After the first round of elections had caused football to be called off for a week, the weekend brought us to the small town of Lutizh, only a short 40 minute drive north from Kyiv for the restart of the amateur leagues and a fourth tier game between FC Dinaz (officially based in the town of Vyshgorod) and Olympik Kropyvnytskyi from the centre of the country. Due to the nature of the Ukrainian climate, coupled with the dire financial situation within the country, it is only natural that there would be a delay in the league fixtures with daylight hours. Despite the leagues being regionalized to help with costs, many teams struggle to finance their teams for the running of the season and there are already two teams who have withdrawn during the current one. Lutizh was the perfect small location for a game of this magnitude – the local area was peaceful and residents were welcoming to a couple of foreigners who really had no place there. Nevertheless, the first signs of these financial constraints greeted us within minutes of parking up the car. There was a sign for the fan shop, which although unusual at this level, brought a smile and an eagerness to explore. However this was soon extinguished when a passing spectator indicated that the shop was locked up and almost giggled when we mentioned that we’d like to look for a souvenir – why would anyone want that? It did seem that the youth teams as with Kolovika the other week, provide a steady stream of funds with the crowd boosted by many youngster decked out in their training gear. It has become apparent in my time in Ukraine that many youngsters are happy to gamble on a chance to ‘make it’.
Olympik does need a bit more of an examination as they provide an insight into a bigger issue within football in the 21st century. During the warm up, we quickly noticed the high proportion of African players warming up for the visitors; a proportion that would have been unusual at the top-level where foreign players are more prominent. Naturally, my curiosity drove me to e. a little further and an article by Artur Valerko and Artem Tsyhanenko last month provided great insight. They noted that the coach had been approached through the internet by an agent from Africa who wanted to bring his players across to Ukraine on a short-term tourist visa whilst showcasing their talents for other clubs in a more competitive European climate. By the time the article had come to press, two of the players had already found new contracts in China and Portugal, leaving the club in a state of flux. It really has to be questionable how a team can be built when many of the squad are using it as a launching ground for careers elsewhere. This concept does raise the need to consider the product based nature of importing players on mass in such a way. The coach did indicate further that the players, although being provided with food and lodgings, were not receiving a salary with little indication on how their rights are being protected within the country.
The stadium itself was a peculiar little affair that seemed to be a clash of old meets new or at least what might have been possible with a little bit of spring cleaning. As I mentioned above, there was a fan shop and also a coffee shop attached to the main stand, which was a rather grand looking construction, which ran three-quarters of the pitch. Nevertheless, it was also kind of derelict, with little sign of care shown. Bar for the changing rooms, there was little else open so we quickly made for the seats through the same passageway that the players would appear from a few minutes later – little in way of grandeur here. Another quaint side of the stand came with the media / VIP booth which was locked up above the passageway to the half way line. Decked out with comfy-looking leather seats, it was rather sad to see it covered in dust and a complete lack of life. The other three sides were fenced off, making the choice of seats rather simple. The crowd was made up primarily by players and family members of those on the pitch, with a few extras hanging on as well, taking advantage of the early Spring weather. Naturally, there were a few local men in the stand as well, probably avoiding weekend chores in the neighborhood. With kick off fast approaching, our attention turned to the sound system, which looked like it belonged in the local gym more than a football stadium, nevertheless the announcer did his best to get the crowd going and the tunes were more than agreeable. With the winter break having taken up the last four months of the year, there was a sense of optimism on both sides of the pitch as kick off approached, as squads had been replenished and training had gone as well as could be imagined for both teams down in Turkey. Thirty minutes later, it would be distinctly different.
Never in my life have I seen pre-season hope be destroyed like it was for poor Olympik. It was not as much that they conceded five goals in the first twenty-five minutes but it was the complete lack of organization and discipline. It was only poor finishing on behalf of Dinaz that the goal tally didn’t run even higher. What made the collapse even more surprising was the fact that they looked quite potent up front and two of their forwards were causing some damage at the other end of the pitch. However, the lack of intelligent play by the central defenders was quite alarming as the forwards regularly found themselves in acres of space to receive the ball. This ball was being returned quite quickly by a complete lack of a midfield; one of the designated players made his first positive choice by hiding from the ball as his previous contributions was to give it straight back. This calamity came to a crescendo when the goalkeeper refused the carry on, following the fifth goal. He left the field whilst still arguing with a central defender who was quickly moved forward into the midfield. The incredibly poor midfielder was also hauled off for an early bath – mind you he didn’t really cause a sweat during the first quarter of the game.
Although the goals continued to flow for the remainder of the game, the pace of them slowed down following this as Olympik settled into a new-found rhythm. The substitutions provided them with more strength across the field and even encouraged to team to venture forward into attack. It was highly commendable that the team didn’t concede any more goals before the half time break; even if there were a few chalked off for off-side. A big shout out at this time must go to the substitute goalkeeper, who looked like he should have been doing his high school homework instead of playing competitive football on a Saturday afternoon, a few hundred kilometers from home – giving the defense much greater confidence. The second half brought even greater surprises for the spectators – a couple of goals for the visitors as FC Dinaz gave further indication of the struggles that may lie ahead for them during the remainder of the year. The forward line, filled with the African players mentioned earlier, were combining well and will probably not be with the club much longer if they continue to stand out to such a level. The goalie sadly lost concentration towards the back-end of the game and one of the goals stood out in particular, with him being found well out of position to the side of his goal as the ball rolled in the opposite corner. This was one of five more goals in the second half, resulting in a final 10-2 score line for the home team – not the worst way to start the season even though there is plenty of scope for growth. The Dinaz crowd dispersed in high spirits at full-time, as we all passed the next group of players and their family players waiting to start a fifth division regional game later in the afternoon. It is great to see the facilities that are provided for the local communities to come together in such a way. We left fully satisfied with our afternoon but discussion remained about the moody goalkeeper and what will happen to the plucky group of foreigners trying to make their name down in the fourth division of Ukrainian football.