As many domestic football clubs collapse, sports pundits are still in shock at what Ukraine has been able to achieve under its current circumstances — finishing at the top of its group. Ukraine’s Euro 2020 (now scheduled for 2021) qualifying performances have brought out the nostalgia of the past when Ukrainian clubs regularly struck fear into their opponents in the 1990s – especially the legendary late 90s Dynamo Kyiv side featuring the deadly strike partnership of Andriy Shevchenko and Serhiy Rebrov. Among their past victories was dismantling the famed FC Barcelona, 3-0 in Kyiv, then again, 4-0 at Camp Nou in 1997.
In the Soviet Union, funding for football teams came directly from the centralized government to operate. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, all of a sudden, clubs needed to operate like a business and find different ways to stay afloat. Meanwhile, Ukrainian businesses in general were not in a good position to fund clubs. Sponsorships were rare, and maintaining infrastructure — let alone payroll — was a major challenge.
In addition to financial hardships, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was not able to build off of its impressive football heritage, and many top Ukrainian players were persuaded to play for the Russian national team. The key reason was that FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) and UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) decided that Russia would be the official successor team of the Soviet Union.
This was extremely unfair and damaging to several Eastern European states and especially to Ukraine, since Ukrainians formed the majority of the USSR’s national team starting lineup at the team’s peak. At Euro 1988, where the Soviet Union finished in second place – the squad consisted of 13 Ukrainians (out of 20 players) and almost the entire lineup were Dynamo Kyiv players in the final match against the Netherlands.
For a long time, football in Ukraine has been stagnant — even before the war with Russia. Today, there are almost no bright spots left. Foreign stars are leaving, clubs are collapsing, near zero attendance, and most of Ukraine’s football infrastructure is in severe decay. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s third-best team, Zorya Luhansk, has had to resort to other means to prevent the club from imploding. According to Zorya’s former director, they have had to buy young players that cannot break into the big clubs, develop them, and try to sell them once they bloom. Even with the Donbas invasion and the relocation of Zorya, the club has done relatively well in the Europa with almost no resources and under the threat of constant collapse due to financing issues. They ended up with no fans and no infrastructure, not to mention staring bankruptcy in the face. They were moved 400 km southwest to the city of Zaporizhia.
It is not uncommon to hear that Ukrainian clubs have not paid their players’ salaries for many months. It has become all too common to hear that various clubs are folding or in threat of collapsing across Ukraine’s top footballing divisions. Chornomorets Odesa even offered their players houses to cover their salary debts.
In the face of a war with Russia that has killed thousands of people and disrupted the lives of millions, more than 20 Ukrainian clubs have been dissolved in the last few years. Many clubs no longer have youth divisions or scouts, choking Ukraine’s domestic league to death. Many other clubs are experiencing record low attendance even before COVID-19. With so many smaller clubs struggling, as well as bigger clubs like Metalist and Dnipro going bankrupt, the league was first reduced from 16 to 14 clubs following the 2013/14 season, and then from 14 to 12 clubs following the 2015/16 season. Just this year, the league increased to 14 this season (20/21) & will expand to the pre-2014 size of 16 at the start of 21/22.
The struggles of the Ukrainian domestic league has had serious implications for Ukraine’s standing in European football. The concept of the UEFA country coefficient is especially relevant. Association club coefficients are rankings “based on the results of each association’s clubs in the five previous seasons of the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League.”
These rankings are critical for clubs because they ultimately determine how many European spots will be granted to each member association for the following season. The more successful a country is in the European competitions, the more money they will receive for participating — thus, allowing clubs to manage and grow their operations. These were, and still remain, key revenue streams for Ukrainian clubs. Before the 2014 invasion, the Ukrainian Premier League was ranked by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) as the seventh-best in Europe — one spot above the Russian Premier League — giving them about five European slots for their teams. Now, Russia is in 7th place, and the Ukrainian Premier League sits in 10th place and is in danger of losing several slots.
By invading Ukraine, Russia ensured a corollary blow to the nation’s once highly competitive football league. Many foreign players have been leaving the Ukrainian league and Russia has been steadily climbing the UEFA coefficient. In effect, Ukraine’s rapid rise in European football was quashed with Russia’s invasion.
The top clubs underperformed in Europe in the 2019-20 season. Shakhtar were knocked out of the Champions League, and Dynamo Kyiv crashed out of the Europa League group stage last season— all demoralizing — so it is amazing that the Ukrainian National Team has still performed well. The perseverance of Ukrainian footballers is even more laudable, given that no Ukrainian top players are prominent across Europe.
An honest assessment would conclude that Ukraine’s top players, such as Yevhen Konoplyanka, Andriy Yarmolenko, and Oleksandr Zinchenko are actually mediocre by footballing standards. Ukraine’s star wingers Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko are both struggling to become starters and, at times, just to remain healthy. Konoplyanka bounced around Europe between FC Sevilla (Spain) and FC Schalke 04 (Germany) and has since returned to Ukraine to Shakhtar Donetsk, where he usually sits on the bench. Yarmolenko has been injured and has missed most of the last season for the English Premier League club West Ham United. Moreover, he has been struggling for several seasons. Zinchenko is a backup left-defender for the English FC Manchester City. The only bright spot remains Ruslan Malinovskyi who currently plays for Italian club Atalanta, but has failed to cement himself as a starter.
Ukraine somehow has managed to punch above its weight, to qualify for Euro 2020 against European heavyweights like Portugal and even thrashing Serbia 5-0 in Lviv. Given the circumstances, Ukraine has achieved a remarkable feat, winning six of their eight qualifiers for — what will now be — Euro 2021, and only drawing their away matches in Portugal and Serbia, to secure their place.
Ukraine finishing at the top of their group was one of the biggest surprises — and upsets — in Euro 2021 qualification. The team delivered a magisterial performance, managing to finish ahead of the defending European champions, Portugal. If Ukraine can continue the form shown in qualifying, they can make it far into the knock-out stage of Euro 2021. Then, the real knock-out will be — not to the opponents in the West — but to the aggressors in the East.
*David Kirichenko is an editor at Euromaidan Press, an online English language newspaper in Ukraine.