Sunday, 30 May 2010

Ground 119: Bastion Illichivsk

Although a thunderstorm wrecked our plans for pre-match drinks on the nearby beach, the final game of the 2009-2010 Ukrainian Druha Liga season was played out in tops-off temperatures and glorious early evening sunshine. It was a clash of old and new: Bastion Illichivsk, the home side, were an amateur team until 2008, while their opponents Mykolaiv are the country's oldest club, having turned professional in 1920. At kick off Illichivsk were in second place, Mykolaiv third. "If Illichivsk draw they will play-off with the first placed team," a Ukrainian confidently told us just before kick off. "Mykolaiv must win."

Home to Ukraine's most profitable port, Illichivsk's stadium was built by the local council when the club turned professional. There are uncovered stands down both sides of the pitch, a main building that looks like a cricket clubhouse and a capacity of around 1,200. Mykolaiv had brought a gang of ten teenagers with them, whose list of songs included the classics "The referee's gay" and "The referee's been bribed." Less predictable was the ditty about "the nationalist heroes of Ukraine," which followed a two-minute discussion about whether they should be chanting Mykolaiv (the Ukrainian spelling) or Nikolaiv (the Russian one). The M eventually won. The Bastion Ultras were slightly more numerous, managed some impressive black and red flag waving, and looked as if they were probably old enough to legally buy alcohol. Everyone else in the crowd was happy just to stay awake through a first half that boasted the same level of application and talent as a British Eurovision Song Contest entry. It certainly didn't look as if there was anything riding on the result. "These two play at the same level as we do, yeah?" asked the Norwich fan from work. "We'd beat them about eight-nil."

The second half was a lot better. Illichivsk took the lead, but Mykolaiv hit back with a tap-in after the home goalkeeper comically spilled the ball and then went ahead with a bullet header from the edge of the box. The whole team celebrated by the corner flag and their fans started throwing till rolls on the pitch. It seemed our informant might have been right about the importance of the game - until an Illichivsk player tumbled in the box four minutes into injury time and the referee pointed to the spot. The Mykolaiv fans turned their backs on the pitch, one of their players threw a punch, the ball beat the keeper, and the referee blew the full-time whistle before the net had even stopped rippling. Not that anybody was bothered: the players shook hands, the Mykolaiv fans clapped their team off the pitch and the seven hundred or so Illichivsk supporters filed quietly away.

In the end neither team finished second. Nyva Vynnytsia won 3-1 away at Bila Tserkva and pipped Illichivsk on a goal difference of three.

Date: 29th May 2010
Admission: Walk in for free - but leave your beer at the gate.

Mykolaiv's away support debate whether to clap in Ukrainian or Russian.

The substitutes try to cool down.

The police count their bottles of confiscated alcohol.

Mykolaiv celebrate their second goal.

Their fans do too. Meanwhile, the old man to the right begins to regret his choice of seat.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Grounds Without Games: Central City Stadium, Mykolaiv.

Take away the soap opera financing, ex-England coaches and goalkeepers on fifteen grand a week and MFK Mykolaiv would be the Ukrainian Notts County. Founded in 1920 as Sudostroitel Mykolaiv, they're the oldest professional side in the country, beating Dynamo Kyiv by three years - the only part of the two clubs' history that's in any way similar.

After seventy years in the Soviet lower leagues. the break up of the USSR brought a change of name to FC Evis Mykolaiv (there's almost certainly one fewer consonant in that first word than you think) and a promotion of sorts to the new Ukrainian Premier League. The only team to be relegated from the top division on three different occasions, their best ever finish was thirteenth in 1994-95. That same year they changed their name to SC Mykolaiv, in 2000 the S became an F, and in 2006 they finally settled on MFK. In the middle of all this alphabetical hokey-pokery, the team were relegated to Ukaine's third division for the first ever time. Coming straight back up, they managed two years of mediocrity before the local council declared them bankrupt, and they were only able to compete in the third division again after Dynamo Kyiv agreed to withdraw their junior team to free up the required space. This season they briefly flirted with promotion, but with one game of the Druha League still to play they're stuck in third behind Bastion Illichivsk and champions Bukovyna Chernivtsi.

The Central City Stadium is at the bottom end of Lenina Prospekt, the city's main street, half-hidden by an outdoor market. Semi-dilapidated, the stadium is in the shape of an open bowl with a running track circling the pitch. With building work on three sides, only one of the stands is currently open - more than enough for this season's average crowd of just under three thousand. I managed to sneak in through a side gate for a quick look around.

The tunnel. Beware of stray dogs.

The groundstaff prepare for another big game.

The snack stand looks like it could do with a lick of paint too.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010


I was in Sevastopol when I got the text. Chornomorets down!! was all it said, though the exclamation marks were a story in themselves. Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih came back from the dead, almost doubling their points total by taking ten from a possible twelve in their last four games. Odessa managed six draws and no wins from their last eleven. They went down by a single point.

It wasn't me, honest.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

The Stadiums of Kiev

"If there is no Kiev, then no Ukraine," Platini said, before backtracking slightly. Explaining that Kiev's "difficulties" were in part due to an unusually harsh winter, he added, "I think Kiev will be all right in the end."

The Olimpiysky National Sports Complex was due to open on June 22nd 1941. Among its first visitors were the Luftwaffe, who launched their bombing campaign on Kiev the very same day. Rebuilt for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, when it was used as a venue for football matches, it still held 100,000 people when I saw Dynamo Kiev play Newcastle United there in 1997. Scheduled to host six games during Euro 2012, including the final, it currently looks like this:

What's that Platini fella worried about?

