Supporter Action in Ukraine

Supporter Action in Ukraine

Our return to Rivne was just as much fun!

Following our last adventure in the mountains, we slowed the pace a little this week. Located 300km to the west of Kyiv, Rivne Oblast is home to some outstanding scenery. The rolling plains make a pleasant change to the forests of central regions. However, the ever-changing historical relationships with Poland and Lithuania have provided Rivne with a touristic jewel. There is a vast array of castles around the area.

Tourism in Rivne
Dubno castle around 50 km from the capital city of the region (Rivne) is an example of this legacy in this part of Ukraine. The castle, although severely damaged during World War 1, received vast modifications during the Polish rule of the region to help protect it from Cossack invasions. The legacy of which can still be seen today. Many Ukrainians visit the castle annually, providing welcome income to the neighboring town. Falling on the battle lines as well, the Ostroh Castle has also received nominations for the ‘Wonders of Ukraine’ accolade. Located a little further east, it has passed between Russian and Polish / Lithuanian hands during its long history. It definitely provided significant protection from advancing forces.

Welcome to Veres
It is within this context that the long history of the leading football club exists (presently known as Veres Rivne), where they have battled for their survival in this sports-mad region of Ukraine. This passion can be seen right up to the present day with one of the most significant supporter movements in Ukraine, keeping the club going through some troubled times. As Volodymyr Grebionkin put it, “We keep turning the pages to new chapters, and the chapters do begin.”

The club itself was formed back in 1957 as a farmworkers’ collective and spent its early years playing in the regional districts of the USSR Championships. Following a change in name to Avanhard (a name that features prominently in the Ukrainian landscape), the club started to grow in strength. This improvement meant that the club made it to the Premier League of Ukraine one year after independence under the newly renamed Veres brand (Veres says Heather in English). Despite reaching the semifinal of the Ukrainian Cup in the early ’90s, the success was short-lived, and the club found itself back down the leagues quickly afterward.

Who is the club for?
The club then struggled on gallantly for a couple of decades before succumbing to bankruptcy in 2011, and the club stayed idle for four years. However, something unique in the Ukrainian landscape took place in 2015. A fan-led Action group with the backing of the local, regional football federation chairperson rebuilt the club. Despite future problems that would even threaten the survival of football in Rivne, this investment in the supporters has ensured that football will remain in the region. I was thrilled to part with my 200 uah to become a member of the club this season. It was also good to note the higher ticket prices and large-scale merchandising in place in comparison to other places around the country.

The supporter run Action group have really mobilized the local community to engage actively with the club at levels that are hard to see elsewhere in the country. During discussions in their downtown club shop, some of their staff explained how this more profound passion not only revolves around football but sports such as basketball. The Action group has also ensured that support remains healthy for the club despite running into some difficulties in recent years. Two years ago, the main stadium in Rivne (Avanhard Stadium just like Uzhhorod) was closed due to unsatisfactory conditions. It has left the club in a nomadic state and having to play in Mlyniv around 60km from the city for the last two years. To help supporters, the Action group now provides transport from the city and back after the game for a discounted price. It also lowers entry to the stadium.

There was a lot more evidence of supporter action on matchday besides the arrival of vast numbers of supporters. As some of you may have seen on Youtube, the club had choreographed a full performance finishing with some choking pyrotechnics. I was informed during the game that the resources had been purchased by the Supporter Club, and most of the participants were supporters who had given up their time. It was also interesting to see that the club President had put the annual budget in the programme for the first day of the season. It is a rarity to see such transparency and as such, highly commendable.

Life without a benefactor
The club does have a shortfall of money against the desired budget, for which promotion is the goal. It is not the first time that it has happened, but the club still manages to fight on. Last year, they averted a potential strike due to salaries going unpaid. The squad had disbanded by the end of the year, with many new additions on the pitch on this recent visit. Nevertheless, optimism was strong, and the team remains unbeaten this season. The club has managed to attract a vast array of sponsors and support from the local business but is not stopping there. Volodymyr explained that they are pursuing further options to plug the shortfall in money. The local support goes as far as the municipal government, with 25% of the budget being provided by them. There is also a guarantee that the old stadium will be ready in two years.

FC Franchise?
Following dramatic challenges of three years ago, it is quite understandable that the supporters are firmly attached to their club. In an acceptable pursuit of finances, the club built links with a company that provided a budget that saw them swop to the Premier League quickly after their rebirth in 2015. Sadly, the relationship soured quite quickly when the company revealed their true intentions of relocating the club 200km south in the city of Lviv. They planned to strip the club bare in a manner not too far removed from the Wimbledon FC story back in the UK. It was only when a swap was agreed with FC Lviv taking Veres’s place in the top division that football was secure in Rivne. As Volodymyr happily said though, “We have turned the page on that chapter.”

Idyllic Mlyniv
Although the club will move forward with a return back to Rivne, I will be sad the see the club leave the idyllic Mlyniv location. The riverside location provides a beautiful relaxing scene for supporters, and a plethora was enjoying the beach before and after the game. The BBQ’s and beer sellers were doing a roaring trade: an added benefit of having the supporter club bringing fans to and from Rivne. From the one perspective, the park setting provides a chilled out area for fans to engage with each other before the games. While the local community benefits from the arrival of Rivne locals every second weekend.

The river, which passes behind the far goal, cuts the stadium off from any further development. However, it must be said that the ground suits the need of the club in its present guise. There is only one stand, which runs half the length of the pitch. The rest of the ground is an open field. The main stand goes quite deep and is quite modern in its construction. There is a lack of toilet facilities which are only addressed by a couple of wooden sheds. The far end of the stand houses the ever-present fire engine and ambulances that sit at every ground around this vast country. The far side of the pitch housed the TV gantry and allowed our flag to make its regular appearance on local TV. It also provided a space for the local Ultra gang to cheer on the team in a more controlled version than seen last season.

We have to comment on the warmth of the fans that greeted us on our return to Rivne. The supporters do make a real effort to ensure that everyone feels safe and welcomed when entering their home – plenty of vodka and cognac greeted us on arrival. The supporters show real pride in what they are building and will work hard to ensure its longevity. There was a moment during the match that really did highlight this for us in the crowd. One of the more contentious decisions resulted in a pitch invasion by one fan who had drunk a few too many vodkas. However, the fans quickly calmed the situation down and kept the angry fan under control for the remainder of the game. It was clear that they were determined to avoid any major problem that may affect negatively on the club, with fans bonding together.

The celebrations at the end of the 1-0 victory were the icing on the cake for a fantastic matchday experience. We will certainly be back to Rivne again in the future and hope to see them in the Persha League soon.

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