SMall hop this weekend as Cherkasy move to Kyiv.
For this weekend’s adventure, we were expecting to be heading 200km down the Dnipro to the city of Cherkasy for our first experience of football in this central Ukrainian region. However, politics have intervened forcefully and would affect us in a manner that I have never experienced before.
We will get into the whys and the wherewithal’ later. It did, nevertheless, allow us to have a slower-paced weekend in Kyiv, as our match between Cherkasy-Akademia (the only professional team in the region) and Obolon had been relocated to the Arsenal Arena in a small village on the outskirts of Kyiv – around a 15-minute drive from the apartment. We set off this Sunday afternoon on a damp and dreary November day, not sure of what we would find when we arrived, and if anyone for the home team would be bothered.
Problems in Cherkasy
To get a greater understanding of what was going on in Cherkasy, we need to dive a little into the history of the club. Football has existed in the city of Cherkasy for over 60 years, with the former clubs having a smattering of success in the lower Soviet leagues. The central stadium, which has been home to football in the region, has stood proudly in the city since 1957, providing a strategic focal point for all footballing operations in the area. Despite its continued presence in the lower leagues of the Soviet and subsequently Ukrainian leagues, the club ran into financial troubles and was expelled from the league, finally in 2009. Cherkasy-Akademia is officially a phoenix club that grew out of its ashes, with the original club having now resurrected itself and playing amateur football this year.
Cherkasy-Akademia started out life in 2010, on the other hand, as a new initiative of the then region Governor Sergihy Tulub to re-establish football in the area. It received substantial support from the pre-2014 ruling Party of the Regions, with the regional party leader (Volodymyr Khodak) doubling up as Vice-President of the club. At the same time, Volodymyr Lashkul, who would be the subsequent financial backer of the club, was heading up the marketing department of a Ukrainian football federation that was embroiled in a vast financial scandal. Lashkul’s ex-wife was found to be heading up a shell company overseas that was benefitting from the profits of the marketing contracts. It is Lashkul, who has withdrawn the funding of the club this year, placing the club’s future in question.
The conspiracy theorists have argued that Lashkul was trying to maneuver the regional government into a place where they would provide him with land to build a new ground and additional space to utilize for his own uses. It has been given as a reason why the original club has been resurrected recently in Cherkasy city so that football is still under their control in the region. This theory has some credibility since Lashkul moved the club out of Cherkasy city a few years ago and relocated it to the village of Bilozirya further away from the river. It seems quite ridiculous that this tit-for-tat situation can occur in professional football but it has the potential to damage the status of the second tier this season. As with many disputes in the political sphere of Ukrainian life, there is very little concrete evidence even if the precedents point to some murky goings-on.
Moving forward to today, numerous press snippets have indicated that the club is low on funds and may not complete the season, making their games null and void. The club has played the occasional game in Cherkasy at the Central Stadium, providing funds and purpose for the complex to continue. However, the club petitioned the football federation to relocate their game outside of Cherkasy region for this game, stating that the stadium was not fit for purpose this weekend. It should be noted that the Cherkasy government dispute this claim. Nevertheless, the federation supported their petition, so we found ourselves traveling to the outskirts of Kyiv for this game. We were certainly not complaining as it ensured a more massive than usual turnout from the visitors. Earlier this season, I have a great evening with the core Obolon supporter group, so the short journey ensured that a large number of the team would make the short trip to this game.
Meeting Obolon again
Obolon has had a fantastic season so far and has exceeded expectations significantly, sitting comfortably in the promotion-chasing group. This resulted in numbers being boosted to a level where there was a right level of noise created. Oleg, who is one of the key characters in the Obolon Ultra group, spoke with me about their progress this year. He was enjoying the year and impressed how the team competes on an equal plane against teams with double or triple the budget of their squad. I was surprised by the numbers he was quoting as they were on a level with the league below them. The supporters were in high spirits, going through a vast repertoire of songs and finishing off with a colorful explosion of pyro techniques. The singing at the end showed a great bond between players and fans, which has been seen in other promotion-winning teams across Europe.
The ground, located in the small village of Shchaslyve, was part of a more massive sports complex, which appeared to be under the control of Shakhtar Donetsk. However, there were some Olimpik Donetsk employees also wandering around the complex and boosting attendance at the ground.
Around the complex, there were several pitches in various states of decay (to be fair, there was a very impressive training set-up). There was an old indoor sports arena, which I had not noticed until the players emerged from there. It turned out that they used the changing rooms located inside to prepare for the march. There was also quite close by a building, which looked like a dormitory but would not look out of place in a Swiss mountain village, given its Alpine feel.
Nevertheless, the main pitch was slightly fenced off from the rest of the complex, so that there was still an air of professionalism for this matchday experience. The side nearest the complex was covered the whole length of the pitch by a banner promoting the Shakhtar club. You can now understand where my earlier assertions came from. Behind the far goal, there an odd collection of port cabins. I first thought that they were the changing rooms, bringing back my memories of my junior football days back in the UK. All the supporters, however, were housed in the one stand, which had modern seating attached to it. It was the typical affair found across the country, but I am happy to report that there was no athletic track for a change. For the beer drinkers among the crowd, the toilets were of the portable variety and found behind the stand.
Sadly, for me, there was nothing in the way of marketability about the visit. Although it was fun for the reasons above, the complex is not geared for professional football, so supporters were forced to bring their entertainment with them. We managed to find the local shops at half time, and they were making a roaring trade with the visiting guests. We arrived late for the second half, consequently. However, it was clear from our walk around the village that they are benefiting from the resources that football is bringing into their community. There were numerous impressive constructions in the process of either completion or already used by the locals that we have not seen elsewhere on our travels.
Optimism for the future
We were fortunate to meet a few supporters from Cherkasy during the game (they only really announced themselves when the home side scored a surprise equalizer). I had thought that there would not be any given the present climate at the club, but they had also taken the opportunity to come along today as they were based in Kyiv anyway. It does highlight the passion that some people feel for the local clubs and makes me wonder about the potential for teams to grow if they could find a secure financial source. Without the competition in the country, people lose interest, so stronger teams need to be developed and then promoted.
Obolon, who managed to scrape a last-minute winner, is in the middle of an exciting promotion battle, with many other strong teams. Sadly, many people in the country and beyond are unaware due to the poor promotion of the competition and their attention being grabbed by the glamorous leagues of Western Europe. However, there will never be the longevity of associations across Europe if the local ones stop producing top quality young players to move up to the highest echelons of the game. For Cherkasy, the question is, will football continue there next year?