When I first visited the Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, 20 years ago, I kept getting lost because most streets looked the same. Kiev was partly destroyed in the Second World War and rebuilt in the 1950s, a bad time for Soviet architecture. The city has gray apartments, wide streets and the occasional giant statue. Everything is on a superhuman scale. One night I took a bus in search a restaurant that I knew to be further along my street. I trekked 10 miles down the road until I reached a forest. By then it was dark and raining. The restaurant had to be somewhere, but was the forest safe at night? Would the food be worth it? And so I took the bus home again. I stayed alive because, inexplicably, Kiev’s street vendors sold kiwi fruit, and the Dynamo Kievsoccer
club ran a snack bar, one of the only restaurants in town.
Eventually I got friendly with a Dynamo official. Over beers in the very Soviet Hotel Intourist (I paid), he told me about the mafia that ran the club. At our last meeting, knowing we wouldn’t meet again, he told me the best club secrets. “Dynamo,” he said, “has licenses to export nuclear missile parts, two tons of gold per annum and metals including platinum.”
“How did you get these licenses?” I asked. Through bribery.
Twenty years on, as Ukraine prepares to co-host Euro 2012, which begins Friday, the backdrop to soccer in this struggling country of 46 million people hasn’t changed much. The game is still a great Ukrainian passion, and still a plaything of oligarchs and corrupt politicians.
Ukraine was always the part of the Soviet Union that did soccer best. With slightly milder weather than Russia, it had both better farmland (the famous “black earth”) and better soccer players. Unfortunately, history rarely left this vast country alone. Invading troops were always arriving either from the east or from the west. The historian Serhy Yekelchyk notes that the western city of Lviv, a host city duringEuro 2012
, had four different names during the 20th century: first Lemberg under the Austro-Hungarian empire, then Lwów under Poland, then Lvov in Soviet times and now Ukrainian Lviv. What next?
The 20th century hit Ukraine hard. First came the Holodomor famine of the 1930s, in which Joseph Stalin deliberately starved to death millions of Ukrainians who hadn’t been keen on the forced collectivization of their farms. The historian Timothy Snyder, in his bookBloodlands
, describes mothers who cooked and ate their sons, and the family who killed their daughter-in-law, fed her head to the ###### and roasted her body for themselves.
When Hitler’s army arrived in 1941, many Ukrainians imagined the Germans could hardly be as bad as the Soviet communists. They were. Kiev’s Jews (and many, many non-Jews) were taken to the nearby ravine of Babi Yar and shot in the head by German firing squads. It was the start of what would soon become the automated Holocaust. Ukraine was truly a “bloodland” in that war: Within just two years, it was invaded first by the Germans and then, coming the other way, the Red Army.
The war provided Ukrainian soccer with its greatest myth: the “death match,” recently commemorated in a new Russian movie. According to the myth, on August 9, 1942, a team of German soldiers played a local side, FC Start, which included many Dynamo Kiev players. The way I was told the story in Kiev, the spectators were all German soldiers with machine guns, and when the Ukrainians took the lead, the soldiers began firing at their legs. Though several players went down, Dynamo hung on to win. Afterwards the whole team was executed. It was, in short, the movieEscape to Victory
with an unhappy end. In this year’s new movie, the team’s goalie, Nikolai Ranevich, tells his teammates at halftime, “I can’t decide for everyone, but my vote is for victory.” “But they’ll shoot us!” objects a teammate. And Ranevich deadpans, “That’s a minus, but we’ll get over it.”
The “death match” is a great patriotic Ukrainian story, but it isn’t true. It was a postwar myth concocted by the local communist party. There had indeed been lots of wartime soccer, and some of the players were subsequently murdered by the Nazis, but then so many other Ukrainians were, too. The particular German-Ukrainian match underlying the myth seems to have been quite amicable -- afterward, both sides posed for a joint photograph, according to the Ukrainian historian Volodimir Hinda.
This April, Ukraine briefly froze the release of the new film. The leaders apparently didn’t like the film’s (accurate) depiction of some local Ukrainians collaborating with the Nazis. In the film, flower-garlanded women give German soldiers the traditional welcoming gift of bread and salt. Most of the film’s pro-Nazi characters speak Ukrainian while the anti-Nazi heroes speak Russian. In scarred Ukraine, World War II is still far from over.
