Soccer is the most popular sport in Ukraine. Most clubs are owned by oligarchs - rich businessmen, who indulge in a luxury hobby to burnish their image and extend their influence.
"Soccer here is not as popular as it is in Europe, or in Germany," said Igor Miroshnitshenko, a sports commentator and politician in Ukraine. "We have so many domestic political and social problems, but interest is relatively high. During the 2006 World Cup in Germany the whole country watched the live sportscasts and rooted for the national team. Even housewives knew the names of the players," he added.
Soccer in Ukraine has been dominated for years by two clubs. A few weeks ago, FC Shakhtar Donetsk won the national championships for the seventh time in 21 years. Dynamo Kiev is the record holder with 13 titles. Nobody is surprised anymore that one of these two clubs is always at the top of the table.
Shakhtar - the dominator from the East
Over the last several years, Donetsk has been dominant - both on and off the field. The industrial region in eastern Ukraine is also calling the political shots in the country. The victories on the pitch are mostly the work of Brazilian players, who were bought for big money thanks to the financial muscle of Rinat Akhmetov.
The businessman, from Donetsk, is the richest of the rich Ukrainian billionaires. Akhmetov is the owner and president of FC Donezk. If Akhmetov is missing anything, it is a strong enough opponent for his team. Dynamo Kiev - not to mention the other clubs - has not been able to stop the triumphant march of Donetsk.
"Dynamo - for a long time the symbol of Ukrainian soccer - is no longer presenting its fans the kind of game they had grown accustomed to," explained Miroshnitshenko, who for a number of years was also the press spokesman of the national squad. "Dynamo lost the championship again this year. Donetsk dominated once more, financially and athletically, and as a result spectator interest has waned," he said.
Tickets for a euro
On average, about 10,000 spectators watch a typical national league game. Even though seats only cost between one and six euros ($1.25-$7.50), the stadiums are rarely sold out. The European championships will give fresh impetus to Ukrainian soccer, national coach Oleg Blochin told Deutsche Welle. His team is taking part in the Euro competition for the first time. At the world championship in Germany in 2006, Blochin's squad surprised everybody, making it into the quarterfinals.
Expectations are correspondingly high, so the coach has tried to lower the bar.
"If we had more Ukrainian players in top European clubs, our team would have more experience. To some extent, our national championships are below the level of the big national leagues in Europe," according to Blochin's analysis.
The influence of the oligarchs
The interest of rich businessmen in soccer, however, has not suffered as a result of these shortcomings. The country's oligarchs are in the game - not so much for commercial reasons as for the status team ownership brings with it. It is a luxury hobby that bestows respect and public recognition on the owner and a certain heft within the exclusive circles of the rich. The influence of the oligarchs also reaches deep into the spheres of the political elite.
Most of the clubs in the top Ukrainian league are in the hands of the oligarchs. Rinat Akhmetov, the president of FC Donetsk, maintains close ties to Ukraine President Victor Yanukovych, who also comes from Donetsk. Besides Shakhtar, Akhmetov also owns the club Illychivets Mariupil. And his financial empire controls Sorya Luhansk. Akhmetov's business partner, Vadim Novinsky, is the owner of another club, PFC Sevastopol.
Igor Kolomoisky, a businessman from Dnipropetrovsk, has managed to buy three clubs: FC Dnipro, FC Kryvbas and Arsenal Kiev. He is now being sued in an anti-monopoly case because such a concentration of clubs is allowed neither under Ukrainian law nor under the rules of the European soccer federation, UEFA.
Changing of the guard
Grigori Surkis played a key role in getting the championships
Petro Dyminski, the boss of Karpaty Lviv, and Grigori Surkis, the former president of Dynamo Kiev, are the only non-billionaires among the club owners of the premier Ukrainian league. They are, of course, multimillionaires. Surkis, in particular, has had an outsized influence on the game in Ukraine. For nearly 17 years he was one of the driving forces behind the league. As president of the national soccer federation, he brought the EURO 2012 to Ukraine and Poland. The championships this June will be the crown jewel in his career.
Unfortunately, Surkis has not always been able to find common ground with the eastern part of the country. The rivalry between the powerful businessmen from Donetsk and Kyiv was not only settled on the playing field, but also in the boardroom. Insiders say that Surkis will resign as president of the country's soccer federation this fall, and very possibly, his successor will be from the East.
Author: Zakhar Butyrskyi /gb
Editor: Greg Wiser