Saturday, 12 October 2013

Football in the Vanished World: Bukovyna Chernivtsi

"English games are played, as out on the vast exercising ground we saw football in full swing, several games going on". 

"I also played a bit of football, near our house there was a football field; it was the town's football field, called Maccabi. We had a really good football team. Sports...were very popular among the Jewish organizations".

For almost two centuries the eastern gateway to the Habsburg Empire, Bukovina was ceded to Romania between the two world wars and is now one of the sleepiest parts of south-western Ukraine.  Two hundred kilometres south of Lviv, and a four-hour bus ride from Suceava across the EU border, Chernivtsi, the quirky, down-at-heel provincial capital,  was formerly known  as Little Vienna and Jerusalem on the Prut; the second city of Austrian Galicia, Czernowitz / Cernăuți was a cosmopolitan mélange of ethnicities, home to Romanian, German, Ukrainian, Yiddish and Polish speakers,  the birthplace of the poet Paul Celan, and one of the first places in modern day Ukraine to embrace the sport of football.

The first organised team Turn-und Sportverein Czernowitz, was founded by German students in the autumn of 1903,  the black and whites outlasting several name changes and two  losing appearances in the semi-final of the Romanian Cup until they were finally broken up in 1940, when the entire German-speaking population, including the playing staff and officials of  Fußballsektion Jahn Czernowitz, was forcibly transported out of Bukovina in the wake of the Nazi-Soviet pact.  Many Bukovinan Germans settled in or around Stuttgart, their sporting legacy surviving with TSV Jahn Büsnau, who currently play in a district league at the twelth level of the German football league.

A Polish team, Polonia Cernăuţi, was established after the German club splintered in 1912, and went on to become the region's dominant force during its twenty-two years in the Kingdom of Romania.  Despite rarely owning a stadium of its own, Polonia spent three seasons in Divizia A, won the Bukovinan regional championships and held the Romanian national side to a 1-1 draw in front of 12,000 spectators in September 1922 before they too were dissolved in 1940. Fotbal Club Dragoş Vodă Cernăuţi, the favoured team of the city's Romanian speakers, won the Bukovina championship four times between 1925 and 1933 but managed only a single season in the national top-flight, during which they won four out of eighteen games.  They did, though, share briefly in the development of Cernăuţi's most famous footballing son, Alfred Eisenbeisser transferring from Jahn shortly before representing Romania at football at the 1930 World Cup .  Appearing against Peru and Uruguay,  Eisenbeisser contracted pneumonia on the return journey and was forced to stay behind when the ship docked at Genoa.  Rumours of his death spread through Bukovina; when he finally reached home, he found his mother busy preparing the funeral arrangements.  Eisenbeisser recovered sufficiently  to place thirteenth in the figure skating championships at the 1936 Winter Olympics, win another seven caps, and turn out over 140 times in the colours of Venus București.  Venus, like Dragos, were wound up in the late-1940s, having won eight national championships before Romania entered the war.

In 1919, when the region was annexed to the Kingdom of Romania,  Czernowitz's Jewish population  had reached almost 30,000 people - or a third of the entire town.  The city twice elected Jewish mayors, streets were named after Jewish authors, rabbis and prominent city councillors, the first ever Yiddish was hosted there in 1908, and the community's two club sides,  Maccabi and Hakoah Cernăuţi, enjoyed regular success in regional competitions. Maccabi, the oldest, had first taken to the field in 1909-1910, and would later supply a Romanian international of their own when Isidor Gansl, formerly of Fernencvaros and Hakoah Vienna, was capped against Turkey in 1923.  Hakoah played their first competitive game in 1920, and reached Divizia A and the Romanian Cup quarter-finals before they were subsumed by Maccabi eleven years later.  In 1932, a victory over Jahn resulted in a pitch invasion during which Maccabi players were attacked by supporters carrying revolvers shouting "Jews go to Palestine!"  By 1941, the team had been disbanded and many of its players transported to camps.  When the Soviets rolled back three years later, almost 50,000 Bukovina Jews had perished, either shot out of hand or loaded in to cattle trucks.  Jewish Czernowitz vanished in all but memory, its synagogue turned into a cinema six years after Celan published 'Todesfuge' (Death Fugue):  Death is a gang boss...his eyes are blue. He shoots you with leaded bullets, his aim is true. 

Eight years after the traumatised city was incorporated into the newly-expaned Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, Bukovya Chernivtsi emerged.  In 1958, a team including veteran inside-right Evgeny Archangelskiy, scorer of four goals during Dynamo Moscow's 1945 tour of England, made its first appearances in the Soviet League.  Three decades later, with the Soviet Union on the verge of dissolution, Chernivtsi finally made their mark on the national stage, finishing in fifth place in the 1991 First League, a division which included Rotor Volgograd, Kuban Krasnodar, Zenit St Petersburg and Tavria Simferopol, the surprise first champions of independent Ukraine.  Present in the top-flight of Ukrainian football for three seasons, the yellow and blacks were relegated along with Metalist Kharkiv in 1993-94 and have since spent eleven seasons in the second tier and the same number in the third.  Narrowly surviving extinction this summer, survival is an achievement in itself in a country where four of the original twenty top-flight clubs no longer exist in any form whatsoever. 

