We spent tuime getting to know one of the exile teams this week.
In 2014, Zorya Luhansk left Ukraine on their annual winter training camp in Central Europe. It is an everyday affair for clubs in Ukraine as they move to facilities that will help them for the return to spring football. By the time they had returned home, Luhansk Oblast had declared unofficial independence from the remainder of Ukraine. The following conflict has left 1000’s dead, and Zorya unable to return home for six years. It was with this in mind that we boarded another intercity train towards Eastern Ukraine. Our minds were filled with numerous questions about how the club not only survives but also succeeds in exile and the impact of the conflict on the club itself.
Joy on the trains
Before discussing the club, though, we must give a shout out to the Ukrainian train experience as it has improved immensely over the last decade. Introduced in 2012 for the European Championships, they have not only dramatically reduced the time it takes to travel across the country but also raised standards no end. The first-class carriages are equipped with electrical outlets so that we can work on computers during the journey and recline for a good rest. The second class is also spacious enough for a relaxing trip that differs significantly from the Soviet era. The food carriage provides a good selection of hot foods, which proves very popular during every journey. There seems to be a constant line of customers, devouring the hotdogs throughout the entirety of the trip.
Formed in 1964 from the amalgamation of two local teams, Zorya achieved noted success in the 1970s, winning not only the Soviet Championship but representing the USSR at a global level in South America. As with many of its contemporizes, the club fell on harder times during the post-independence reorganization of Ukraine. Nevertheless, the club has been a regular in the top league for the last decade and has competed well in Europe over the past few years. It can be argued that they have been aided by the financial capitulation of some of the larger Ukrainian teams in the last decade. However, Zorya has participated frequently in Europe over the previous six years. It had a particularly special night during the 2016-2017 season, where they were drawn to play Manchester United at Old Trafford, raising the club to an entirely new level.
As indicated by Pavel Kozireff, the press officer for the club, this success has bred more success for the team. The Zaporizhya local government is pleased for Zorya to bring such luminaries of the game to their city. Understandably, they provide access to the Slavutych Arena for a more reasonable fee than they may have changed in other circumstances. The local team (Metalurg) has struggled to find success over the last decade and fails to attract any real support. It is understandable to see this, therefore, as a mutually beneficial partnership for the medium team futures of both parties. Zaporizhya is a large city with many football-loving locals, who will support the team as long as it brings the shining light of success.
Its good to be back in Zaporizhya
On arrival in the city, our memories dashed back to the summer sunshine of August when we visited Motor in the Amateur League. We were able to quickly find a taxi that whisked us past the beaches where we had enjoyed a late August hear not so long ago. It was sadly not so warm today. At the far end of the city from the train station, the ground allowed us to tour Zaporizhya in its entirety. The field reminded me a lot of the New Den in south London being tucked away in the back streets and very similar design. However, we were able to find a delicious burger restaurant after buying some tickets in the home end.
Guide to the Slavutych Arena
On entry to the stadium complex, it was abundantly clear that we were in a Premier League standard ground. All four stands stood ominously over the pitch, and there was plenty of space behind the east terrace where we would be housed. As we most Saturdays, I scout out the food offerings and merchandise – this week, the score was 1-1. There was sadly a distinct lack of merchandise on offer, so the board is lacking a Zorya magnet. However, the food offerings were plentiful, and I did take the time to enjoy a couple of beers. It was a throwback to the UK days, having the queue up for drinks – the length put me off at the half time.
The four stands were very similar in make-up, with the side terraces being covered in part by a roof. It was interesting to see how the stadium shared the same peculiarity as Vorskla earlier this season. All of the stands are raised quite a degree improving the view of the pitch. However, down in Zaporizhya, there was finally a ground without an athletics track. We did celebrate this extensively. I must give credit to the Chernihiv following, which appeared to be larger in number than most that we encounter on our travels. They were located behind a goal, which had a vast (and electronic) scoreboard behind the goal. The local Ultras were found at the other end of the ground.
It would be rude to avoid a quick discussion about the impact of the Premier League on supporters in Ukraine. Sadly, we have found evidence of the problems that afflict the game in Western Europe as well. We frequently travel with our flag across Ukraine, as we like to display it in the stadium when we visit. It does make a talking point, with local supporters and can build new friends. However, we face problems when trying to put up a flag in the Premier League. There are numerous security procedures that we have to pass. It is a real shame and likely to make more supporters avoid the games in the future. It would be more advisable to preach respect amongst fans than the control that now exists.
Problems in Ukraine
Premier League’s difficulties formed the basis of my conversation with Pavel after the game. I was surprised to learn that there is no prize money in the Ukrainian League even for the winners. In comparison with other countries, it puts them at a considerable disadvantage. The money in the English Premier League is well-publicized. Still, Pavel indicated that they do not expect this to change in the near future. He did state that the money from Uefa for Europa League group stages gives their budget a considerable boost. Therefore, missing the third place in the league restricts their potential for the following year. I can only imagine the impact of their Old Trafford visit on the coffers.
Presently, the club relies on the generosity of its owners, who are subsidizing the club with their personal money. It is a similar story elsewhere in the country. Still, Zorya’s need is more acute as they have no access to their home environment. As I mentioned earlier, the club has access to the Slavutych Arena at an affordable rate, given that they bring European football to the city of Zaporizhya. The local club struggles to raise finances, as there is a general apathy towards football in the town. On a happier note, the club has adapted well to life in the city, and they feel like they are at home there.
We spoke a little about the difficulties that Zorya faced, and Pavel explained that he still has family in the Lugansk region. Despite it only taking four hours to travel between the cities, the military checkpoints can add an additional six hours to the journey. It became quickly apparent that his story was not unique. There are many club employees, who are originally from Lugansk and the constant unrest must play on their minds while undertaking their work. Being so far from home, it also proves challenging to attract young players into the club with local teams taking their preference.
Hopes for the future.
We left with a warm affinity to the club. We will always be grateful to the support of Pavel taking good care of us during our visit. The club has had great success over the last decade and should take pride in their achievements. The team may face more significant difficulties in the forthcoming years, with the return to strength of several former giants in the league – FC Dnipro-1 has returned this year. In its present state, I really hope that they achieve their 3rd place target so that they can build more finances for the future. However, they ideally need the option to return home where their affinity remains.
It does amaze me how the football league in Ukraine continues to grow stronger each year despite the problems in the Eastern regions. Next week, we will be able to dive deeper into the rebellion as we head into the Ukrainian heartlands of Volyn Oblast.