We had a touch of the old in Sumy Oblast
Football in Ukraine is widespread and takes place in all areas of the country, from park level to the highest echelons of the international game. This was highlighted recently by the Senior National team qualifying again for the Euro Championships. In rural Ukraine, the local Championships allow communities to come together to support their local club to compete for regional pride. Every weekend during the warmer month, local league games bring teams together across all 24 Oblasts. They allow young players to make a name for themselves while former professionals can enjoy themselves before retirement.
Welcome to Sumy Oblast
Sumy Oblast in the north of Ukraine has only one professional club, so we took the opportunity to dive deep into the regional leagues for a game between Shostka and Veletin Hluckiv. I have to give credit to Alians Lypova Dolina for their success this season in the professional leagues. We look forward to catching up with you in November, but Shostka is one of those irresistible places. The Sumy League takes place over two phases, either side of a short summer break, so we caught up with this league with only three games to go. Shostka was rooted to the bottom, and they had suffered some catastrophic defeats over the last six months. However, we traveled optimistic of a good game.
Moving into October, there was a distinct chill in the air, and the leaves had turned a beautiful array of autumnal colors as we quickly approached Sumy Oblast. I should take a moment here to acknowledge the improvement of the roads in general across Ukraine. Only a year ago, it would be a journey full of dread, but continuous improvements have improved road quality no end. It makes driving in these conditions a real treasure. It also enhances driver confidence when there are fewer hidden potholes to rip your tires to pieces as has happened elsewhere in the country.
Shostka is a small town located around thirty kilometers from the main highway. It was with some nerves we turned off the main road and headed north to the Russian border. However, it was misplaced as further investment had tidied up the way quite impressively, and we arrived in the small town well ahead of schedule. As an Englishman, it is not the easiest to approach strangers for directions, but Ukrainians are very welcoming, and the first local gave us beautiful instructions on how to find the ground. Shostka was a lovely clean small town, and there were many commercial enterprises taking place during this October weekend. We were happy to note several small shops on arrival near the ground and took advantage of the lessons learned earlier this season. Stocked up on tasty coffee and some snacks, we were set for matchday number 14.
Time for the ground
The ground itself is set in quiet leafy surroundings a far distance from the main road. On entering the sports complex, we passed several beach volleyball courts that still look relatively well used. I imagine that there is less call for it over the winter months but an excellent opportunity to keep active nonetheless. A tree-lined pathway took us towards the stadium, which was full of atmospheric charm. Despite our early arrival, there was a good crowd congregating from both sides. Shostka has been having an abysmal year and finds itself rooted at the bottom of the league by some distance. However, a few hundred spectators took time out of their afternoon to support their community. Hluckiv had brought a few hundred supporters as well with them for the game despite the long distance. It all added up to an impressive turnout for a fifth level game. It really did highlight the role of the amateur game away from the significant settlements. The local guys from the small towns still bond over their local clubs.
As the game started, we noticed the role of the game for the followers of the club. There was lots of friendly conversation between everyone, and picnics were being shared out amongst the crowd. It was a great communal gathering. Cognac and vodka were consumed by the bucket load, and snacks were being devoured. It was also apparent that there are strong links between the team and the supporters, with lots of joking going on. There was a lot more interest in the crowd than in the game itself, which, to be honest, was low on quality.
The stadium was an eclectic mix of old and new, which left us all in a confused state. As with a few other grounds at this level, we noticed that there was a new artificial pitch laid out. A brief discussion with a few of the local guys informed us that the pitch had only been around for a few years. There was also a good selection of new seats on the first side of the ground. They were bolted onto the wooden benches that had existed previously. Most of the visiting supporters had assembled in the newer part of the ground. This stand also housed the changing rooms, which were full of character. Well, they had to be given that there was no electricity – they looked like prison cells. I did feel sorry for the home team who were trapped in them and yelled out by their coach for fifteen minutes.
The far side proved more popular with the home supporters, and there was a large crowd on that side of the pitch. I was surprised as the benches were rotting underneath them. However, there were many happy people, chatting away and enjoying some friendly banter. I did raise a smile when I saw and several older men enjoying a conversation over the fences that backed the stand. Both ends were open and, just like the previous week, devoid of supporters. Although open, many youngsters did take advantage of this and rode their bikes in these underused spaces.
Chat with the Boss
After the game, we were fortunate to spend some time with Veletin club president Mr. Alexandr Vailo, who gave us insight into the club. He explained that the club was backed by the agricultural industry, as has been a common denominator across the country. It was the difference between the two clubs as it allowed them to develop the quality of the squad. It was noticeable that there were foreigners in the Hluckiv side, who traveled from their university base over 90 minutes away each week for the game. Mr. Vailo explained that the players outside of the town, only visit for the games themselves and train elsewhere.
Despite a noted lack of support from the town’s administration, there is a desire for the team to exist. The majority of the players are local to Hluckiv, and there are a number of youngsters actively involved in the club. I noted this the next day when I was fortunate enough to stumble on a training session at their home ground. There were a large number of young boys milling around the complex, if not participating, spending time with their friends. He also explained to us how the sponsors of the club are willing to delve further into their pockets if the club continues to grow. It does aspire to turn professional in the future. However, only with success at this level will finance grow.
Veletin Hluckiv highlighted further the impact of the agricultural industry on the game in Ukraine in the post-2014 revolution era. The rural town’s club can draw on the finances of the collective farmers’ cooperative to develop further. If this was in a city, it is questionable whether this source of income would be available. Across Ukraine, there are endless stories of small-town / village teams that are finding untold success in the growth of this industry. As mentioned in earlier articles, Kolos from the Kyiv region is the shining light, competing successfully in the Premier League in their debut season.
The future of football in Ukraine
It does raise the interesting question about the IT industry, which has also had much success over the last few years in the country. It would be great to see some of the new and less corrupted millionaires from this industry, share some of the wealth in the smaller markets to provide further competition. Across the leagues, there are multitudes of opportunities for larger communities to build more successful outfits that will raise the standard across all of the associations. It will be exciting to see how a noted success Zorya Luhansk have managed to keep their high standard of football continuing. Their success has happened while without any access to such finances during their time in exile.