Ukrainian soccer War Games

Top Ukrainian soccer club Shakhtar Donetsk has been forced to flee the war in the east of the country. Tonight, the team will play German powerhouse Bayern Munich at a neutral field in western Ukraine.
Game on: Rinat Akhmetov at Shakhtar's stadium in Donetsk.

That the turf in the Lviv Arena in Ukraine is a rich green is quite an achievement. The stadium, built for the 2012 European soccer championships hosted by Ukraine and Poland, was on the verge of bankruptcy when the war in eastern Ukraine began last year.

But while the conflict is a catastrophe for the country, it has meant survival for the arena. When war came to the industrial, pro-Russian Donets Basin, Ukraine's top club, Shakhtar Donetsk, was forced to move to Lviv in the country's pro-European western region.

"If Shakhtar Donetsk hadn't moved, we would no longer have been able to afford the turf, which is treated with plenty of artificial sunlight and special seed," said Denis Rynski, the 34-year-old stadium director.

In office since September, he sees himself as a "crisis manager who solves intractable problems." When he took over, the stadium's accounts were frozen, it was substantially behind in wage payments, the power had been shut off due to unpaid electricity bills, and authorities were demanding payment of taxes.

It is Akhmetov's club, and he built up the separatists. Andrij, Soccer fan from Lviv

But today, Mr. Rynski and Shakhtar Donetsk are hosting German champions Bayern Munich in Lviv as part of the Champions League tournament. Shakhtar's fate will now be decided in the western city, which is ironic as the club was once seen as the embodiment of eastern Ukraine.

The team, owned by Ukrainian steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov, has won nine national championship titles during the 20 years of Ukrainian independence, and it has also tasted European success with a win in the 2009 UEFA Cup Final.

The club's transplant to the West seems to have worked so far. "We were well received here, more so than we had expected," said Katerina, a 20-year-old saleswoman in the fan shop. She is from a mining town near Donetsk and, as an eastern Ukrainian, had feared that she would be unwelcome in the western part of the country.

Still, there is some resentment against the club. The players are frequently booed as the club owes at least some of its success to the financial support of Mr. Akhmetov, a protégé of former President Viktor Yanukovich, who was ousted last year for corruption.

"It is Akhmetov's club, and Akhmetov built up the separatists," said a fan named Andrij as he picked up tickets for the Bayern game at the stadium.

But the city administration has a much more positive view of the football club's move to Lviv. "The stadium now supports itself, but we also hope that it will soon begin making money for the city," said Irina Kulynytch, a city council member in charge of economic affairs.

Having fled the rebels for the security of Kiev, Mr. Akhmetov is embroiled in an economic war on multiple fronts.

Her dream is to transform Lviv into a modern IT center, now that a few Internet companies with Western business have already settled there. In addition, a Czech investor has plans to develop an industrial park for the machine-building industry.

Visitors to Ms. Kulynytch's office in the city hall must first pass an altar made of images of fallen Lviv residents, with burning candles in front of it. Many western Ukrainians have died in the fighting with separatists in the east. And despite the depressed mood after the government forces' many defeats, volunteers are still joining the fight against the pro-Russian separatists.

One group, dressed in camouflage, was traveling on the fast train from Lviv to Kiev. For them, the hype over the Shakhtar - Bayern match is difficult to understand. "We are still at war and you're talking about football," says a man in his late 30s who, dressed in a German army combat uniform he bought himself, doesn't trust the current ceasefire and is now headed for the warzone.


Shakhtar Donetsk players train at their new home in Lviv.


Gennadiy Chyzhykov disagrees. The head of the Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, he is from Donetsk and came to Kiev two years ago. "With Russia trying to portray our country as a failed state, the Shakhtar – Bayern match sends an important message to the rest of the world," says Mr. Chyzhykov.

The people need to think about something other than war once, he says. He also wants to see Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk "give the world and the Ukrainians a better explanation of all the things they are changing, and that they are serious about rebuilding the economy and fighting corruption."

Ukraine needs more open markets, liberalization, less bureaucracy and, most of all, subsidies for small and mid-sized businesses, says Mr. Chyzhykov. He also points out that the oligarchs have played "too strong a role" in Ukraine.

He is mainly referring to steel magnate Akhmetov, one of the richest and probably most powerful Ukrainian, who has been jockeying for factories, influence and wealth since President Yanukovich fled the country. After being forced to leave Donetsk, the Shakhtar owner now lives in Kiev, where his company System Capital Management is based.

Mr. Akhmetov owns several properties in the capital, including the Stalinist ZUM Central Department Store which is now being converted into a shopping center. To gain acceptance among Kiev residents, the steel magnate has had the building wrapped in a giant blue-and-yellow flag imprinted with the words "We are one country," in Ukrainian and Russian.

Mr. Akhmetov’s enemies believe that he is funding the pro-Russian rebels, a charge he denies. They want to see him put on trial, and they want the businesses that were sent his way under Yanukovich re-privatized. Some, including Igor Kolomoisky, a bank mogul, governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region and owner of Dnipro, a rival football team, are funding volunteer battalions and their fight against the separatists.

But aside from the rivalry with other oligarchs who were short-changed under Mr. Yanukovich, there are other concerns over the continued existence of SCM and Shakhtar Donetsk.


Quelle: dpa
Western Ukrainians are helping to fund the fight against eastern separatists.
(Source: dpa)


Mr. Akhmetov was once estimated to own more than $20 billion., controlling more than 100 companies and 300,000 employees. His firms had combined sales of $24.5 billion and pretax profits of $1.3 billion in 2013.

But now, having fled the rebels for the security of Kiev, the 48-year-old is embroiled in an economic war on multiple fronts. Other oligarchs are nibbling at his empire, the war in the east has crippled steel production and Turkey has launched an anti-dumping case against Ukrainian steel producers. Turkey is the most important market for Ukrainian rolled steel, with sales of close to $300 million.

The oligarch closed two steel mills in the conflict-hit east after production fell by 30 percent last year, and two more in the under siege Black Sea city of Mariupol have suffered similar loses. He was also forced to accept the confiscation of his Ukrtelekom subsidiary in Crimea, annexed by Russia last year.

Mr. Akhmetov badly needs peace to regain his former position.

But that looks unlikely in the short term, and the longer the war lasts, the more furious the people become. Not even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will be able to appease the angry public. It is currently working out a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine, but it will include large increases in the cost of electricity, natural gas prices and municipal fees. Some Ukrainians are already calling for another revolution.

Meanwhile, soccer club Shakhtar Donetsk is making itself at home in Lviv. With little hope of peace, Mr. Akhmetov’s staff has apparently been searching for training facilities and accommodation for his players in western Ukraine.

But whether Mr. Akhmetov will even have enough millions left in a year to support his passion for soccer and continue funding Shakhtar is a different matter.

Video: The build-up to the match between Shakhtar Donetsk and Bayern Munich.


The author is head of Handelsblatt's foreign affairs desk. To contact the author: [email protected]