A hidden treat in the south of Ukraine.
A stroll around the nearby market to the station in Oleksandria gave us a few snacks for our next journey down to Zaporizhzhya. We had made a better selection for our Sunday transport – the intercity. Introduced into Ukraine for the Euro 2012 football tournament, they really are worth the extra few quid for comfortable seats and cleanliness. Modernity has certainly arrived! I even managed to bump into the FC Lviv first team, who were heading for Dnipro on our journey. The discussion with the Brazilian players will be shared another time. The food carriage was hammered – I have noticed that it is always a lot fuller than UK counterparts are. I grabbed a beer and charged up the camera as the afternoon would be hectic.
A warm welcome
A quick three hours whizzed past, and we arrived in Zaporizhzhya City a lot fresher than yesterday. We noticed the increase in heat as we stepped off the train in this southern Ukrainian City. It was the home of the Cossacks (famous Ukrainian warriors), and their spirit would be needed on the pitch today. Kiril, the general manager of Motor Sich, had agreed to meet us at the station and he was right on cue with the matchday officials in the back of the van. We find it helpful to call ahead when we visit clubs around Ukraine, as many teams are always happy to meet with foreign visitors. Kiril was a friendly chap, who greeted us with a hearty handshake and spoke passionately about his club.
Meeting the officials
As the club transport dashed across this industrial city, famous for its steel and automotive industries, we took the opportunity to learn a little more about life as a Ukrainian official. Unsurprisingly, they share their English counterparts’ experience of abuse on the field, holding on reliably to the yellow card when players overstep their mark. More surprisingly, the official progress through a structure similar to the UK, starting at the local level and only becoming more senior once qualified. At the amateur level, it was the responsibility of the host club to arrange the logistics for the officials hence an early start for Kiril. Some of the decisions we would see later on would highlight the difficulties that officials face.
A smile rose to our faces when Igor (the match referee) explained that his second assistant for the match was a female. We have learned over the last few months how Ukraine has been one of the leaders in integrating females into male football officialdom. Many games in Ukraine now have female officials, and there is always a high level of respect shown on the pitch. Everyone in the car was very proud of their leading role in raising the profile of female officials. It has been moved onto the highest stage at the recent European Super Cup game between Chelsea and Liverpool. It was noticeable that both the supporters and players are entirely accustomed to female officials on match day. Not an eyebrow was raised.
A step back in time
Entering the complex, it soon hit us how big the setup indeed was. Motor Sich, it turned out, was the social sporting outlet for an automotive company in the city. They provided a whole host of opportunities for the company employees, ranging from swimming to fencing. Their handball club was the national champion and regularly competed at a European level. However, we were here for football, and the stadium was a real beauty for the historical connoisseurs.
It was an open bowl, ringed with the ever-present running track. We find in Eastern Europe that athletics and football tend to share spaces even if it removes supporters from the pitch. Three sides of the bowl had classic Soviet benches for the supporters to sit on. There was a large grass bank behind the final goal on the far side – the occasional local resident was scampering across it, to make a shortcut to the shops. For this early evening game, the trees that lined the pitch provided great natural shade.
A bit of history
Once Kiril had checked the officials into their changing rooms, he had a chat with us. The club had been the company team for over half a century, competing fiercely with rivals across the region. They now have their eyes on bigger prizes and hope to achieve the professional leagues shortly. The financial director of Motor Sich also acts as the club president. He has been responsible for the increase in funding for the project. The club does appear on a healthy financial footing as the company in the manner of Bayer Leverkusen, or Vfl Wolfsburg meets the expenses. How this supports the development of the club in the future is exciting.
I was happy to spot a coffee van over the far side, which was making a decent trade. It was interesting to note that the players were using the facilities before the game. There was a distinct lack of nutrition on offer, but refreshing drinks would quench any thirst on this scorching afternoon. It was great to see refreshments on offer to the crowd, and many clubs could learn from this. Although many supporters bring their own food and drink, others were using the outlet and providing more income for the team.
The crowd arrives
There was a decent turnout from the crowd, with a few hundred present on Sunday evening. They let out a loud cheer for their star centre forward, a young medical student from Nigeria who had been on the team for half a year. We had spoken before the match where he explained his own transition on to the side. Language does provide a big problem, with communication being passed on through hand signals quite frequently. It took several months for basic footballing vocabulary to be learned. It is something that supporters of bigger clubs should consider when foreign superstars arrive on the team. There is no guarantee that they can communicate with their teammates.
I was interested in finding out about the logistical complications of playing a non-Ukrainian footballer. Despite their amateur status, the players do receive some financial support from the company. Therefore, the international players do require clearance from the ITB (International Transfer Board) before registration can proceed at any level. Kiril informed us that there is an import fee that clubs must pay as well when they receive professional status. This will offset the impact on local youth development.
A decent crowd had assembled by kick off with a few supporters spilling out from beyond the tree cover and enjoying some August sunshine. The DJ had been belting out tunes for 30 minutes before kick-off. His sound setup was very impressive, and there was a high level of volts pounding through the array of wires on the terrace. Despite the technology, the team lineups were handed over on pieces of paper, and they did lose count of the goals – announcing the wrong score at times.
The atmosphere was charming, and the fans mixed freely with the players from both teams after the game – something definitely missing at higher levels. The stadium clearly provides a meeting place for the local community, and there were plenty of conversations taking place throughout the match. Understandably, there were no visiting fans given the level of football. I would be curious to find out how Motor would accommodate them. As we left, it was great to see so many people from the local community there. Even if they were not accessing the football, they were using other facilities.
The future is bright
Motor has an abundance of potential to grow into a stable professional outlet. With the financial backing of the company, it should build a viable alternative to Metalurg (the top team in Zaporizhzhya). There is definitely enough quality on the pitch to compete in the league above them. It will only be a matter of time before they have the legislative structure to match the on-field talents. The remainder of the season will provide a lot of intrigue for the followers of this division. We hope to see them remain at the top of the division
A night out in Zaporizhzhya is always an enjoyable experience – with this evening not disappointing. Zayimka had a great bbq roaring away as we arrived late and beer that was produced onsite (ever a winner). The following morning we enjoyed a final little treat from the city. Being located on the Dnipro, the late August holiday allowed us to recharge our batteries on the beach before dashing back to the train station for the journey back to Kyiv. Next week we face another long trip – this time back to Western Ukraine.