At the other end of Khreschatyk, between the Dnepr River and Independence Square, the Lobanovsky Dynamo Stadium (or the Стадіон «Динамо» імені Валерія Лобановського if you're into that sort of thing) has a capacity of just under 17,000, which meant all the big Dynamo games took place at the Olympic Stadium until redevelopment work started there in 2008.

Floodlights from St Sophia's Cathedral.

The closest thing you get to a free view of the pitch.

Not the main entrance.

Next game: Metalurh Zaporizhya.

Here's one ground I did get to see a game at, the 5,000 capacity Obolon Stadium - located in a housing estate north of the city centre:

Football Art

Valeriy Vasylyovych Lobanovskyi was the Ukrainian answer to Clough, Shankly and Stein. He played just over two hundred and fifty games for Dynamo Kyiv, Chornomorets Odessa and Shakhtar Donetsk, winning two Soviet caps in the process, but most of his success came as manager of Kiev. Between 1974 and 1990, Dynamo won the Soviet Super League eight times, the domestic cup six times and the European Cup Winners' Cup twice. He coached the USSR to the second round of Mexico '86 and to second place behind Holland in the 1988 European Championships, before leaving in the wake of his side's poor performance at Italia '90. In 1997, after seven years in the Middle East, he returned to Kiev, coaching a Dynamo team including Andriy Shevchenko and Serhiy Rebrov to the Champions League semi-final in 1999. When he died of a stroke in 2002, shortly after a game against Zaporizhia, the Dynamo Stadium was renamed in his honour. The following year Shevchenko flew home from Milan and placed his Champions League medal on Lobanovskyi's grave.

A uniformed security guard was hovering around as we stood by the scuplture. "Want a picture on the seat? It's 50 hryvnia," he said, pointing to the sign, "but I'll let you take one for twenty." "It's ok, thanks," we replied. "Ok, ten," he countered. "No, it's ok," we said, looking towards a half-open stadium gate. "It's closed," he said. "The exit's that way."

Ground 118: Obolon Stadium, Kyiv

"Excuse me, where's Obolon Stadium?" I asked, using at least 25% of my entire Russian vocabulary in one badly-pronounced sentence. "Obolon Stadium?" he repeated, raising his eyebrows so far they almost collided with his hairline. "Yes, the football stadium." He turned to the woman sitting behind him. "Where's the stadium?" "Up there and right," she said. "Two minutes."

One of Kiev's other clubs, Obolon were only founded in 1992 and have since gone through four changes of name, from the original Zmina (Next Generation)to the brewery inspired FC Obolon Kyiv. Success on the pitch has been just as inconstant: promoted through the divisions, they were relegated after just three seasons in the Premier League and spent another three on the fringes of promotion before finally making it back last year. Before tonight's game they were tenth of sixteen teams, with thirty points from twenty-eight games and a goal difference of minus nineteen. More importantly, they were eleven points off the relegation places with only two games left to play. The visitors, Vorskla Poltava, were a single point behind.

Obolon Stadium was opened in 2002 in the northern suburbs of the city, a few minutes' walk from Heroiv Dnipra Metro Station. The ground takes some finding: past a row of bus stops, a right turn at a church and it's slap bang in the middle of a housing estate, floodlight pylons by blocks of flats, a decent-sized main stand facing six rows of uncovered bucket seats on the other side of the pitch. A scoreboard and Obolon Brewery hoardings take up the empty room behind both goals.

Along with over half of the crowd, I saved myself just under a quid by going in the cheap seats - 80p for a clear view straight along the halfway line, only slightly obstructed by a couple of stewards who snogged, held hands, smoked cigarettes and scoffed ice cream through the vast majority of the game. It was 25 degrees at kick off and the crowd looked to be around a thousand, swelled by a few late arrivals coming straight from work and the Obolon Ultras, who had a surprisingly noisy two-chant repertoire. The Poltava fans turned up ten minutes late, spent another five tying their flags to the railings, then whipped their tops off and watched the rest of the first half in scarves, jeans and trainers. Their team played the prettier football but had no cutting edge up front. Neither, unfortunately, did Obolon, who missed an early one-on-one that was the only real chance of the first half. The two home wingers soon perfected the knack of straying needlessly offside and ninety percent of the game was played directly in front of my seat.

Poltava scored from a mishit cross on the hour, by which time the sun was dipping below the apartment blocks. The stewards shared another kiss, a police Alsatian started barking at the pitch, and the woman next to me spat out her sunflower seeds in disgust. "What's the Shakhtar - Dynamo score?" asked a voice on my left.

You sensed for Obolon that was that.*

DATE: May 5th 2010 7pm
ADMISSION: 10 Hryvnia.

*I was wrong. They equalised from a penalty in the 85th minute. I was five hundred metres towards the metro station, hurrying to catch the night train to Odessa.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Disappointment Once More: Chornomorets Odessa 0 Metallist Kharkov 2

Just before kick off the woman flogging sunflower seeds tries her luck with the ticket queue.

The teams come out.

The Kharkov lot go mental.

Apparently, handbags are standard match-day equipment for Odessa's female police officers.

The Kharkiv fans respond by going topless.

Half time scores on the fancy new scoreboard.

Not that these two care.

DATE: May 1st
ADMISSION: 20 Hyivnia.