Ukranian football resumed behind closed doors late last month. To better understand the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the domestic game and its fans, FSE spoke to Yuri Konkevych (right), a journalist, supporter of second-tier club Volyn Lutsk, and founder of Fanproject Volyn.
FSE: How is life without football?
As is the case in most countries, I haven’t seen my football-related friends since the beginning of the lockdown, which started here around three and a half months ago. We’ve stayed in contact via telephone and the internet. But I miss them and meeting up in the stadium.
FSE: What is the current situation?
In the Premier League, three matches have already been played since the season restarted. The main story at the moment revolves around Karpaty Lviv, where around 30 people, including three players, tested positive for the virus between the first and second matches. The team found out on their way to a home game against Mariupol. As a result, Karpaty decided to withdraw from the league. They’re in the relegation group and nobody is quite sure how the powers that be will handle the situation.
FSE: Was the return of football controversial in Ukraine?
The Premier League spent the whole of May setting up a new hygiene system, with medical protocols and strict rules governing the return of professional football. In fact, the protocols were devised with reference to those rolled out by the Bundesliga, which as we know, was the first major league to restart. The only real difference between the two is the number of tests clubs are supposed to carry out.
Many of the clubs in the Ukranian topflight don’t have enough resources to test at the same level as their German counterparts. More to the point, our medical system doesn’t have the capacity to test football players regularly. Ordinary citizens have to wait two, three days in long queues to get tested. And so, players have to do the same every two weeks.
But to answer your question: no, there weren’t any debates around this.
FSE: What is the situation in the lower leagues?
The third division was suspended a while ago. In the second division, six or seven teams with the possibility of getting promoted came into conflict with teams further down the table who wanted to declare the season null and void. But last week the league decided to resume from 23rd June. The decision is but some clubs are set against it—some because of the lack of money, some because they cannot guarantee that they’ll meet the requirements of the medical protocols.
A lot of the issues discussed reflect problems that pre-date the current crisis. Football here isn’t profitable, not even in the Premier League. Clubs are slowly going bankrupt. The most infamous example is that of FK Dnipro. In 2015, they played in the Europa League final. Today, they’re lost somewhere in the amateur leagues. Then there’s Metallist Kharkiv. Their owner escaped to Russia during the 2014 invasion. It’s a very sad story for every Ukranian fan. We all had a great deal of hope after hosting EURO 2012.
FSE: So, there was no real push to resume the season?
In Germany or other countries, where clubs get a lot of money from broadcasting rights, there was a clear argument in favour of restarting, to keep people in jobs and so on. It’s the exact opposite in Ukraine: clubs that don’t have the financial clout of Shakhtar Donestk, for instance, or are unlikely to qualify for Europe, asked for the season to end because they’ll lose money by playing behind closed doors.
FSE: You don’t sound very optimistic.
Sports journalists recently came up with a joke: “When football returns, nothing will change anyway.” This is a reference to attendances, which have decreased dramatically since 2012 for a number of reasons: the economic crisis, the war, the low quality of football. I think people are also tired of the domination of oligarchs, who treat clubs like toys.
Fans don’t play a role in this “game.” But pessimism, or resignation, plays a role, not only among match-going fans, but in terms of domestic football more generally. The national team still attracts support. But the average attendance in the Premier League is probably around 4,000 people.
FSE: In several countries, including Hungary, Poland, and Bulgaria, fans are being allowed back into stadia, but with capacities capped at 20, 30, 40 percent, and so on. Is this being considered in Ukraine?
Yes. Last week, the Chief Medical Officer stated that the government will presents its formal position on the matter after 10th June, when large cultural events are set to resume.
FSE: A lot of European countries have seen pandemic-related solidarity actions organised by fans and fans’ groups. Has something similar happened in Ukraine?
Some clubs have worked with fans to help the elderly, sick people, and hospitals. But the level of self-organisation among fans isn’t particularly high, especially when there is a crisis such as the one we’re currently living through.
FSE: Tell us a little bit about Fanproject Volyn.
We’re a group of 30 active fans who organise projects at our club, Volyn Lutsk. We’ve put on matches for children, for instance, and sometimes we act as a mediator between the local media and the club to clarify certain issues. We also make banners for events. Our Facebook-site has become a vehicle to raise discussions regarding the club and to spread information on how fans organise themselves in other countries and what kind of projects they’re involved in. We’re really inspired by the idea of social-pedagogic fan projects in Germany. But we’re aiming to attract more people to the club, especially from a younger demographic. Without fans football will die, so we need to get more people into the stadium.
FSE: Have you done much over the lockdown period?
We’ve had a lot of discussions about the general situation in Ukrainian football. As mentioned before, one of the main problems is that professional clubs are constantly going bankrupt and vanishing or being resurrected with adapted versions of their former names. Ukrainians love football but they’re tired of everything that goes with it.
That’s why we want to learn more about how we can help to make our clubs more sustainable. On a regional level, people have started to form their own clubs, encouraging a move away from the kind of liabilities and financing structures that existed in Soviet times—state companies, the military, etc.
Change isn’t easy because we’re still fighting the ghosts of the past. But I’m confident that we can prevail in the long run.