March not only means the start of spring in Ukraine, but also signals the return of football following the long winter break as locals start to venture outside more. The pitches look in pristine condition and players of the three month break by participating in extended winter camps scattered across Southern Europe. Following the epic adventure this winter, bringing our Honda over from the UK, its access all stations with regards to football this year – well work permitting and a quick scour across the fixtures revealed the extent of football played in this great country and the excuses to visit all corners as such. Kovalivka, a small village around 100km south east of Kyiv on the far edges of Kyiv Oblast, provided an early taster for things to come.
The club (KOLOS) has an interesting back story due to being bankrolled the Zasukha family, who have owned the Svitanok agricultural conglomerate since the early days of Ukrainian independence. The president’s wife Tetiana had been reported in media sources (https://jamestown.org/program/pro-kuchma-parties-compete-for-rural-vote/) for her links to presidencies that were tainted with corruption and as recently as the run up to the infamous EuroMaidan protests of 2013/14 for her political rivals being forced into exile (http://khpg.org/en/index.php?id=1364333441) and (https://ukrainianweek.com/Economics/90745). It was behind this background that Kolos Kovalivka were officially formed in 2012 but in the last four years have flown through the leauges from regional amateur football to the cusps of promotion to the Premier League with a run that has seen them unbeaten through the entire Autumn football schedule and sit just behind the reformed giants of Dnipro and Kharkiv.
The village was adorned with photos of Tetiana, not surprising given the forthcoming elections however the restaurant near the stadium was less expected as it appeared to be a shrine to her legacy. AS we approached the village, it was a bit weird that there were security barriers blocking entrance and everyone was made to park up before wondering the streets. The joviality amongst the security guards brought a smile to all our faces, who explained to us about the forthcoming flower festivals that the locals were busy preparing for. Inside the village itself, there were a plethora of prepared flower beds scattered around, indicating the weekend ahead. There were a lot of children, particularly footballers, who were enjoying the peace of the village but we managed to find a place to set up our picnic. I did enjoy the sandwiches, expertly prepared as usual. It has to be said that Ukraine does have a talent for preparing sausage of all guises, even to the level that soy sausages are a tasty treat. As kick off time approached, it was not particularly difficult to locate the ground given the tiny nature of the village. Therefore, avoiding the attractive excuses provided by the restaurant to avoid the wind, we were quickly approaching the stadium, well maybe not stadium but ground, complex.
The approach to the ground took us through what appeared to be a school playground and a few school like buildings. The general perception was that the buildings were a small complex for the younger footballers as a number of them decked out in Kolos black football jackets were wondering around the place. A quick loop around the indoor ice hockey arena brought the ground into view for the first time and what a beauty it was. There was one stand, four rows deep, which held around 300 people that ran the length of the pitch and was face by two small bus shelters that as the designated VIP sections. Behind the goals was open grassland, strung off to the public. There was a lady selling tickets by the ice hockey arena who was our first port of call – you can imagine our surprise when she informed us off the price; absolutely nothing. For the first time since Georgia, we were allowed in to a league game free of charge. It does say a lot about the state of football in Ukraine when they can not get a paying public to the game. It is also shines a further light on the undoubted investment brought by the president’s family into the club. Nevertheless, my eye also caught some programmes available for 20uah (80p). They are certainly a rarity outside the UK and was my first experience of one so quickly found the 20uah despite it being written in a language that I am yet to grasp.
Next to our ticket lady was rather a cute little food concession stall, which was in fact another overturned barrel, with an assortment of alcohol and snacks tidily arranged on it. There was also happily a kettle plugged into an extension cable providing the coffee and tea required on a blustery day like this. The stall was doing a roaring trade, particularly with the beer, ensuring that the spectators were in high spirits as the game began. As the crowd settled into their seats, centre of attention was a group of youngsters representing a local football team and were there on a day out. The kids were enjoying themselves, bringing a bit of atmosphere to the occasion. They even had their own drone that was recording the event and would swoop in over the crowd to get shots in the run up to kick off. One of the great things about lower level football is the opportunity to choose your own seats and we found our places near the half way line. First port of call as always inside the ground is to scout a location for the flag, which was pretty easy and we got set up. The flag, as could have been predicted, brought a bit of attention as we were the only foreigners in the crowd and the St George’s certainly shines the spotlight on us.
The game started at a brisk pace, with Kolos impressing in particularly with the way they whizzed the ball around the pitch, bringing the wingers into play frequently. The number ‘69’ was impressing for more than the number on his back, getting down the right wing with frequent success. Nevertheless, the real entertainment was taking place in the crowd, with some of the local gentlemen engaging in friendly banter with the security guards who were attempting to stop them from smoking without success. These elderly men had certainly been enjoying a few glasses of vodka before the game as they were giggling like naught schoolboys and hiding their cigarettes whenever the security guys passed by. We quickly learnt that one of the security was called Kolya, a local man by all accounts, as he particularly singled out for a hard time. This was interspersed with another unusual scene of them turning around and having conversations with neighbors who were in the front gardens of their houses over the road from the ground. Whilst this was going on during the first half, the game saw three goals, a missed penalty and a sending off (not bad for the first game of spring), with Kolos heading into the half time break with a 2-1 lead and it had to be said thoroughly deserved. They continued playing the game at a faster pace, with plenty of movement up front, creating a plethora of chances that with more composure would have resulted in an even bigger lead.
Following the half time interlude, which was spent investigating Tetiana’s influence hanging over the village with her photo’s adorning the restaurant that I dove into to escape the chilly conditions, the game quickly came to its conclusion thanks to a second sending off at the start of the second half for an over-zealous challenge from a visiting midfielder. There were a number of protests from the players but, as is the norm, he soon left the field and the game continued. The protests gained greater fury not long afterwards when a challenge in a similar vein carried out by a Kovalivka went unpunished by the referee. At this stage, discussion turned to the financing behind the club, with their desire to race through the leagues apparent. The mind does wander towards the corruption and bribery scandals that have rocked Eastern European football over the last decade or so, as there was a clear desire from the referee to give greater freedom to the home team. These thoughts were further compounded by a third sending off for the visitors due to a rather innocuous challenge midway in the half as the game descended into little more than a practice match. One of the plethora of chances created by the home side in the final quarter of the game was converted to give a comfortable 3-1 victory. By this stage though, we had become the focus of attention for some of the younger supporters who were trying to read our flag and a small crowd gathered around it. The elderly men though had turned their attention to the referee by this stage, pleading for more red cards as the team had struggled to convert a number of their chances.
I have to say it was a great introduction into the treasures of lower league football in Ukraine and left me wondering what else is out there. Kolos are such a friendly little club that clearly gives extra meaning to this rural area of Ukraine, despite the slightly murky history of the president’s family. It was pleasing to see them move up into the promotion places as they will certainly provide the top divison with a new dynamic next year – if they go up.