By Manuel Veth –
On 14 August 2013, Metalist Kharkiv were disqualified by UEFA from participating in the 2013/14 Champions League. Kharkiv were supposed to play FC Schalke 04 in the playoffs for a place in the group stage of this season’s competition until the Ukrainian club were suspended courtesy of a fixed match between Kharkiv and Karpaty Lviv that took place in 2008 (For more information on Karpaty, see Futbolgrad’s article Karpaty Lviv – The Pride of Galicia here).
For Metalist, European football’s governing body’s verdict came as a shock, as the alleged fixed match against Lviv took place during the previous ownership of the club by the Ukrainian billionaire Oleksandr Yaroslavsky.
Yaroslavsky, who was also the owner of one of the largest social investment companies in Ukraine, DCH (Development Construction Holding), sold the club in 2012 when the current administration gave him an “offer he couldn’t refuse”.
The new owner of the club is Serhiy Kurchenko, who is the chairman of VETEK (at the time of the ownership change the company was known as GazUkraina-2009). The change of power was one of the most mysterious cases in Ukrainian politics last year as Yaroslavsky stated that he was under pressure to sell the club.
As Yaroslavsky has stated that the club’s sale was not entirely voluntary, many eyebrows were raised when the new ownership were suddenly burdened with a case of match fixing that was conducted under Yaroslavsky. When the news broke that Metalist were excluded from this year’s European competition the new regime was quick to point out that they were not aware of the case.
Chairman Kostyantyn Pyvovarov, in a statement on the club’s website metalist.ua, said: “I want to remind you that the contract match, which allegedly took place, was held back in 2008, with the old owners of the club.” Furthermore, Metalist announced that they would take all necessary legal actions toward reinstatement. The Court of Arbitration for Sport, however, ruled that UEFA’s decision to ban the club was justified.
Those who regularly follow Ukrainian or Russian Premier League matches are well aware of various allegations of bought referees and pre-arranged matches. Stories of club presidents applying pressure on opposing players and referees are not uncommon in both countries, and indeed the concept of fixed matches is a historical problem that pre-dates the independence of both Russia and Ukraine from the Soviet Union.
Nil-Nil to the Dinamo? – The Lobanovskyi Formula
Valeriy Lobanovskyi is the most successful coach of the former Soviet Union, and as the coach of Dinamo Kiev he won 13 league titles in the Soviet Union and Ukraine, as well as two European Cup Winners’ Cups. He also managed the Soviet Sborniia to second place at the 1988 European Championships in West Germany. In May 2002, Lobanovskyi suffered a stroke during Dinamo’s match against FC Metalurh Zaporizhzhya and died shortly afterwards in hospital. He was awarded the title ‘Hero of Ukraine’ posthumously.
Behind the great success of the legendary coach, there was a calculating, almost dark side to Lobanovskyi. At Dinamo Kiev, one of the most storied clubs of the former Soviet Union, he built an entire philosophy around arranged matches. As the German historian Thorsten Pomian points out in his article entitled: “”Loba macht den Meister” (Loba makes a Champion), Lobanovskyi, who was famous for his mathematical and scientific approach to the game, came up with a simple calculation: win all your home matches, and draw all away, and you will likely end up as the champion of the Soviet Supreme League. This system was called vyezdnyi (literally outing or away) and was solely focused on getting at least one point when playing away.
Lobanovskyi spawned a system in which negotiated draws with opposition teams ensured a valuable away point. This was still a time in which most leagues in Europe operated on a two-point system, and a draw on the long Soviet road was considered a good result. Furthermore, many of the smaller clubs of the Soviet Union were happy to take one point against the Ukrainian giants Dinamo Kiev, allowing Lobanovskyi to rest his star players for more testing matches against better opponents.
These matches were known as “agreed-upon” (dogovornyi) matches, and as Robert Edelman points out in his book on the history of Soviet sport Serious Fun it is unclear if non-financial favours were exchanged as part of the arrangement. An important distinction from other more nefarious cases is that matches were not fixed for monetary purposes.
The Soviet Union had a lottery system akin to the pools in the UK and it was even possible to bet on matches, while despite propaganda insisting otherwise it was common knowledge that the Soviet Union had a very active and powerful mafia underworld. But winning margins in the Soviet Lottery system were simply too small and as such mafia rings, as was the case in the Hoyzer-Scandal in the German Bundesliga, which was backed by the Croatian Mafia in Berlin, never really took interests in large scale manipulation of Soviet League matches.
Instead the system had more in common with scandals seen in Italy where matches were fixed in order to guarantee success for the bigger clubs such as in 2006 when the Italian police uncovered that Juventus chairman Luciano Moggi had arranged the appointments of referees and had had opposition players bribed in order to ensure that Juventus would gain the best possible results.
The system did, however, have a catch. Like the case of Calciopoli other clubs in the Soviet Union caught on and copied Lobanovskyi’s system. In the late 1970s, things got so out of control that the Soviet Football Federation introduced a “limit” to drawn matches. Teams were restricted to eight draws per season eight draws from 78 to 79 and then to 10 thereafter, with any further draws yielding no points, thus they were the equivalent of a defeat.
The “limit to ties” rule was designed to encourage teams to play a more attacking game instead of settling for a 0-0 draw. The endless draws meant that the Soviet Supreme League produced some of the most defensive-minded football in Europe, a league in which tactics and economic principles were more important than attractive football, a philosophy and style that deterred many fans.
