This weekend saw the onset of wintery conditions in Ukraine, with the temperature plummeting a long way below zero. Engines froze, the water turned to ice, and all untold merriment descended on the city of Kyiv and this football fan particularly. Being a foreigner, I had failed abysmally to prepare for the cold conditions. I had not purchased any winter tires for the season. For the uninitiated like me, this type has extra deep grooves that allow for greater traction on the slippy surfaces. It reduces the risk of an accident and a legal requirement for road users in Ukraine. I had been breaking the law before this if you were wondering. Anyway, after scouring the internet, we found the perfect tire in a garage not far away, and they would change them as well. Therefore, we had an early start on this Saturday morning as we needed to be ready for the 1pm kick-off in Zhytomyr City around one hundred miles away.
Welcome to Zhytomyr
Polissia Zhytomyr is the most recent incarnation of the leading team in Zhytomyr Oblast. You can find it on the next just to the west of Kyiv in Central Ukraine, but the region takes on a real western feel. Football in the area dated back to the Soviet times, with the club adopting names of various guises. It reached as high as the third tier of the Soviet system before maintaining itself in the second tier of Ukrainian football for many years before bankruptcy closing the first club down in 2006. Football at the time was staged at the Central Stadium in downtown Zhytomyr. It was a magnificent complex that could hold vast numbers in its heyday, even if it is now in a state of repair.
Football received its rebirth in 2016, with the new team starting life out in the Amateur leagues like many of the reincarnations turning up around Ukraine. However, due to the state of the main stadium, the club embarked on a nomadic existence, crisscrossing the region, making their home in a variety of stadiums from Korsten to Novograd-Volynsky. Nevertheless, the club maintained steady progress. It drew a reliable attendance through the leagues, finding itself battling for promotion from the third to second tiers in the last few seasons. This year, the city government gave the club access to the recently reconstructed Spartak Arena in central Zhytomyr City, bringing football back to the city for the first time in around 15 years. Understandably, the jubilance of the locals has resulted in impressive attendance and a considerable following traveling around Western Ukraine for away matches. You could only imagine the curiosity that filled us as we approached the stadium on this frozen Saturday. Earlier in the week, I had spoken with Tatiana through the tick office hotline. She had agreed to help us out if we arrived early to meet up with her before match day formalities took up her time.
Building its finances
As regular readers may have noted, I have a thing about the lack of merchandising across the Ukrainian football scene, so our arrival at Zhytomyr started on a highly positive footing. Tatiana met us at the merchandising tent, which had a good selection of souvenirs ready for purchase. I choose a mug and a couple of magnets to add to the collection from the season, which altogether came in at less than ten pounds English, so there were no complaints here. We spoke a little about the club and were given access to the grounds for an unsupervised tour pre-match. We had an hour or so to kill, so we grabbed a good selection of photos from all angles of the pitch before escaping the bitter cold and found a nearby coffee shop to warm up. It was around -7C this Saturday afternoon, so the shop was doing a roaring trade pre-match, with teas flying off the counter. There were also some tasty Georgian snacks to sample as well, which certainly warmed the souls.
Tour of the Ground
The ground took on a simple yet contemporary style, which met the needs of the local fan base. There was one main stand, which housed a thousand supporters, with brightly colored seats, depicting the clubs’ green and yellow colours quite clearly. There were a couple of signs of the clubs social outlook in that there were clearly labeled recycling bins in the stadium. This ensured that supporters were informed to be ecology conscious. They also provided space for a wheelchair. Both of these were unique on our travels this year and were positive signs for the future of football here.
On the other hand, there was a food van, which was refueling the frozen patrons throughout the game. These vans are omnipresent in the UK but was once again a first for our travels in Ukraine. I am curious about the revenue that this brings into the club budget for long-term development, as it may provide further incentive for other clubs around the country.
The rest of the pitch was fenced off and covered with a running track, as is the ‘norm’ in Ukraine. Before the game, we were allowed on to the road and took pictures from all angles. It is a great communal space, with activities available to all ages. The complex even has a sports school, which brings the youngsters from the city together under the Polissia banner. We spoke a little with one of the club directors, and he established how the city government provides for the ground, making such provision understandable. They aim to be there for another couple of seasons until their main field has finished its refurbishment process. The far side of the pitch was fenced off by a row of houses, leaving sufficient space for the manager dugouts but little else. After the game, we made a short detour via the old stadium, which is a large construction site presently. Nevertheless, it will be an impressive structure on completion, from what we saw this weekend.
The club is staunchly patriotic, with Ukrainian culture running through its veins. One of the pre-game traditions in league matches in Ukraine has been the singing of the national anthem since the 2014 revolution. However, this season, we have noted a drop off in the enthusiasm of this patriotic spirit, especially further east, with the anthem being skipped in the matchday formalities. However, the crowd in Zhytomyr stood up, took off the hats, and sung proudly; it was a touching moment. We noticed a large group of Ultras near the entrance, who stopped their stroll to their section so that they could pay their respects. I was surprised that the Ultras turned up so late for this game. They had made a great impression on us earlier this year – we had attended a couple of Podillya away day. Our Vinnytsa road trip mentioned them in detail. However, the cold this weekend, as well as the lack of alcohol inside the ground, made it understandable. \
The Ultras were large in number and definitely had a strong camaraderie between one another. They made their way around the ground and in front of us to the far end of the stand, in a section cordoned off for them. We did notice a number of the fans had stayed behind, though, and were now examining our flag. Our flag traveled with us across the whole of the country as well as to Russia for the World Cup last year, and fans have engaged with it positively. However, for the first time, a group of fans tried to steal our flag. I had heard stories of fans trying to take visitor’s flags as a memento and to insult the visiting Ultras – but my flag was English. I ran round to find out what was going on, and they did look somewhat horrified when I spoke in English to them. They were profoundly embarrassed and handed the flag over, even offering to put it back up for me – I did not precisely trust them at this time. It did make me smile when they wanted to start discussing English football with me (a mixture of anger and tiredness meant they were given a less than polite….. no).
The trip is getting tiring now as we enter our fourth month on the road. There is a wealth of excellent opportunities in Ukraine for the avid explorer, and people, in general, are more than happy to open themselves for you, especially with a bit of Ukrainian or Russian. On reflection, Zhytomyr was a pleasant experience despite the story above, and it will be helpful to return one day. With us whizzing around the country, we had to get back to Kyiv as we had a train south to catch. The high-quality motorway between the two cities means that logistically, it was an easy connect even with the cold and long night ahead. In our case, we also had time to spend at home before heading back to the train station again.