After 1945, Ukraine and its soccer gradually picked itself up from ruins. In the 1970s, a man arrived who would mark the nation’s game. Valeri Lobanovsky, a vodka-sodden coach, made Dynamo Kiev not merely the Soviet Union’s best team but also the de facto Soviet national team. By the 1980s, Lobanovsky was managing both sides. In 1988, when the USSR lost theEuropean
Championship final to Holland, the local joke went that they were the Dynamo Kiev team weakened by the addition of a couple of players from other clubs.
The isolated provincial Soviet city was producing groundbreaking soccer for that time. Lobanovsky was a pioneer in applying data to the study of the game. In Kiev in 1992, his chief scientist, Anatoly Zelentsov, tested me on the computer games he used to select Dynamo’s and the USSR’s players. I remember a reaction test, where the screen suddenly lit up and you then had to press the keyboard instantly, and another impossible game where you had to guide a cursor through a moving maze. “But,” I asked Zelentsov, “what if Alexander Zavarov and Igor Belanov did badly on these tests? They were still your best players. You had to pick them.” Zelentsov replied, “Zavarov and Belanov, even when out of form, had far higher scores on these tests than the other players.” Picking a team with computers was pretty innovative in the 1980s.
But when the USSR collapsed, Ukraine’s economy suffered horribly. In the 1990s, a few oligarchs got rich buying up state-owned assets for peanuts in dubious privatizations. Rinat Akhmetov, the country’s richest oligarch, took over the Shakhtar Donetsk club, in the eastern coal-mining Donbass region, bought them lots of Brazilian players and won titles. Later, Achmetov went one better: he and some other Donbass oligarchs effectively chose the president.
Viktor Yanukovych grew up in the Donetsk region. Like many easterners, he spokeRussian
rather than Ukrainian. As a young man, standing nearly two meters tall, he was jailed twice for violent crimes. He became a politician, and he seems to have been picked for greatness by Akhmetov and his cronies.
Yanukovych became Ukraine’s prime minister, and in the elections of 2004, stood against the west-leaning Viktor Yushchenko for president. One evening during the campaign, Yushchenko went for a sushi dinner and returned home poisoned. Soon mottles appeared all over his handsome face. Yanukovych was originally proclaimed winner of the elections, but orange-clad crowds protested against the result, and finally Yushchenko was given the presidency. Ukraine seemed to have turned away from Russia and toward Europe.
It was during Yushchenko’s presidency that Ukraine was named co-host of Euro 2012 with Poland. The tournament “was a gift from Europe to the Ukrainian reformers,” explained Tijn Sadée recently in the Dutch soccer journalHard Gras
Organizing the Ukrainian leg of the tournament wasn’t easy. In September 2008, Michel Platini, president of the European soccer association UEFA, complained to me: “There are no airports, no hotels, no sports centers for the teams there. In Donetsk, you know, there’s a big stadium, 55,000 capacity -- but a hotel?”
The week we talked, the global financial crisis broke, and Ukraine’s economy collapsed. In 2010, Yanukovych finally got himself elected president. Some oligarchs became ministers. They hold cabinet meetings in Russian, not Ukrainian. Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin has begun encouraging his buddy Yanukovych to look east rather than west.
Yanukovych locked up Yulia Tymoshenko, the blonde-braided opposition politician who was voted best-looking politician on earth during her spell as prime minister. When Holland and Germany meet in Kharkov, they will be almost within shouting distance of her prison, where she held a 20-day hunger strike after reportedly being beaten. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has called Ukraine “a dictatorship” and led protests by foreign politicians threatening to boycott matches there. Even Germany’s captain Philipp Lahm has said, “If Germany reaches the final in Kiev and President Yanukovych is standing in front of me, I seriously doubt whether I’d shake his hand. I can’t find my ideas about democracy and freedom of expression in the Ukrainian political situation.” And in April, a mysterious bomb went off in Dnipropetrowsk (not a host city), injuring 27 people.
Ukrainians just hope their team won’t embarrass them. But they might. Andriy Shevchenko, the only great soccer player to come out of Ukraine in the last 20 years, formerly of Milan and Chelsea, is now 35 years old and almost clapped out. He’s expected to start Ukraine’s first match, against Sweden, to help settle his teammates’ nerves, but to appear against France and England only as a sub, says Mark Rachkevych of theKyiv Post
. The team has few other known names. Ukraine’s three best goalies will miss the tournament -- two with injury, the third after a doping offense. Teams playing Ukraine might want to shoot often. There’s one thing to be thankful for: Yanukovych probably won’t get his mitts on the trophy.
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