The rule had a genuine impact on the final standings of the Soviet Supreme League. In 1987, CSKA Moscow were relegated because the club had breached its limit on draws meaning that the point that would have saved them was null and void.
While others suffered, the draw quota didn’t stop Lobanovskyi’s economic approach to the game, and the rule was abolished in 1989. Furthermore, the approach to play for a tie on the road also suited Soviet Supreme League clubs in European competitions. The two-legged tie system of European football meant that Soviet clubs could use this principle to compete in Europe, and despite the fact that Soviet clubs won very little continental silverware, the Soviet Supreme League was consistently in the top three of the UEFA’s 5-year-coefficient ranking.
With success, however, also comes suspicion. For instance, did Soviet teams arrange matches when they played in European competitions? It seems unlikely that Soviet clubs cheated against clubs from Western Europe, but at the time of the Cold War clubs from beyond the Iron Curtain were often drawn against each other in the first few rounds of UEFA competitions in order to prevent political problems. Perhaps political favours were exchanged on the football pitch and Soviet clubs were given safe and easy passage when playing against clubs from smaller socialist countries?
After the fall of the Soviet Union the principle of fixed matches survived in the successor states. Indeed it was shortly after the fall of the USSR that a Russian club found itself in one of the biggest match-fixing scandals in Europe.
Match Fixing Scandal – the French Connection
In 1995 Olympique Marseille were found guilty of game manipulation, and were subsequently banned from European football and relegated to the French second division. The Russian daily Izvestiia also reported that it had come to light that Marseille had fixed the semi-final of the 1991 European Cup against Spartak Moscow. This was revealed during an interview with Jean-Pierre Bernes, an official of the French club, by the police.
Officials from Spartak and the Russian Football Union denied any allegation of match fixing. Yuri Shlyapin who was the president of Spartak in 1991, said that neither he, nor coach Oleg Romantsev, nor chairman Nikolai Starostin had ever heard of any deal made with Olympique. Shlyabin also said, “the 100,000 people who saw the match would have known if something was wrong.” The president of the Russian Football Union Koloskov also stated that he did not believe that Spartak were involved in any kind of match fixing.
But at a time when clubs from the former Soviet Union were struggling financially it seemed entirely plausible that Spartak took financial favours over sporting success. Olympique in 1993 were considered one of the strongest teams in Europe, and Spartak officials in a ruthless mathematical conclusion might have taken the monetary gain over a small chance of reaching the final of the European Cup. Furthermore, the club were familiar with such arrangements having encountered Lobanovskyi’s system.
Dinamo Kiev – Living by the Sword
While Lobanovskyi was in charge of the Kuwaiti national team, his former club Dinamo Kiev became involved in a match fixing scandal. On 13 September 1995, Dinamo Kiev were disqualified from the Champions League. Spanish referee Lopez Nieto claimed that the Ukrainian champions offered him US$30,000 as well as two fur coats – perhaps to protect him from the unforgiving Ukrainian winter – prior to the match against the Greek club Panathinaikos.
Officials from Dinamo of course denied all allegations. Even though the bribe was allegedly conducted before the game the referee decided it would still go ahead, fearing the reaction of 100,000 fans in the stadium to such an abrupt cancellation. Dinamo were banned from participating in the 1995/96 Champions League, and also disqualified for the following three seasons while Igor Surkis, the president of Dinamo Kiev, was excluded from taking any official position in football for life due to his involvement.
After personal appeals by the Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma (President of Ukraine until 1994), and careful negotiations with UEFA, Dinamo’s ban from UEFA competitions was lifted in April of 1996. The negotiations to lift Dinamo’s ban were led by Kravchuk who was able to negotiate an amnesty for the club. Kravchuk argued that the ban on Dinamo from European competitions would be dreadful for the development of football in Ukraine as a whole.
For his efforts, Kravchuk was awarded with a position on the board of Dinamo Kiev. Igor Surkis’ lifetime ban was also lifted, because the Spanish referee Nieto refused to travel to the UEFA hearing, and could therefore not speak against Surkis. It is important to note that UEFA still deemed Dinamo guilty of match fixing, and that they simply reversed their decision to uphold the four-year ban.
These were the more prominent stories of match fixing involving clubs from the former Soviet Union and Metalist are simply the latest example. Like Lobanovskyi’s Dinamo, Metalist’s arranged match against Lviv was not part of a betting enterprise, but simply a way to gain the best result for the club.
In 2008, Metalist were struggling to reach third place in the Ukrainian top flight and a victory against Lviv was deemed a giant leap toward this admirable goal. As it turned out Metalist would have finished third, even if they had lost to Karpaty. But the club took a gamble, and are now paying the highest possible price.
For years Kharkiv have tried to reach the Champions League, and with this goal in their sights, the club have been barred because of a five-year old misdemeanour. After another bore draw from Bayern under Ottmar Hitzfeld (a trained mathematics teacher) Karl-Heinz Rummenigge once stated matter-of-factly that “football is not mathematics!” The Metalist case demonstrates Rummenigge was right – modern-day football is not a game of mathematical principles but one in which integrity and fair play trumps cold, calculated formulae.
Manuel is a PhD candidate at the University of London King’s College, London. Originally from Munich, his thesis is entitled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus