A huge club waiting for an investor that will lift it out of the doldrums.
Back in Ternopil at the end of August, we had the pleasure of meeting some Podillya Khmelnytskyi supporters, who had spoken proudly of their club. They were very keen to share the size of their attendance and encouraged us to visit later in the season. With the fixture list in a constant state of flux, we are finding that we are continually looking for new opportunities to complete our project. A trip to find out more about this club was on offer, and we could not refuse. Therefore, we found ourselves on a train heading back into Western Ukraine this Saturday morning, curious about what we were going to find out. Podillya had had a few bad results recently, and attendances had dropped off from a season-high of an impressive 5,000 to around 2,000 more recently.
Welcome to Khmelnytskyi
Khmelnytskyi is famous across the whole of Ukraine for its wholesale market and can draw traders from across the country to exchange goods for selling in local communities. This may explain why the rest of the town is dressed with a tinge of neglect. A lot of the city’s architecture appears to come from the 60/70’s communist-era with dull yet vast blocks of concrete housing its amenities – the train station being the main disappointment. Nevertheless, there is a beautiful charm standing proud in the heart of this merchant’s paradise. The city park sits majestically alongside the river that splits the city into two parts.
Running alongside the river, the city walk provided us with a leisurely morning stroll. I took advantage of an opportunistic pizza seller and grabbed a slice of delicious meat pizza. It was at this point that I realized that we have not seen any pizza slices available elsewhere and sensed a business chance to explore back in Kyiv. The crowd was a bizarre mix of bikers and romantic couples. The cold weather did affect adversely on a married couple trying to take perfect photos to celebrate their wedding day. As we turned away from the river, the changing climate provided the ideal backdrop for the walk through the forest. The trees were abundant with autumn colours, and the windy conditions ensured that we wandered happily through waves of leaves on the floor.
It was at this point that we spotted the park zoo, which always raises some ethical questions for pondering. First, though, we had to navigate the food court area, and the waffles were especially tempting, but I was strong, and onwards, we marched. The zoo was not disturbing first, and swans were free to enjoy the water sources on offer – we also noticed a couple of goats munching on the grass. However, as we turned the corner towards the far end of the zoo, our collective hearts sank. There were two bears locked up in tiny cages not much bigger than themselves. They seemed miserable, and it was distressing to see. It also makes you more determined to support rights groups who are active in Ukraine.
Anyway, on to the game itself, Podillya plays at the Podillya Stadium in central Khmelnytskyi, which opened in 1960 and served the broader community hosting a vast array of sports. Recent renovations have ensured that the stadium can host high-level international rugby matches (Khmelnytskyi is the second-largest rugby-playing city in Ukraine). It also provides a high-quality athletics training facility for Maryna Bekh, who recently won a silver medal for Ukraine in the long jump at the Doha World Championships. As the central city government is the main sponsor of the complex, it is understandable that they would like to diversify its usage. I have to say that the athletic provision was as proper as any seen globally. It was a shame that the rest of the complex belonged at a lower level.
The ground was covered with a monstrous stand that stretched one side of the pitch and went 30 rows back. The view from the top was incredible and provided a panorama of the whole central area. It had turned over a number of the offices on its exterior to commercial ventures, which were unconnected to the sport. On the far side of the ground was an uncovered stand that was raised for storage underneath, providing a fair amount of space. Unusually for such a large complex, both the goals were open and were not useful for spectators in the slightest. Given the modernity of the athletics track, there is a fair distance to the pitch for supporters. Most fans assembled in the main stand, given its vastness, but there was an impressive number out in the open. The raised nature of the open stand allowed for flags to be displayed freely from view.
Ultra Culture Khmelnytskyi Style
It was in this stand that we met the Ultra group, led by Stas. They have a reasonable number of supporters, mainly teenagers, but they do travel in numbers, and it was great to see the drumming on the go throughout the match. We spoke about the differences between the UK and Ukrainian leagues, with Stas pitching the second division on a level with the National League in England. It was nice to hear about their aspirations for the season, given the historical context of the club. He was happy to see the club compete at this level but was not demanding promotion that many of his counterparts would like elsewhere. Nevertheless, he did express his disappointment at the recent results, which had seen the club drop down the table quickly substantially.
Meeting Old Friends
As the game started, we were happy to catch up with Dima, and we chatted at length about how the club has been progressing this year. He explained the poor financial state that the club finds itself in, and there are no major sponsors for the team away from the central government. The salaries are low enough that many players can become targets for corrupt syndicates trying tom influence outcomes of games for betting purposes. He invited us to join his friends over in the main stand, who were happy to discuss the club some more. Climbing the main stand, we soon noticed the abundance of free vantage points, and the guys reminisced about drunken old days where they watched the game from a nearby hotel. They also spoke about their personal football team. I was amazed to witness the depth of desire for football in the town. Their indoor league is the size of a major city back home, with hundreds of teams covering many age ranges.
Where is the passion?
A late equalizer for the visitors from Kyiv left the stadium in silence. Chayka is one of these teams, who struggle to raise a crowd. However, they are backed financially well enough to survive in the professional leagues. A strange atmosphere descended over the stadium where a reluctant acceptance of the result whizzed around the crowd and conversation seemed to move away from football. It was a shame to see the lack of urgency in the group, and it was clear that they were settled in the league. As a few supporters quoted to me, Khmelnytskyi is waiting for its millionaire businessperson to come and invest in its club.
Over the last few months, we have seen several clubs in the third tier, and it is a fantastic league to watch. The league is a diverse mix of classic big city clubs like Khmelnytskyi and up and coming small town teams like Chayka. It does ensure that the supporter culture is active in many of these clubs as the team is usually the one professional team in the whole oblast. Many of the clubs can draw in players from across the region to try out for a professional contract. However, the lack of investment does stop them from making the next step. On the other side of the coin, there are new professional teams with a much larger financial backing entering the league each year. However, they lack the community to drive them forward in the long-term. Maybe this is the future of football in Ukraine. We only need to look at Kolos Kovalivka, who are making their debut in the Premier League this year.
Home time thoughts
When our train finally arrived to take us back to Kyiv, we were fully satisfied with another experience in Western Ukraine. There is a real passion for the game in the big cities despite those lack of recent success. We can only hope that the good times will return to the region and will watch expectantly. We will also get to catch up with Podillya again in a month on our Final trip to the league during our project. We hope that the guys will travel to the game as well. For the next few weeks, though, we will be heading back eastwards to Sumi and Zaporizhia again for our future entertainment.