Manuel Veth –
A Chinese consortium has bought the Ukrainian Persha Liga club, FC Sumy. Sumy, located directly on the Russian border in the northeast of the country, is one of the largest cities in Ukraine without a Ukrainian Premier League club.
Furthermore, Sumy is also home to the relatively modern Yuvileiny Stadium. Built in 2001, the stadium was constructed for PFC Sumy’s predecessor club, Spartak Sumy. At the time, Spartak was one of the more ambitious project in Ukrainian football but, as is often the case in Ukraine, ambitions and results did not match. The club folded in the 2006-07 season after Spartak Sumy failed to show up for two consecutive league matches.
In its place, FC Sumy was founded in 2008. Promoted to the Persha Liga in 2012, Sumy, despite having access to a modern 25,830 seat arena, has struggled somewhat to compete for promotion to the Ukrainian Premier League. Their best result in the Persha Liga came in 2014-15 when they finished in eighth place. Last season, FC Sumy finished in fourteenth place, and only the fact that several clubs were withdrawn saved them from a possible relegation battle.
FC Sumy is the latest incarnation of a professional club in the city
As was highlighted on several occasions on the Futbolgrad Network, the Maidan Revolution, the conflict in the Donbass, and the forceful annexation of the Crimea by the Russian Federation, had a deep impact on the football landscape in Ukraine. As a result, several clubs have struggled financially, and the two top divisions have seen significant reform with the top division being reduced to 12 teams.
Meanwhile, the Persha Liga has been filled up with several clubs from the third division in order to remain at 18 clubs. With six new teams in the Persha Liga, Sumy should have had a good chance to compete for one of the top places in the division.
But financial problems have meant that the club lacks squad depth and, as a result, Sumy are now facing relegation. Going into the winter break, Sumy were sixteenth with 18 points from 20 matches—the last three teams are directly relegated, and the fifteenth-placed team faces a promotion/relegation playoff with a third division club.
But an investment by a Hong Kong based company now sparks new hope for FC Sumy. As tribuna.com reported on February 14, the club will be taken over by the Chinese consortium Smart-Mentors. The company, which has business interests in the region, will manage the club until the end of the season, and then will purchase the club in the summer.
Smart-Mentors sees the purchase of the club as a means to establishing business operations with the public joint stock company Sumy Frunze Machine-Building Science and Production Association (from now on Sumy NPO). Sumy NPO is one of the largest machine builders in Europe and, among others, is involved in the nuclear energy sector.
FC Sumy – A door opener to further investment in the region?
Sumy’s close proximity to Russia, however, has meant that Sumy NPO has lost access to its major market, and therefore has fallen on financial hardship. Owned by the oligarchs Vadim Novinsky, Konstantin Grigorishin, and Dynamo Kyiv owner Hryhoriy Surkis, the company has struggled to make a profit since it was cut off from the Russian Federation. The deputy governor of the Sumy oblast, Ivan Borshosh, has, therefore, tried to find new investors and possible markets for the company.
This is where the Chinese come in. There has always been a deep connection between football and politics in Ukraine. Football is by far the most important game in the country, and politicians and oligarchs have long understood that the game on the field is almost more important than political actions off the field. The question, therefore, is whether FC Sumy is the door opener to financial investments at Sumy’s largest industrial conglomerate.
According to Sumy’s governor, there is no direct link at the moment. But what other reason could there be for a Hong Kong based company to invest money in what is not exactly the hotbed of European football? Especially as the Chinese seem to have quite ambitious plans with FC Sumy.
It is understood that the club wants to finish the current season in sixth place, which would mean a major turnaround after the winter break, and then reach the Ukrainian Premier League the following season. The club then wants to push on to reach a European qualification space within one or two seasons in the Ukrainian Premier League.
The Chinese have also announced that they will make major investments in the club’s youth development infrastructure. All of this sounds fascinating on paper, but there are still questions. For example, little is actually known about the Chinese investors and their owner, Fulchin Liu.
Hence, while in Ukraine’s media there is enthusiasm about the investment, the question has to be asked: What are the actual interests of the Chinese in this relatively unknown European football club? After all, the recent history of Ukrainian football has seen plenty of investment failures. It will be interesting to see whether Sumy will become a footnote in the history of failed business in Ukraine, or a successfully run football club in an underdeveloped area, in terms of football in the country.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, and podcaster for WorldFootballIndex.com. He is also a holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.