We headed deep into Ukrainian Culture for our 21st game of the year.
After a brief rest and recuperation period back in Kyiv, we found ourselves at the central train station, getting ready for the long haul down to the Ukrainian heartland of Ivano-Frankivsk. We would be heading the capital of the region, which shares the same name and sits tantalizingly on the edge of the majestic Carpathian Mountains. To satisfy our need for a good night’s sleep, we purchased the more comfortable 2nd class tickets. We found ourselves sharing with an elderly lady and daughter, who only spoke in Ukrainian – I had to apologize for my lack of language. In the Ukrainian heartlands, Russian is not a language that is appreciated, so the few words of Ukrainian do raise a smile. We had a good night’s sleep. We surprisingly found a hotel owner who willingly let us pay just a couple of pounds to use their shower facilities. They were great, and we felt fresh to take on the icy conditions of downtown in search of breakfast.
Diving into a beautiful city
The city was a real treasure trove of tasty of delights for us to sample. We were delighted that we had a good few hours to wander around the old town, with its cobbled streets stopping traffic on this quiet Sunday morning. The coffee shops had a plethora of snacks to warm us up, and the strudel bar kept us cozy for a good hour. Unfortunately, our first coffee shop had a power cut, so we had finished off breakfast without any ambient setting music. The buildings differ significantly in the region from regions further east, with a higher European feel running over them. The soviet architecture feels a distant cousin while in Western Ukraine and provides a delicate balance to the harshness elsewhere.
The Ruhk Stadium was located in Shevchenko Park, a beautiful forest region to the south of the city. We had time for a leisurely stroll around and burned off the calories we had consumed earlier in the day. The park was showing signs of the winter onset. Trees were bare, and the ground submerged in a barrage of leaves, presenting the multitude of autumnal colours. It was a picturesque sight but onwards to the stadium, and its enormity dominated the park in the manner of an alien ship in one of those sci-fi movies of the last century. With its 15,000-stadium capacity, the Rukh Arena is one of the most significant constructions in Ukraine, even if it has seen better years. The multi-tier building was opened over a hundred years ago and has been redeveloped on numerous occasions. One, of which, is still to be completed.
Welcome to the club
As we approached the ground, the problems confronting Prikarpattia became abundantly clear, with legions of police in front of the stadium highlighting some of the trouble that has occurred this season. The Ultra group is quite significant in number and occupy Sector 1 of the main stand. Their main group members deserve credit for the time and energy they spend traveling vast distances supporting their team. We spoke with one of the supporters, who had recently gone to Kramatorsk over 20 hours away by road for one of their furthest road trips of the season (they lost 2-0). Oleg, the club’s press secretary, met us outside the ground and provided us with some fantastic hospitality. With our press passes, we were whipped through the security check and into the main complex, and then finally pitchside.
It was here where we discovered the club identify as a focal point for regional culture. The club describes itself as the Atheltic Bilbao of Ukraine, which would prove quite an apt depiction. Atheltic is famous globally for picking only players from the Basque region of Spain, a fiercely independent and proud region of Spain. Prikarpattiya similarly only recruits players from the Ivano-Frankivsk region, and I was more surprised to find out that they are owned by the city government. Sponsorship provides a viable source of further investment to bolster the clubs accounts, and the stadium was adorned with banners of several local companies. They also run very successful youth teams, with players joining them from across the region. It is noticeable that there is only one other professional club in the area, in the small town of Kalush. Due to this concentration of enthusiasm, the club attracts one of the most enormous average gates in Ukraine. This is despite sitting outside the Premier League (at the time of writing, it was in fifth place for the whole country).
Before kick-off, the club had another treat in store for us tucked away deep under the stadium complex. The club manager, who has several other roles around the club, took time out of his pre-game preparation to show us around the marketing department. Oleg explained that they prepare their own material for sale to supporters, and they had a vast treasure trove of treats available for us to explore. We learned how he spends his week working on designing and producing new products to enter the market. It provides a healthy return for the club coffers. Our time was sadly not too long as he naturally had things to do, but we managed to catch a few minutes with the club president as well, who was happy with the club progress this year. Everyone that we spoke to pre-game made it abundantly clear that the club looks to remain in the second tier for the short-term future. This is mainly due to the club not wishing the risk the finances that they believed, premier clubs are now budgeting for the yearly survival.
Oleg took us up into the stands for a vantage point for the game. The two main stands had two tiers, the second of which were open to the elements. There is only one stand public presently, as I mentioned before, and only the bottom layer was available on this matchday. Behind the goals were two curved terraces, which were again open to the elements and shut presently. Sadly, as seen in many places elsewhere, the athletic track keeps the fans a reasonable distance from the pitch. We headed to the far end of the main stand, where the Ultras were gathered in Sector One. The Ultras had several impressive fans and carried the drum to set the beats for the chat. For the second time on this long weekend, the fans passionately supported the signing of the national anthem, bringing Ukrainian patriotism to the fore. Many of the locals held their hats across their chests and sung as loudly as possible, an important notion given the freezing conditions. The Ultras finished off the game in high spirits as well with the re-singing of the anthem in the 88th minute followed by a fierce pyro technique display to sign off for the Winter break.
Match Day and the visitors
During the game, a couple of incidents cropped up that deserve commenting on as they do affect the experience at Prikarpattia. Firstly, on a less concerning note, the club follows the route shown by many other clubs in the country by not providing refreshments for the supporters. It is clearly an opportunity missed, as witnessed by the long queue by a nearby coffee shop. We made the mistake of joining the line during the break and ended up missing the only goal of the game. More importantly, though, there was a disturbing dispute between the Ultras and the players at the end of the game. I had heard about such problems elsewhere this season and had seen some shocking incidents but never seen it up close before. Yes, the team lost a close game against visitors that ended the weekend top of the league. Yet, the Ultras were using a level of language, which caused some players to lose their professional standards. This frustration was evident across the face of the manager in the post-match press conference, where he defended the team’s performance passionately.
The visitors ‘Ruhk Vynnyky’, from just outside of Lviv, is riding high this year at the top of the league. They have brought in several quality players this summer in the pursuit of becoming the third Lviv team in the top division. Their oligarch owner has transformed the club into a highly professional outfit that even traveled with its own TV Station reporter, decked out in the club clothing. It was quite an impressive sight also if the longevity of the project is dubious at best. The owner has found his wealth in the tobacco industry. It makes an ethical curiosity that a man, who made his wealth in developing cigarettes, would reinvest this wealth in a sporting pursuit. May be laughing at those who are now sick from smoking? Nevertheless, our focus for the day had been the home team from Ivano-Frankivsk and we left highly impressed by both the city and the club, with us all agreeing that we would need to return in warmer times.