A Ukrainian grudge match revisited

Franklin Foer once wrote a book called “How Soccer Explains The World.” Actually, soccer doesn’t. However, it often reflects the world, and following international soccer sometimes provides insight into various of the world’s pockets.

Ukraine is in turmoil and, as John notes, there is talk of partition between the European-looking west and the Russia-centric east. The deep division between east and west is reflected in the soccer rivalry between Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk. In a post called “A Ukrainian Grudge Matach,” I made note of this rivalry in 2009 before the two clubs met in the semi-finals of the prestigious UEFA Cup competition:

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.

Shakhtar defeated Dynamo 3-2 on aggregate over two matches and went on to win the competition, downing Bremen 2-1 in extra time. Two players from that Shakhtar team are now starring in England — Brazilians Fernandinho (Manchester City) and Willian (Chelsea). Mezut Ozil, who played for Breman in the final, now stars in England for Arsenal.

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