A week after having sampled the delights of amateur football at Dinaz, a similar theme came through as we travelled north to Chernihiv for a premier league match between Desna from the city and Karpathy from the western city of Lviv. However, there was a slightly more impressive sight of three female officials taking charge of the game this week instead of the one female linesman from last weekend. For a city the size of Chernihiv, the club has struggled throughout its 60 year history and has only recently reached the top flight last year whilst the Lviv visitors are a lot more established having even knocked Galatasary out of Europe at the start of this decade. Nevertheless, it was the visitors that have found themselves in the relegation places for the final round of this season and a playoff decided next month looking likely against a challenger from the lower league. As expected for the Premier league, the crowd was larger than the last few weeks and it was enjoyable to be part of the pre-match buzz, with a local bar doing a roaring trade of vodka, soup and the nationally popular local Chernihivska beer. The crowd, as has been the case across Ukraine, was predominantly male but there were groups of women entering the stadium. The stadium itself was slightly unusual in design given that both the goals were completely open to the elements with no stand behind them. The omnipresent athletic track circled the pitch ensuring that supporters were a fair distance from the game. Even if it has a dramatic impact on the atmosphere that the ultra-groups try to create, the tracks are understandable from a financial perspective. The attendance of 2,500 gave clear indication of the financial predicament that Ukrainian teams find themselves in since the 2014 revolution (three teams have failed to complete the second tier season). The additional revenue from the athletics usage will help fund the arenas in the medium term to make up for deficits from the football side of the business.
Female football in Ukraine has lacked behind its European counterparts due to a mixture of reasons. The national team for example only made its first European championship as recently as 2009, and even more recently made the headlines in the sexism debate, which still underpins the Conservative culture of this beautiful country. Mariya Kondrachuk in 2017 noted how a video promoting an upcoming game against the Croatian national team was ridiculed with sexist remarks, pulling attention away from the fundamental issue of the game that was about to take place. Whilst just last year Olga Ovdiychuk, of the Ukrainian national team, felt compelled to compare the standard of her team against her male counterparts, in an attempt to cement their status. Therefore you can imagine our surprise when the stadium announcer stated three female officials would be running the game. It was interesting to note the concern that the Ukrianians in our group about how the players would react the female officials and if they would show the same level of respect towards the game (albeit the low level of respect that is shown throughout the game- making this less relevant). However, Kateryna Monzul is proving to be a role model for young Ukrianian. women, having been voted the best female official globally for the first time in 2015 after having refereed the World Cup final during that year. Moving into the male game, the following year, she has continued to break down boundaries for females within the game. This compares even more favorably to France where only in 2019 have female referees broken down this barrier.
As kick off approached, the traditional playing of the National anthem highlighted the integration issues facing Ukrainian teams as well. Since the 2014 revolution, it has become a tradition to play the anthem before the game begins to support the increase in national pride. Nevertheless, it was highly noticeable that the non-Ukrainians within the Karpathy visitors refused to even turn towards the flag with their teammates never mind joining in with the singing. It does make you question the spirit in a team when they can not unify behind a focal point before a game starts. As with some of the other games that we have attended, it does seem that many of the foreign imports are using these contracts as staging posts for the next steps in their careers. Anyway, once the Lviv ultras had settled in their spot at the far end of the opposite terrace – it was quite bizarre watching the ultra-groups stand alone on the opposite side of the pitch and separated by three gigantic flags – the game could commence. Fair credit to the general Chernihiv supporters, they made a greater effort to join in with the chanting than anything witnessed elsewhere around Ukraine so the atmosphere was warmer than usual. Two early goals for either side did help raise this atmosphere – the Lviv goal was particularly special from quite a far way out. It caught the visiting ultra-group unaware and an embarrassing thirty seconds or so of silence ensued before they realized a goal had been scored at all.
As the game developed, the natural controversial decisions had to be made to be distain of the respective supporters, who wanted the coin to fall their way. Our attention moved towards the crowd as curiosity rose as to how they would react – we were not let down. There were a group of young boys sat just in front of us, who had enjoyed the English conversation earlier in the match and were now providing us more clandestine entertainment in their mother tongue. Despite their tender years, they still felt that they had enough life experience to compare the world’s number one female referee to blond car drivers – I know a number of the top racing car drivers are blond, which makes the comment even more redundant. Naturally, it raises an eye to the level of cultural indoctrination that can take place within society if youngsters are able to regurgitate such nonsense with ease. I can only imagine that they have learnt this at home. I expressed these observation with colleagues back in Kyiv during the week, who were more surprised by the level of female participation than the comments that they received as it represented a step forward for society.
Although there was only one more goal in the game, resulting in a 2-1 victory for the home team, the standard of football was refreshing high and both teams battled well during the game. The Chernihiv supporters also created an unusually loud atmosphere for Ukrainian games as the majority of the crowd were joining in with the chants being led from the other side of the pitch. This, as a consequence, had us leaving the game pleased even if wind beaten from the perils of an early spring day in northern Ukraine. The city was more than pleasant and certainly will be worth a return to in the future when football tours allow as such.