Sunday, 25 April 2010

Football Fix

"Why I hate Dynamo Kiev," explained my student, "is that during the Soviet Union they took every good player in Ukraine. "If you score for Odessa, first you go to the army, and then you go to Kiev." "How about Donetsk?" I asked. "Don't they have all the money now?"

He leaned closer. "There are two groups in Ukraine, one is for Kiev and one if for Shakhtar. All the referees are for Kiev. They lost today and it was the first time their player has been sent-off in three seasons. Three seasons. That referee will be unemployed." "So who's in Shakhtar's group?" I asked, thinking I'd need to check the internet to see if he was right. "At the moment there's Shakhtar, Kharkiv, Odessa, Luhansk and Karpaty Lviv, but Lviv sometimes change. We fight very hard when we play one of the other group but when we play each other everything is arranged. For example, tomorrow we play with Shakhtar. I can tell you the score now. It will be two-zero."

"And this is good?" I asked. "It's Ukraine," he shrugged.

UPDATE: Chornomorets didn't score, but Shakhtar got three. Which, according to this site, is also the number of red cards received by Dynamo Kiev players this season.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Forthcoming Attractions

Work's taking me to Nottingham for a month this summer. As I've already visited both of the big grounds in the city, this site should come in very handy indeed.

The Ukrainian season ends in May, before which I'm hoping to fit in one more trip to Chernomorets, an Arsenal or Obolon Kiev home game, and the potentially crucial last-day match between Bastion Illichivsk and Mykolaiv, currently second and third in Group A of the Druha League (Ukraine's League One).

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Ground 117: Spartak Stadion, Odessa.

Chornomorets Odessa should be one of the giants of Ukrainian football. A one club city, Odessa was the place where Ukrainians first saw the game being played. In 1878, the Odessa British Athletic Club was the first football club anywhere in the Russian Empire. The first international game to feature a Ukrainian team took place here in 1914 and Dynamo Odessa were founded a quarter of a century later. Renamed Chornomorets (Black Seamen), they qualified for the UEFA Cup in 1975, finishing third (thereby ending my run of firsts) in the USSR Top League behind only Dinamo Kiev and Spartak Moscow. Independence brought two Ukrainian Cups and a pair of runner-up finishes (again behind Kiev) to Odessa, but also relegation. In the past three seasons they've finished sixth, seventh and tenth.

This year they're even worse. Fourth from bottom of a sixteen-team league, before kick-off they'd scored just eighteen goals in twenty-three games and were only three points off relegation. Their opponents, Vorskla Poltava, were occupying the Blackburn Rovers position: played twenty three, points twenty four, goal difference zero.

Outside the ground the newspaper vendors were doing a roaring trade thanks to the new law requiring drinkers to wrap their bottles of beer in paper. What was left came in handy as a cover for the seats. Chornomorets came out in Inter Milan stripes but any similarities ended in the warm-up. I spent the first twenty minutes trying to get through a handful of sunflower seeds I'd mistakenly accepted from my neighbour - then wished I'd asked for more. The game had goalless written all over it: Poltava were so happy with a point they rarely bothered to cross halfway and Odessa so toothless up front they couldn't even muster a shot on target after half-time. Their best player was the right back, a former Brazilian Under-17 international who'd failed to make the grade with Marseille, but that wasn't saying very much. By the end of the game the centre-forward had dropped so deep he was playing in defence, hitting a simple square ball straight out for a throw. The crowd thinned immediately from four thousand down to two. "This is the worst game I've seen," said the bloke sitting next to me. And he supports Hartlepool United.

DATE: April 10th
ADMISSION: Free with a mate's season ticket.

Poltava's away support. Go on, count 'em.

If only...

The high point of the afternoon from the Odessa Ultras.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Ground 116: Stadion Dnister im. Viktora Dukova

It was all a bit of a comedown from the last time I saw a football match in Ukraine. From the Champions League, a 100,000 crowd and Kiev's Olympic Stadium to three or four hundred watching Dniester Ovidiopol (played twenty, position thirteenth, points twenty-three) versus Kharkiv (position rock-bottom, played nineteen, points four, wins zero, goal difference minus thirty-eight) in Ukraine's Persha Liga (their equivalent of the Championship in status, or the Conference in the standard of play).

I'd managed to talk four other people into joining me, plus one who bolted when he couldn't get a seat on the bus. Ovidiopol (or Oviedo as our other non-Russian speaker insisted on calling it) is a forty-minute ride west of Odessa, on the eastern shore of the Dniester Liman. Its Wikipedia entry runs to four lines. Its most prominent sights are a view of the water, two Soviet-era statues and a pub done out like an Ancient Greek temple where the beer costs 80p and the waitresses dress like belly-dancers.

It was the pub that kept us out of the ground until dead on kick-off. "Gdye stadion?" we asked an old bloke, busy weeding his vegetables. "Eh?" he replied, before eventually pointing us across a disused railway track and the kind of rusting factory you usually find in a Steinbeck novel. We entered the ground through an open metal gate. There was a wall on one side that had been designated as the toilet, fresh wet stains running down the cracks in the concrete. Piped marching band music accompanied the teams as they made their way onto the pitch. "Do you reckon it's free?" someone asked, as we tried to take up as little space on the filthy plastic seats as gravity would allow.

The pattern of the game was obvious from the start. Kharkiv's young team had come for the draw and were defending heroically, while Ovidiopol's captain, a stubby little fat man with a mullet and precisely twenty-eight percent of Gheorghe Hagi's talent, tried to orchestrate a way through to goal. Dniester had the edge in width, pace and ability, but were hamstrung by a number nine who was too young to be allowed into the penalty area without parental supervision, a number seven who thought the goal was twenty metres to the right of where it really was, and a ball-playing centre half who was Rio Ferdinand in his head and Anton Ferdinand in actual talent and performance. The crowd began to get restless as half-time approached without a goal. "Referee, you're a fu.." began one shout, before an overweight man in a suit and "rich person's scarf" strolled along the running track and told the drunks at the back to "Shut up." He didn't look like the kind of bloke you argued with. They didn't.

At half-time we followed a crowd of people back out of the gate to the local corner shop, which had a beer pump on the counter and pints for 33p, getting back just in time to see a Kharkiv defender sent off for a foul on the edge of the area, which meant we could stand right behind the net, plastic glasses in hand, as Hagi bent the resulting free kick straight into the top corner. Kharkiv had their best chance a few minutes' later, their centre-forward almost hitting the corner flag with a free header from the middle of the goal. Their travelling supporter folded his arms across his chest and didn't speak for the rest of the game. A second goal followed while the home crowd were momentarily distracted by an old man handing out free calendars. "Den-is-tra, Den-is-tra," roared a few blokes who'd brought their own vodka along. Everyone else was too busy looking at pictures of a school volleyball team.

DATE: April 3rd 2010

The Stadion Viktora Dukova. Not quite the Nou Camp...

The next generation of Dniester superstars hone their skills at half-time.

The boys try their best to look grateful.

Family outing.

Failing to track down the elusive Kharkiv firm, the Ovidiopol Ultras pose for a group pic instead.

While for everyone else the rush for home begins.

Next up: Bastion Illichivsk in the Druha Liga, about as low as professional club football gets in this part of the world.