Vadim Furmanov –
By now the turmoil surrounding the identity of clubs taking part in the Premier League has become a well-established summer tradition in Ukrainian football. The latest protagonists are the Ukrainian First League teams Veres Rivne and Desna Chernihiv.
Last year Metalist Kharkiv and Hoverla Uzhhorod were both denied licenses to participate in the top flight due to unpaid debts, but Volyn Lutsk, a club in a similarly precarious financial situation, were allowed entry into the competition.
The previous season the full selection of Premier League teams remained unknown until the eleventh hour when Stal Dniprodzerzhynsk were finally confirmed as the fourteenth club and last club the day before the first match of the season.
Following the 2012-13 campaign both clubs that were set to be relegated – Hoverla and Metalurh Zaporizhia – were spared when Kryvas went bankrupt and Stal Alchevsk refused promotion.
The History of Ukrainian Football is Full of Such Episodes
The history of Ukrainian football is full of such events, which have sadly become even more widespread due to the financial crisis that has gripped the country over past three years.
This summer is no exception. Last year’s Persha Liha—Ukraine football’s second division—was won by Illichivets Mariupol. The same club that were the victims of 2015’s saga that saw Stal controversially promoted at Illichivets’ expense comfortably won the Persha Liha and were promoted with no dispute.
The same cannot be said for the other promotion spot. Veres Rivne were in second place for long spells of the season but faltered toward the end and finished seven points behind Desna Chernihiv.
According to the current format, Desna were to join Illichivets as the two clubs promoted to the UPL. As is to be expected, the reality was not as straightforward.
On Friday Sport Arena broke the news that Desna were denied a Premier League license, with Veres to be promoted in their stead. The decision was confirmed the next day at a meeting of representatives of all UPL clubs.
The justification behind the decision was Desna’s questionable finances. As league president Volodymyr Heninson explained in an interview with FootballHub:
“By the sporting principle, everyone is acutely aware that Desna should play in the Premier League. But according to financial indicators, the appeals committee decided that it will be Veres.”
Desna Failed to Abide by Bureaucratic Regulations
Unlike many other clubs, Desna’s financial troubles do not full under the category of overwhelming debts but rather a failure to comply by various bureaucratic regulations. As explained by the chairman of the administrative division for the licensing of football clubs Serhiy Zadiran, Desna did not provide detailed information regarding the club’s structure and did not issue guarantees that the club would be financially stable for the duration of the season.
Moreover, the clubs salary fund was reported to be a laughably small 140,000 hryvnia, or less than €5,000. How any professional club anywhere in the world can get away with paying such minuscule wages was not explained. Furthermore, Desna apparently has just seven full-time employees on their staff.
Desna disputed these figures. Interim director Ihor Usharuk told FootballHub that the club’s current budget is 600,000 hryvnia (€20,200) and that for the licensing process they demonstrated a total fund of 5 million hryvnias (€169,000).
Desna’s official site alleged that the Premier League’s motivation was, in fact, politics, money, corruption, or other reasons, and that league officials chose the more profitable club to promote.
Usharuk also pointed out that that Desna have allocated significant resources to the renovation of their stadium in Chernihiv, which has now been going on for over a year. The club played the second half of the season at Kyiv’s Obolon Stadium.
Veres’ stadium situation is even more uncertain. During the second half of the recently completed campaign, their home ground was the 3,000 capacity Izotop Stadium in Varash, a town of 40,000 that is located 150 kilometres from Rivne itself. Their president has stated that while Veres’ ground is undergoing reconstruction, the options for a temporary home are Lviv and nearby Lutsk. The latter city happens to be the home of Volyn Lutsk, Veres’ fiercest rivals who have just been relegated and whose fate is now unclear.
Veres Received Support of Most UPL Clubs
Despite Veres’ infrastructural problems, they received the support of most UPL clubs at their Saturday meeting. Six clubs voted in Veres’ favour, three abstained, and just one stood up for Desna.
Shakhtar Donetsk’ director Serhiy Paklin cited Veres’ dedication to development as the reason for his own club’s support of the Rivne club, while Karpaty Lviv general director’s Yuriy Diachuk Stavitsky’s justification was founded more on emotion rather than any sporting considerations. He explained that Veres proudly represents right bank (i.e. Western) Ukraine, where he is from, and that he is a former Veres player himself. “These are the only reasons why my vote was for Veres”, he unashamedly and brazenly revealed to the press.
Veres’ president Oleksiy Khaklev invoked more lofty ideals to defend his club. “Everything took place according to the rules and procedures. This is what Euromaidan stood for.”
Khakhlev’s bizarre attempt to draw a parallel between Veres’ dubious promotion-by-default and Ukraine’s revolution during which hundreds of thousands stood up against corruption and for the rule of law was roundly mocked on social media and popular websites.
The top comment on Sport Arena regarding his remarks reads “This is exactly what Maidan stood for. So that Veres through a violation of the rules is accepted to the UPL. The war also began for this. All for the good of this famous club.”
On Tribuna the top comment was more incendiary: “It is because of those like you that Maidan began!!!”
Dynamo Kyiv was the only club that voted against granting Veres entry into the UPL. President Ihor Surkis called the decision “the shame of the Federation” and argued that Desna should be given a grace period to get their budget and other administrative details in order.
Drawing any concrete conclusions from this affair is difficult. On the one hand, if the motivation behind the decision to deny Desna promotion is indeed rooted in a commitment to the rule of law, it can justifiably be construed as a step in the right direction. Moreover, as journalist Serhiy Bolotnikov states, Desna’s tiny budget and staff means that volatility is unavoidable. The club are a “soap bubble ready to pop at any moment,” he writes.
There is no Minimum Budget in Ukrainian Football
On the other hand, the UPL regulations mention nothing about a minimum budget, and the notion that all other clubs have guaranteed their financial stability is preposterous. UEFA requires all clubs to be audited, but Ukrainian clubs exploit a loophole in these rules to bypass this requirement. Informal payments, huge debts, a lack of stable income, and disorganisation thus become rampant. Bolotnikov continues:
“It turns out that the Football Federation of Ukraine is not guided by specific norms, but judges at its own discretion which clubs are doing fine, which are doing tolerably, and at which ones the situation is supposedly quite bad. This approach creates ideal conditions for manipulation, political decisions, and corruption.”
As for Desna’s future, their director has indicated that the club has a 50-50 chance of ceasing to exist. If this worst-case scenario unfolds, Desna will join Metalist Kharkiv, Metalurh Zaporizhia, and a distressing amount of other defunct clubs that are now scattered like tombstones across the landscape of the nation, from Zakarpattia at the Hungarian frontier in the west to war-torn Donbass in the east.
Whatever the true reasoning of the decision, this saga represents another chapter in the never-ending Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare that is Ukrainian football. Talk of reform is ubiquitous but rarely advances past the stage of ambitious proposals and cosmetic format changes. As Ukrainian football continues its ceaseless decline, except the traditional controversy over who gets a spot in the Premier League to continue.
Vadim Furmanov is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science. Originally from Ukraine, Vadim has resided in Chicago since 1994 and is a passionate supporter of both Dynamo Kyiv and the Ukrainian national team. He is also a Chicago Fire season ticket holder and a member of the Fire’s Section 8 supporters group. He writes primarily about Ukrainian football, as well as the intersection between football, politics, and history. You can follow Vadim on Twitter @vfurmanov.