What should have been a unique season with the implementation of an additional playoff stage turned out to be a condensed competition with no home-field advantage. And what should have been just another chapter that would have cemented FC Shakhtar Donetsk’s legacy transformed into a Kyiv affair.

War did change everything…

And it all started in the summer of 2014 when the Ukrainian Premier League’s governing body trimmed down the teams participating at the highest level from 16 to 14. Moreover, FC Shakhtar’s proposal of adding up a playoff stage after the regular double round-robin system was turned down. Most importantly however, almost half of the teams had to start the competition playing all their matches away from home.

Top team Shakhtar had to forget about Donetsk and Donbass Arena – currently hosting humanitarian aid workers – and kept playing their home games in the city of Lviv, some 762 miles away. FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk – another important team affected by the war – left their home town for the quieter Kyiv where most of the time they played in front of just a few thousands spectators. “When you don’t have a home, it’s very hard. You can do it one or two months. But when it’s for more than a year, it’s very hard to survive in this situation,” Shakhtar’s CEO Sergei Palkin told Mashable earlier this year. On the other side, powerhouse Dynamo Kyiv had the opportunity of staying put, playing its home gamesfar away from the Western front. As the season progressed, this opportunity turned into one big advantage that not even Rinat Akhmetov’s – Shakhtar’s owner – multi-million investments could surpass.

As a result, Dynamo distanced itself from the rest of the competitions and won the Premier League – for the first time since 2009 – early in May, with two more rounds to go till the finish line. One month later, the team also won the Ukrainian Cup beating rivals Shakhtar on penalties and completing the double for the eighth time in history.

“It is football, it is shoot-out, it is Shovkovskiy,”Shakhtar captain Darjio Srna said after the loss talking about Kyiv goalie 40-year-old Olexandr Shovkovskiy who saved two crucial penalties. It is also war, a time when continuity can ensure a vital victory. And any kind of support can be a difference-maker like Dnipro learned in the last couple of months.

Although the team moved its headquarters to Kyiv, Dnipro’s players weren’t happy at all. They were missing the support from home… until the late stages of the UEFA Europa League came. All Kyiv rallied behind the only Ukrainian team left standing in the European competitions and flocked the stadium in the semi-finals against Italian side Napoli. Over 60,000 spectators cheered for Dnipro helping them reach the Final in Warsaw.

Dnipro ended up third in the standings behind powerhouses Dynamo and Shakhtar. The UEFA Europa League Final was a very close call; they were eventually defeated by Spanish giants Sevilla, 3-2. A glimmer of hope for all Ukraine, many would say… hope that football can return to normal and hope that a nation can forget its differences.

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