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A Ukrainian grudge match

For the second time in two years, the European Champions League final four has consisted of three English teams, thus creating one all-English semi-final (Manchester United vs. Arsenal; Chelsea is the other English semi-finalist). But the UEFA Cup, Europe’s secondary club competition, has gone one better: it features one an all-German semi (Werder Bremen vs. Hamburg) and one all-Ukrainian affair.

The latter is the more interesting in part because of political considerations. It pits Dynamo Kiev against Shakhtar Donetsk. Dynamo Kiev are the New York Yankees of that part of the world. They were the best club side in the old Soviet Union and, as expected, continued to be the top club in Ukraine throughout the 1990s.

Recently, however, Shakhtar Donetsk has given them more than a run for their money. The club is bankrolled by Ukrainian billionaire businessman and football fanatic Rinat Akhmetov, an oligarch with resources to rival those found anywhere in Russia, England, Spain, or Italy (at one point Korespondent magazine rated him the richest man in Europe). As such he has been able to sign stars like Elano (a starter for the Brazilian national team who has since moved on the Manchester City), Ilsinho, who has also played for Brazil, Mexican sensation Neri Castillo, and Cristiano Lucarelli, a former top scorer in Italy’s Serie A, who is now back in Italy.

Riding Akhmetov’s backing, Shakhtar Donetsk in this decade has won four of eight Ukrainian league titles as well as four of eight domestic cup crowns.

The rivalry between the Kiev and Donetsk sides would be huge even if it implicated only sports. But there are political considerations too. Akhmetov supported Viktor Yanukovych, then Prime Minister of Ukraine, in the 2004 elections. He thus stood in opposition to the Orange Revolution, a phenomenon associated with Kiev, which is far more cosmopolitan than Donetsk. Donetsk also tends to be pro-Russian. Many of the falsified votes for Yanukovych are said to have come from Donetsk and the surrounding region.

Much has changed in Ukraine since 2004, both politically and economically. But the rivalry between Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk remains as intense as ever. So too, I suspect, do the political undercurrents of that rivalry.

UPDATE: Shakhtar Donetsk got a 1-1 draw in the first leg at Kiev. The second leg will be played in Donetsk. An away draw with a goal is a good result (away goals are the tie-breaker).

In honor of the occasion, I’ve taken the liberty of posting the Shakhtar Donetsk which is surely being sung over rounds of vodka throughout the east Ukrainian steppe as I write:

Glory to you, Shakhtar!
Heavens of football stars
Will always be on your side,
And the light of your best dreams
is shining from above.

Refrain:

Beauty of green fields, that’s for you, Shakhtar.
My fate is in your hands, you are the best, Shakhtar.
And for you, Shakhtar, the medal of my love
Will always shine on pitch where you are,
And forever will protect you from defeat
The brightest football star!

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