Chernivtsi has recently spruced itself up, with its red-brick university added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2011 and both Central Square and the nearby Olga Kobylianska Street repaved and pedestrianised. The football stadium is just off Holovna, a ten-minute walk from the centre on the other side of Shevchenko Park.  The Bukovyna, the city's fanciest hotel, is directly opposite, the bus station another ten minutes up the road.  When I went there, the stadium was empty except for a small group of workmen repairing seats and three sprinters practising their starts.  On a dirt pitch next to the ground, a shirts against skins game had just got underway.  I watched from the top of the uncovered stand, dust and sunflower shells blowing across my feet.
Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland his eye is blue he shoots you with leaden bullets his aim is true - See more at:
Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland his eye is blue he shoots you with leaden bullets his aim is true - See more at: Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, it was another eight years until Bukovina Chernivtsi emerged

Read more here: Three unsuccessful seasons in the Ukrainian top flight  followed before the club was relegated alongside Metalist Kharkiv at the end of 1993-9

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Ground 225: Central Stadium, Mykolaiv

If you're lucky, the bus ride along the single lane highway connecting the cities of Odessa and Mykolaiv takes a shade over two and a half hours.  Tell an Odessan that you're making the trip and they'll assume you're going to the zoo, the fourth oldest in the Russian Empire and still the most famous in Ukraine.  Say the same to someone from Mykolaiv and they'll answer with a look mingling equal parts incomprehension and pity. "Why?" one asked.  "Everything's so dirty."  "There's football," I countered.  "Is there?"  He paused for a second: "The stadium's so small."

"The juggernaut of the Soviet shipbuilding industry"; "Ukraine's hard drug capital (and) the official entry point of AIDS into the country"; "The best part of Mykolaiv is actually leaving."  While the guidebooks aren't exactly complimentary, my last visit to the city left more positive memories: its pedestrianised main street - a mini version of Odessa's Deribasovskaya without the cobbles or fancy prices - monuments to Lenin, shipyard workers and the Red Army, and a billboard for an international marriage agency which read 'A Slav Girl! We are born to make you happy!'  (When I posted the picture online, someone immediately replied with: "Do you think they've forgotten the 'e'?"). Back then I also joined a stray dog and a crack team of groundskeepers when I snuck in to Central Stadium, home to Mykolaiv's two football teams - third division Enerhiya and MFC (Municipal Football Club), at 93 years old the country's longest surviving club side.

Plucked from the West Division of the Soviet Second League - where they'd been up against the continental might of Dynamo Brest, Zaria Balti, Goyazan Kazakh, Torpedo Taganrog and Qarabağ Ağdam - in 1991, Mykolaiv's top team briefly went head to head with the giants of Kyiv, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Odessa and Dnipropetrovsk before sinking into obscurity at the end of the decade, five years after Bukovyna Chernivtsi had taken their own last bow from the Ukrainian Premier League.  The clubs' most notable recent achievement has been to survive at all - shorn of finance, they sit twelfth and thirteenth in the sixteen team Druha Liga, just a single point above relegation.

I jump off the bus at Radyanska, which has a McDonald's at one end, Lenin at the other and most of the city's best places to eat somewhere in between.  The football ground's another twenty minutes away at the very end of Lenina Prospekt, its entrance flanked by a pair of anchors and an outdoor market.  Mykolaiv scarves and badges are spread across the pavement but the only things changing hands are fliers for trips to Chernomorets Odessa or Shakhtar Donetsk.  A mural shows two Mykolaiv fans clad in Fred Perry and Adidas stamping on an opposition supporter's face, 'Stay True' written along the top.  Inside, the stands are sparsely populated.  "Mykolaiv," chorus a bunch of 50 or so flag-waving ultras at one end of the pitch.  "Mykolaiv," reply a dozen at the other.

The home centre-forward skies ten metres over from five metres out. Bukovyna have a free kick that the goalkeeper flaps back towards the wall.  One of the ultras goes topless, his face covered by a scarf and Guy Fawkes mask. There are lots of sliding tackles and my ears get a bit cold.  And then the referee blows for half-time.  You can almost hear the relief.

The second period starts very much like the first. Mykolaiv's number nine hits his own player with one shot and gets closer to a steeplechase hurdle than goal with a second.  Moments later, Bukovyna break down the right and hammer a cross into the centre that Vasyl Palagnyuk prods home.  With just over an hour played, Chernivtsi score again, Polish midfielder Oleksandr Temeriwskyj firing a daisycutter under the goalkeeper's late dive.  "Are you from Finland?" a passing drunk asks.  "We used to have a real team.  Can you believe it?"

There are fifteen minutes left when Mykolaiv finally hit the target, Aleksandr Kablash, chesting down a pass and volleying past the keeper.  The home side threaten intermittently, the ultras sing to the very end, but most of the few thousand fans shuffle silently home.  It's an hour's walk to the bus station,  past a sword-wielding statue and a T34 tank, then another 100 metres from the entrance to the zoo.  "Odessa, Odessa," the bus driver shouts.  I text someone for the Newcastle score. "2-1," he replies, "Pardew's job safe for another week."

Admission: Free
Date:  October 5th 2013