Our trip to the Western half of Odessa Oblast was a great way to start the year
Late July is an earlier than usual start for me on my football trips. However, being in Ukraine means we need to bring everything forward to allow for the long winter break. It is only five weeks since we were in the last game of the previous season. Nevertheless, the warm weather has allowed us to sneak a trip to the southern region of Odessa. It enabled us to take advantage of the glorious beaches that are packed full of sun worshippers and sea-dwelling children at this time of the year. The warm weather provided us with scenery more akin to the Mediterranean than a former Soviet country, and our first views of the vineyards in the region were most surprising. Less surprising in a pleasing way, was the ever-present fruit selling farmers who lined up the roads with their products. It generally comprised of sweet watermelon (some of the best in the country) and other warm-weather fruits that are harder to find further north. The region itself is split significantly into two halves with the Dnister estuary running almost to the Moldovan border to the north. The inlet means that people wishing to travel across the region, either have to cross the Moldovan border or the bridge at Zatoka. The remoteness has given rise to a fiercely proud group of people, who live in the Balkan region and have created their independent way of life.
Founded in 2007 in the village of Zorya, Sarata district, the club Balkany Zorya takes its name from the Bulgarian immigrants who have settled in the region over the last 150 years. These immigrants have created a distinctly different feel to the rest of Ukraine. On our arrival at the ground, it was quite the eye-opener as we saw several community buses arriving from various towns. It brought supporters from around the region to give their backing to a club. The club has risen from the third level of amateur football to the first division in just twelve years. Natalia Parkhomenko, who provided us with a lot of background knowledge about the club, pointed out that three of the starting eleven for the season opener were from the local village. The supporters take great pride in Balkany representing the region at the national level. As more of the supporters arrived, in one section of the main stand, there was plenty of activity and even drums on view. Igor Martynov, who takes part in the leadership in organizing the supporter committee, introduced himself to us. He informed us that the supporters like to reach out to the community throughout the region. They offer support to disadvantaged members of society – in particular highlighting the free football sessions that they run for young children. As kickoff approached, the community feel grew ever stronger as families continued to file into the ground (free entry again) and stopped to greet one another. It was particularly pleasing to see a large number of females in the stand although the men still preferred to locate themselves on the grassy banks of yesteryear.
Rising through the ranks
As noted, the club has been on quite a journey from district football during the last decade to where they are today. Natalia Parkhomenko reminisced about the not too long ago days when the local men would carry benches to the pitch so they could relax while watching the game. However, the club rose to national prominence in 2015 when after finishing runners up in the Amateur Cup competition, they received entrance to its professional equivalent. After a comfortable early-round victory against a lower league team, the club drew the former FC Dnipro (they declared bankruptcy earlier this year) just after their appearance in the Europa League final. With great pride, the club built a new stand to host the game within two weeks of the draw, and a record crowd of over 10,000 saw them run the visitors close in a 1-0 defeat. The club then reached the professional leagues at the end of the season, and steady progression has seen them become a regular feature over the last few years in the second tier. I perhaps should mention here the rise of such clubs over the previous few years. It has provided Ukraine with a pleasant counterbalance the numerous other clubs that have fallen into financial disarray. It was also pleasing to hear that the club has no plans to push any higher until they are financially ready. They are determined to remain a focal point for the community in the long-term future. I was surprised to hear that there is a high entrance cost for clubs to participate in the Premier League in Ukraine – it got me wondering if the same rule applies elsewhere.
Staying true to your roots
Anyway, on to the ground itself as it was quite a pleaser and highlighted the growth of the club through the last few years. The ground entrance unusually comprised of around half the pitch, with formal entry beginning behind the one goal – but the new identikit stand that ran the length of the ground explained this. I can only imagine that attendance figures are the best guess, with security patrolling behind the goal. However, there were many more spectators sat on the other side of the pitch, never passing this checkpoint. The stand itself housed a decent number, being around seven deep and was pretty much full for this opening day game. As with many games at this level, the entrance was free. This enticement allowed many children to run around at the bottom of the stand. Sadly, though, the programme seller had run out of programmes before kickoff, so we were unable to get our usual copy for the collection. The lack of an entry price does show the hard work and determination put in by the financial benefactors here. There did appear to be a lack of income from the local community, who were quite clearly benefitting from the club’s progress. On a more amusing note though, behind the far goal to the left of the main stand, there was a fenced-off pitch, which looked like a practice field and built as part of the 2012 development project. Nothing funny there, I understand, but there were seats strategically placed for the management team or spectators, which had the backs directly facing the main pitch. It looked like the naughty seat for unruly fans. In front of the road that ran around the ground, there were some other temporary seats. Amusingly most of the spectators on the far side of the pitch seemed to prefer sitting in their cars or on their mopeds, parked up on the verge.
We were very fortunate to be invited to the previous day’s training session by the assistant coach Dmitry Parkhomenko. On arrival, the professional standard was abundantly clear, and the team leadership comes from a wide array of talented former players who have had successful careers throughout Eastern Europe. The team seemed well-motivated, and a few players showed real touches of class in the session. It was great to get a close-up of training at such a high level and experience the expectations of players at this level. Nevertheless, a quick look at their opponents on matchday showed the gulf in finances. Natalia informed us at half time that the visitors (Ruhk Vynnyky from Lviv Oblast) had received a vast financial injection this summer, allowing a significant upgrade on the playing staff. They certainly seemed comfortable on the ball showing more composure in possession – it was no surprise when they went 1-0 up early on. Abreast on their shirts was a great symbol of their growing wealth, as Grand Hotel, Lviv sponsored them. The hotel had hosted the club’s recent conferences stating that the team aims to become the third Lviv team in the Ukrainian Premier League. Balkany, on the other hand, showed great spirit for the remainder of the match, indeed being unlucky in not finding an equalizer. Once they had settled, they moved the ball around well and created a plethora of opportunities, with Konstantyn Parkhomenko bossing the midfield.
A look at the visitors
The latter part of the game brought that regular favorite of ours back into the spotlight – the economic footballing migrant. The visitors brought a couple of young Brazilian players (Gabriel and Sidney) to Ukraine last February, and the boys were still sitting on the bench for the game. We met them as their coach was putting them through some training drills while communicating in English; one wonders how they interact with the rest of the team? Gabriel came on as a late substitute while the game was winding down and showed enough potential to merit more game time as the season progresses. Nevertheless, as with our earlier meeting with Olympik Kropynytskyi last season, it is questionable how long they will stay at the club. It would appear that Ukraine is being used as a stepping stone to grater finances available in European Leagues further west. Clubs are finding a balance between this and developing their youth players.
As full time approached, a tinge of sadness hit us that we would be leaving such a warm, friendly club behind. The over-riding memory was of a club, which is a beacon within the community, uniting people behind a common source of pride. It is a shame that the financial backing relies on such a few people. It may provide a barrier for further progress or even be a source of regression if other clubs follow Rukh’s example. We were genuinely welcomed into the club by everyone there and have never had the opportunity to meet the club president before – this sense of pride reverberated around wherever we went. We wish them luck for the rest of the season and will be watching their progress this year. Onwards to Uzhgorod next week.