How great it is to see football still alive in Kharkiv
With the former club of the city (Metalist Kharkiv), having disappeared from the radar in the post-revolution fallout of 2014, our first trip to Kharkiv this season was set against a backdrop of intrigue. The old club were regular visitors on the European scene in the first half of this decade, reaching as far as the quarterfinals of the Europa League on one occasion. Nevertheless, accusations flew violently around the country that dirty money from the illegal sales of liquefied gas was the main driver behind this success. The disappearance of the clubs owner following the fall of the Russian backed government in 2014 did not stem the tide of concern. The culmination of this being the club was finally seized by the state in 2017 following a lengthy court case.
Kharkiv, however, had a real concrete benefit from this episode, which was the vast Metalist Stadium. Redevelopments in the build-up to the Euro 2012 tournament had left the city an international standard venue even if the club no longer existed. We had been drawn by this legacy of the by-gone era and were excited by the possibility to tick off one of the great modern stadia of Eastern Europe. Let’s face it, there are not many in this part of the world, which can claim to have held recent international tournament football matches. It is also understandable that Shaktar Donetsk now rent out the stadium yearly to stage their home games since the seizure of their home city by pro-Russian rebels. A few days before our visit, the stadium held sold out for the visit of Manchester City in the Champions’ League group game. We would, however, see a very different standard of football.
Meeting a very new club.
Formed, as recently as four seasons ago, Metalist 1925 was a unison of various football schools in the Kharkiv Oblast. It was an attempt to ensure that professional football remains in the local area so that players have an opportunity to develop a full career in the region. In its first two seasons, the club received back-to-back promotions, the second season highlighted by an attendance of over 10,000 for a match against the reformed Dnipro. The club entered last season expecting to continue its progression through the leagues and return to its home in the top division. Nevertheless, a terrible drop off in form during the end of season run-in saw them miss a playoff match in the final game and consign themselves to another year in the second tier. I have to say it was quite amusing to watch last year. I did raise an eyebrow at the accusations of bribery that we heard this weekend regarding the final match of last year.
As we bordered another early morning train out of Kyiv’s central train station, we had many thoughts running through our minds. Firstly, why did I book tickets from this station again? There is another stop nearer our house, but I digress. We had had an encounter with Metalist the previous week, which had shaped our pre-game thoughts. For those of you, who had read that article, I apologize. We had been warned quite clearly to avoid the Ultra supporters in Kharkiv during conversations with a number of the more friendly ones while in Kramatorsk. Naturally, we listened to such threats and decided not to reach out to the supporters. We had fortunately bumped into one of the team’s coaches while waiting for our train last weekend as well. He had given us his number and had offered to organize tickets for us. It turned out later that he was head coach ‘Andriy Demchenko.’ I must thank him again for the tickets and apologize for the drunken behavior following our wild afternoon.
A quick tour of the city.
Kharkiv, as a city, does not get the highest praise, and it was a place that we had not been drawn to in previous years. Despite being the second-largest city in the country, it had the reputation of Manchester or Birmingham before the upgrades. Its closeness to the Russian border did not add to the appeal. However, it proved surprisingly enjoyable for a short visit – it is definitely worth stretching a football game over a few days. Gorky Park deserves its nickname as the Ukraine Disneyland, covering a functional sized park area – the rides are geared for all ages. There were a plethora of sights for us to enjoy before making our way out to the stadium area; I enjoyed viewing the Derzhprom monster building in the heart of the government district. Built-in the 1920’s, it was the most massive structure of the era before the American explosion of skyscrapers. It still holds the record of most windows in any building globally due to its unique design.
Fortunately, the metro system in Kharkiv whisks you around the city in a good time, and we were able to get quickly out to the stadium. Our journey did not pass without event. At one of the main interchanges, we witnessed several elderly men passing their time with the free-to-use chess tables. The security guard explained that everyone is welcome to join in as long as they bring their own set. We could have stayed all evening, but we had a game to get to. The stadium stood out in its neighborhood like an elephant in a china shop as it rose above the array of housing blocks and factories. It was an impressive sight and would not have looked out of place anywhere in the world. It made a massive change from where we have visited already this season. The pre-game atmosphere was a strange affair as there were hardly any supporters milling around and the exterior of the ground seemed to promote Shakhtar more than Metalist themselves.
Thanks to the coach
Andriy came through on his promise, and we picked up the tickets as directed. Quickly dashing through a side gate, we were on the inside. We need not have worried, as there were very few people inside the ground before kick-off. After having located our seats, we moved more central to try to have a good scout around the main parts of the ground. I noticed the media area that all significant stadiums now have fenced off for the big games. It was amusing that it still had all the paraphernalia from the Champions League game earlier in the week. Why they could not get the game ready in three days, I will never understand. We were allowed access to the VIP area, but nobody was around to chat with, so I took a few photos and moved on.
Getting to know the club
While wandering around, we bumped into a friendly security steward, who was happy to spend his time chatting and giving us a little bit of the back-story. As far as we could understand, the last team fell apart in the fallout from the revolution as the money dried up. The players took what they could and were happy to get out of Kharkiv as quickly as their personal planes could get off the runway. It was a real shame that they could not show the same concern as to where the money was coming from pre-2014, but that is another story. He did explain to us that the new club was under the control of wealthier supporters, which would indicate that the interests of the fans are considered more tightly than before. Nevertheless, I could see the sense of anger in his voice. He explained that youngster has to pay excessive amounts if they want the opportunity to play in the youth system.
Back to the game and with kick-off approaching a large number of Kharkiv ultras made their way into a section behind the goal. In truth, they still were lost in such a large stadium, creating a rather dull atmosphere. We saw the flags waving and several chants being sung. You could not help escape the feeling that you were watching a game in your front room (albeit a rather large front room). The empty seats created an echo around the ground, and you could hear the players shouting instructions in a way that we had heard in Chernivtsi a few weeks earlier. I have to say that the game passed us by in a haze of surreal as it took us time to get our heads around where we were watching football.
Before we knew it, the game had finished, and we were making our way home. The area around the ground was probably the most similar to what we would see back at home. There were many bars, restaurants on the walk back to the hotel. We were fortunate enough to spend a few hours in them as we enjoyed our Saturday evening in Kharkiv.