At present, competitive football in Ukraine has been suspended following the invasion by Vladimir Putin’s Russian army.
I took the opportunity to try and understand more about football and politics in Ukraine. This article focuses first on the historical domination of Dynamo Kyiv before exploring the rise of Shakhtar Donetsk FC, its decampment from the city of Donetsk, and its response to the ongoing war.
Prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union, football in Ukraine was heavily dominated by Dynamo Kyiv. The tragic events of the so-called ‘Death Match’ between FC Start (mostly formed of Dynamo and Lokomotiv Kyiv players) and the German Luftwaffe in 1942, where at least four Kyiv players were executed, ensured that Dynamo became a patriotic symbol as the team for all Ukraine, following the Nazi occupation in World War Two.
Playing in the top Soviet League, Dynamo were crowned champions on no less than thirteen occasions, with the lion’s share of their success in that league coming in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Rightfully, Valeriy Lobanovskyi is credited with masterminding the success and was undoubtedly a brilliant coach. He is attributed with the development of the pressing game, the prioritising of system over individuality and placing of a heavy reliance on statistical analysis. However, a great coach needs talented players to work with and at Dynamo, Lobanovskyi was certainly afforded that luxury.
Crucially, the patron of Dynamo during the 1970s and 1980s was Volodymyr Scherbytskyi, the leader of the Ukranian Communist Party. It is rumoured that he was able to use his considerable influence to recruit the best players from other Ukranian clubs such as Shakhtar, Dnipro, and Lviv. It is suggested that sometimes players would just suddenly appear at Dynamo without a hint of a formal transfer fee being paid.
In Soviet times, Dynamo were representative of the whole of the republic. So, when Dynamo got one over on a team representing central authority, typically embodied by the Moscow clubs, fans from across Ukraine celebrated.
In comparison, Shakhtar Donetsk had only limited success during the soviet era. The best the Donbas club could achieve was two second place finishes in 1975 and 1979, respectively. It would take a full decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the ushering in of a new millennium, for Shakhtar to compete with and surpass their compatriots in the north.
The first ten years, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, would see Dynamo Kyiv’s domination of Ukranian football continue. Once again under the tutelage of Lobanovskyi, an unbroken run of titles secured between 1992 and 2001 emphasised Dynamo’s continued superiority in Ukraine.
The city of Donetsk has been on the radar of most football fans since the turn of the century. In 2000-2001, Shakhtar Donetsk appeared in the Champions League group stages for the first time, drawn in Group B alongside Lazio, Arsenal and Sparta Prague. They would go on to finish third in the group and qualify for the UEFA Cup that year, following victories at home against Arsenal and Sparta Prague.
The October 1995 bombing assassination of former team president Akhat Bragin at the Shakhtar team’s stadium, meant that Rinat Akhmetov (who had served as Bragin’s right-hand man and who had himself narrowly avoided the attempt on his life), would inherit the presidency of the Shakhtar Donetsk football club in 1996. Akhmetov’s ambition for Shakhtar was to be winners in European competition and he began by restructuring the management of the club and transferring the operational management of football matters to the professionals.
Since then, Shakhtar have gradually achieved superiority in Ukrainian football, winning thirteen Premier League titles in contrast to Dynamo Kyiv’s eight.
Boasting a team of an almost fifty-fifty split between homegrown Ukranian players and young Brazilian internationals, Shakhtar developed a brand of football blending Ukranian resilience and power with Brazilian creativity and invention. Akhmetov’s lofty ambition for success in Europe was achieved when Shakhtar defeated Werder Bremen 2-1 in the 2008-2009 UEFA cup final in Istanbul.
Sadly, any hope of a lasting peace in Ukraine was threatened in 2014 by the rise of the pro-Russian separatist movement, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) who sought independence from Ukraine.
The unrest in the Donbas region saw the Shakhtar Donetsk squad move to Lviv in the West of Ukraine, playing their games at Arena Lviv. While a few staff and players returned to Donetsk to support the DPR, Donetsk and many in the Donbas region turned their back on the club, brandishing the staff and players as cowards and traitors. Attempts made by the club to reconnect with the city of Donetsk in subsequent years, have been met with considerable disdain. Subsequently, Shakhtar have moved to Kharkiv, 120 miles north of Donetsk, in 2017, and then on to the capital, Kyiv in 2020.
In 2021, Shakhtar were ranked twenty-second in the UEFA Club Coefficients Rankings, although they had previously been ranked higher. To put that in perspective, the teams directly below them in the 2021 rankings were, Inter Milan, Napoli, Atalanta, Benfica, and Sporting. For the record, Dynamo Kyiv were ranked thirty-sixth. The highest-ranking Russian team was Zenit, ranked thirty-four.
In 2022, Putin’s support of the DPR and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) independence claims effectively afforded him a pretext to send troops across the border while arguing that he was doing so to protect the breakaway regions (as fellow allies) against Kyiv.
Shakhtar CEO, Seghiy Palkin, has been stoic in his response to the Russian invasion. He has ensured the welfare of his foreign players by helping them to get out of Ukraine to places of safety and flown the youth players to Croatia where they have resumed training.
The Ukranian players, Palkin says, are now living in different cities, mostly in the west of the country. Some of the Shakhtar players and staff are actively helping the civilian population suffering in the conflict by joining the humanitarian centre staff in Lviv, while others have joined the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the Territorial Defence force.
In a recent interview, Palkin revealed life under fire in Ukraine was becoming increasingly treacherous. The Arena Lviv, is accommodating refugees, providing them with shelter and a bed. The ugly situation in Ukraine is about as far from the aesthetic beauty of top-level football as one can possibly imagine.
Footballers have been granted special dispensation to leave clubs in Ukraine or Russia with immediate effect and speculation is mounting about where Shakhtar’s star players may end up. Winger, Tete, has already been snapped up by French club, Lyon until the end of the season, with Southampton hoping to sign the coveted youngster in the summer. Fellow Brazilian, midfielder, Pedrinho is being linked with a move to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Right now, the future of Shakhtar Donetsk remains as uncertain as the outcome of the war itself and as uncertain as the future for peace in Ukraine. While Ukranian football crumbles like the walls of its ravaged cities, and qualification for the World Cup hangs in the balance, we can only hope that peace comes quickly and that the beautiful game can once again replace this ugly war.