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Sports

Football in the shadows of annexation

It's not just politics that is affected by Crimea's annexation: Russia's influence on the peninsula is changing the football landscape too. Now, UEFA and local clubs want a solution.

"For 30 years I've been a fan of Tavriya," says Igor, from Simferopol, Crimea's biggest city. He was 10 when he first went to the stadium with his father and since then, he has hardly missed a game. Igor raves about his club's greatest moments, such as in 1992 when Tavriya became the first side, after Ukraine's independence, to win the league. He talks about the atmosphere of past games and when the team played in the Europa League. "More than 10,000 of us were in the stadium when Bayer Leverkusen came in 2010," recalls Igor.

The celebration when Nigerian striker Lucky Idahor scored the opener against the German team was something he'll never forget, he says. Even if Leverkusen ended up winning the game 3-1, it was still a special day for Igor because Tavriya really did mean everything. That was until March 2014 when the unthinkable happened: his club simply ceased to exist.

Soldiers arrive, footballers depart

When the first armed troops in green uniform arrived in Crimea to take over the administrative building, Tavriya's first stars started to pack their bags. "I'm scared," said Swedish midfielder Gustav Svensson to Swedish newspaper "Aftonbladet" back then.

As it became clear that Crimea was going to be

annexed by Russia,

more and more foreign and Ukrainian players left. Even the most active members of the fan club fled. "We feared for our lives," says long-term Tavriya fan Oleg Komuniar, who has since the annexation lived in Kyiv.

Lucky Idahor scores a goal against Leverkusen in the Europa League in 2010

The good old days: Lucky Idahor scored a memorable goal against Leverkusen

"Many of us were supporters of the Maidan movement," Komuniar adds. "We took to the streets with Ukrainian and EU flags. When the Russians came, I was threatened. A few of my friends were kidnapped and we haven't known for years where they are," Komuniar explains.

Igor stayed, but he too is afraid. He didn't want his photo published, and even Igor is not his real name. The uttering of the slights doubt as to whether the annexation was good for Crimea can lead to issues with employers or with the infamous police assistants, the "Samooborona", believes Igor.

New club with new players

Not one professional footballer stayed in Simferopol. According to FIFA regulations, professional players in Crimea are only allowed to play with Ukrainian player passes and in the Ukrainian league. However the Moscow-loyal leadership in Crimea were keen to push the peninsular into Russian football and so in August 2014 the club from Simferopol started in the Russian third division, in the southern region, with a new name.

Inside a few months, and not without political support from Moscow, two dozen players from all over Russia were summoned to Crimea and a Russian sponsor was found. The Ukranian past of Tavriya was eradicated: Sport club Tavriya was turned into TSK and on the club's website there was no sign of a previous Ukrainian heritage - they were no longer Ukrainian champions from the 1991/92 season.

UEFA puts their foot down

Soon though, the football functionaries in Moscow and Simferopol were feeling the pinch. After an appeal from the Ukrainian football association, UEFA prohibited Crimean clubs from playing in the Russian league. Those in charge of TSK and the new government in Crimea were on the verge of a shambles.

Oleg Komuniar

Komuniar had to leave Crimea after demonstrations against the annexation

At first, it was completely unclear how football in Crimea would continue. In the middle of March 2015 however, UEFA's executive committee approved a compromise: Crimea will get their own league. At the end of April, a UEFA delegate is due to visit Crimea in order to find out what infrastructure is currently in place. The plan is to start initially with eight teams, but there are only six that even have stadiums with intact stands and lights.

TSK's General Director Aleksandr Gaydash wants the Crimean league to start in August, even though clubs are short of players. "For eight clubs, we need at least 160 footballers. In the whole of Crimea at the moment we have no more than 50 at this level," Gaydash tells DW.

Many open questions

It also remains unclear whether only players from Crimea, or also those from Russia and the Ukrainian mainland, will be allowed to play.

Foreign players

are likely to not be interested in the low wages on offer, especially considering that possible sponsors have yet to confirm their interest. Gajdasch hopes that UEFA will take over the costs. "Even if we just got 100 euros ($108.70) for the league, then we'll split the money and each club will get 12.50 euros each," the Tavriya General Director says, without a hint of irony.

For the moment, UEFA are hesitant to give a concrete answer. Generally, Europe's governing body only supports youth football. It's also unclear whether or not Crimean clubs will be able to compete internationally. "Of course we've asked UEFA this question. They can't just keep us in a cage," says Gaydash.

Fans of Ukrainian club Tavriya cheer on their team from the stands

The majority in the Tavriya fan club want the club to stay in the Ukrainian league, says Igor

Appearances on the international stage are nothing but dreams of the future at the moment. Gaydash must first convince the people in Simferopol to support his team again - local cup games are seeing little more than one hundred fans in the stands. In order to make the break from the original club less painful for fans, the club has once again been named Tavriya, just preceded by SC not FC. "It's still not my club anymore. I won't go to the stadium," says Igor.

Nevertheless, Igor considers the founding of the Crimean league in the current climate a good thing. He says that at least this way, young local players will get a chance to make a good start in their career. He also believes that fans will come to stadiums in the smaller towns because there hasn't been any football in those areas before, but the stadium in Simferopol will stay empty for some time to come: "For people who have followed Ukrainian football for years, a game featuring Zhemchuzhina Yalta is not as appealing as one against Dynamo Kyiv or Shakhtar Donetsk."

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