How fierce is the lions roar now?
The ‘Vienna of the Carpathians’ among many other titles has been bestowed upon the picturesque city of Lviv, situated in Western Ukraine around 400km west of Kyiv. Its location near the Polish border has ensured that it finds itself as a bastion for Ukrainian culture. The central European influence in the architecture draws hordes of tourists to the cobbled streets of the old town each year. It was my fourth visit over the last few years, but football was top of our agenda this weekend.
Welcome to Lviv
Lviv football is in a juxtaposition presently, with dangers and opportunities colliding with regular frequency and leaving the city on the brink of an unclear journey. The two top teams in the municipality, Karpaty Lviv and FC Lviv, sit in the bottom three of the Premier League and are battling the avoid the one relegation place on offer this year. Whereas, Ruhk Vynnyky, who we have seen twice this year, is sitting at the top of the first division, benefitting from their new vast investment. They look ready to achieve promotion to the top table next year. Alongside these contrasting fortunes, the Arena Lviv, which opened in 2012 for the European Championships sits idle, as the clubs use the older Ukraine Stadium. We were entering a curious situation on this Saturday morning. However, we had given ourselves an extra day to enjoy the tourist traps before game day.
It was our first time visiting in winter, and the city was alive with preparation for the Christmas season. In Ukraine, just like other parts of Eastern Europe, the season starts a little later due to the Orthodox Calendar. As such, we do not expect the markets to open until next week. The Lviv preparations do look superb, though, and many bars and restaurants were already prepared for the festive celebrations. Sadly, the colder weather forces tourists to dive inside the buildings instead of enjoying the multitude of summer terraces; however, we did not feel over-crowded.
The warm fires and ornate decorations gave the restaurants a homely feel, and we happily spent hours wandering between them. A nice little winter bonus awaited us at our favorite Cherry Liquor distributor. They were serving boiling hot cups of the tasty cherry delight that warmed us up on a cold night. I was particularly happy that there was System of a Down, playing at the serving hatch. We had a long discussion about the band – the barman was envious of our trip next summer to Krakow (first time live in concert).
Searching for help
As our project has developed, we have developed some routines as we adapt our methods for traveling around Ukraine. One of the beneficial activities that we have discovered has been contacting the football clubs before the trip. We usually can find out if there will be people available for a chat or if we have any barriers that we have to overcome. Most clubs are happy to chat even if they are a little busy in preparation for the game. Some clubs are a bit confused as to why a British blogger would be interested in their club. Karpaty Lviv proves to be slightly more troublesome than other experiences. As you would imagine, their website had several contact numbers advertised, which unfortunately proved unsuccessful. I only received a pre-recorded message and then a dead tone.
Route 1 quite clearly blocked, but we persevere. I opened my contact book, which has grown extensively this year and started to reach out to the football community. I was lucky enough to receive the contact details of one of their lead supporters – I reached him. Still, he would not speak to anyone officially. He did wish me a happy time in Lviv, though, so I was thankful for that. I was then introduced to some interesting characters who are involved in an engaging initiative called EuroFanz.
An interesting side discovery
EuroFanz is an annual football tournament organized by supporters of Karpaty Lviv. It brings together football lovers from across the continent. The gathering not only promotes friendship and unity amongst fan groups but also provides a friendly football competition played at the stadium in Lviv. Since its inauguration in 2007, it has grown to include over 20 different representative groups. It provides charitable support for local orphanages in the Lviv region. It really is a fantastic opportunity for fan groups to mix in a friendly spirit. I will work actively to bring more representation from the UK for forthcoming editions of the tournament. It is definitely a shining beacon in some difficult times for football in Lviv.
There may be troubles ahead.
We spoke with Sofia, a local sports journalist attached to the clubs in Lviv, who gave us the situation. I must thank Sofia much for her support, as we would not have such a deep understanding without her. The main arena in Lviv was built in preparation for the Euro 2012 and hosted with great fanfare many games. The success of the stadium ensured that the national team continued to play several international games there yearly. I wondered why the local clubs had not taken advantage of such a fantastic facility, especially given that Oleksandriya is using the stadium for their Europa League games. Nevertheless, the reason became quickly apparent when I became aware of the fees accrued by clubs wishing to play there. It would be almost impossible in the present climate to make anything other than enormous losses, so the stadium remains unused quite regularly.
Due to this, the local teams use the vast yet older Ukraine Stadium located in the southeast of the city. Their annual rent is a token gesture of 1uah (less than a penny in GBP), which provides them with facilities that are sufficient to meet the demands of the Premier League in Ukraine. There is enough evidence to suggest that the proposed renovations, which are scheduled for 2020, will take place. We saw many materials scattered around the edge of the stadium complex on match day. The stadium needs some love and care. Still, it retains a lot of character, with memories of their successful past evidence in the complex. The clubs most important day occurred back in 1969 when it won the USSR Cup and held the record as the only lower league team to have achieved such accolade.
The team has had a poor season so far and finds itself joint bottom of the league. Accordingly, the supporters have voted with their feet, and we had no issues securing tickets for the match. The tickets were available from an old shack, which we had to wade through the weeds to get to – it was quite a sad yet amusing sight. However, the graffiti was very impressive around the edges of the stadium complex. It made for a pleasing spectacle and showed what passion does exist inside. Many of the banners throw out their support for Stepan Bandera. Bandera was a Ukrainian nationalist who led the militant wing of the nationalist movement around fifty years ago. A KGB agent in Germany killed him in 1959, becoming a folk hero for people of Western Ukraine.
The stadium is a large bowl, which sits in a valley within a hilly suburb of Lviv. As you enter the ground, the bowl descends below you, making it quite unusual in its construction. We found a merchandise shop by the entrance, with a decent selection of gear to buy. It is clear that the club has money and is poorly spending it on the playing squad. The supporters were decked out in a good selection of the club colours, highlighting how they invest in the club. With only 800 supporters in attendance, the stadium looked vast, and several sections were utterly unused. We were able to walk around the top of the stadium throughout the game, taking in an excellent array of vantage points.
It was nice to see the food and merchandising available for purchase around the complex. The fans in Lviv are taken care of well of the pitch. It seems, however, that the team has received less care and attention over the last few years. The owner has turned the club into a merry-go-round of managers over the previous few years, and the team is less than settled. It appears that the team is now producing the results that such instability merits. It was with a tinge of sadness that we left the stadium after a shocking 6-2 defeat for the home team. We had the goalkeeper sent off, and the local fans attack a TV camera before leaving the ground. With the advance of Rukh this year, it is concerning for Karpaty that more fans will drift away over the next few years, reducing them to the lower ranks. Seeing the competitiveness of the lower league on many occasions as well, it is highly questionable if the club will return in the immediate future as well. The times are fascinating in Karpaty.