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Soccer Club Gives Ukraine Something To Cheer About

  • Tony Wesolowsky

Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk's fans storm the field in celebration after their team's semifinal match against Napoli in Kyiv on May 14.

Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk's fans storm the field in celebration after their team's semifinal match against Napoli in Kyiv on May 14.

For a country weary of war, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk has given Ukrainians reason to smile.

The Ukrainian soccer team has overcome tremendous obstacles in battling its way to the Europa League final, where it will face Spanish side Sevilla on May 27 in Warsaw.

Despite being some 200 kilometers away from the fighting in Ukraine's east, Dnipro was forced to play home games five hours away in Kyiv.

Two "home" losses were the lowlights of an injury-plagued start to the group stage of this year's UEFA-organized club competition. But Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk capped off an impressive recovery with a 1-0 win to advance -- just barely -- to the next stages.

Then Dnipro started rolling, knocking out four straight teams to become just the second Ukrainian club ever to reach the final. The last step was beating Italy's Napoli in a two-game series, with the deciding game played in a driving rain storm in a packed Olimpiyskiy Stadium in Kyiv on May 14.

"Today this victory was needed by Ukraine first of all," Dnipro coach Myron Markevych said after the May 14 win. "And in general, today we played for ordinary people who are unfortunately in a state of war and our people are dying every day."

For many, Ukrainian club-soccer success -- namely Dnipro's -- has not only offered a brief reprieve from the conflict, but become a rallying cry for the nation.

"Together we are invincible," tweeted President Petro Poroshenko after Dynamo Kyiv beat English side Everton to qualify for the Europa League quarterfinals in March. "Glory to Ukraine."

Many Ukrainian clubs have faced challenges owing to the conflict. Playing in exile is now the norm for six Ukrainian Premier League clubs, including powerhouse Shakhtar Donetsk, which abandoned its home region in 2014.

Shelling has damaged the team's state-of-the-art stadium, now used as a refugee distribution center. Another stadium has been damaged by shelling in Luhansk. And Ukraine's top flight league has shrunk as well, with two top sides defecting to a Russian league after Moscow's annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk's rocky road to success, for many, embodies the difficulties many Ukrainians have been forced to overcome.

Even the club's highest-ranking fan, Poroshenko, has locked horns with Dnipro's owner, Ihor Kolomoyskiy. Poroshenko fired the wealthy businessman as regional governor of Dnipropetrovsk on March 24, following a struggle between Kolomoyskiy and the authorities in Kyiv over control of two state-controlled energy companies.

Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoyskiy, owner of Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk

Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoyskiy, owner of Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk

But while Kolomoyskiy can revel in his side's success, another Ukrainian oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, can only look on with envy.

His squad, Shakhtar Donetsk, now lives in a hotel in Kyiv, and play most of their league matches even further west in Lviv, near the border with Poland.

Most of those matches attract only a few thousand fans, a far cry from the 35,000 fans Shakhtar averaged during the 2013-14 season. According to a report in The Los Angeles Times, the team also set an East European record that year by selling 27,000 season tickets.

Back in Donetsk, Shakhtar's 50,000-seat stadium sits empty. Built at a cost of $400 million, Donbass Arena hosted games during the Euro 2012 championships. It was damaged in 2014 by shelling in fighting between the pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces.

Residents of Donetsk queued up outside Donbass Arena in March, not for soccer tickets, but for humanitarian aid, sponsored by Akhmatov.

The stadium of the Zorya Luhansk club, also located in a rebel stronghold, has also been damaged by shelling. In 2014, the team said its ground was damaged by mortar fire that smashed seats and left a crater in the playing field.

Russian Offsides

Zorya Luhansk and Shakhtar Donetsk are two of six Ukrainian Premier League sides to move their games elsewhere, further away from the conflict zone.

In March, with just two months remaining in the season, Chornomorets Odesa became the latest side to abandon their home stadium, according to the website futbolgrad.com.

It was a planned soccer match in Odesa on May 2, 2014, that triggered the chain of events that ended in the death of more than 40 people in the Black Sea port.

Dnipro's Nikola Kalinic (white shirt) goes for a header against FC Copenhagen in Kyiv last year.

Dnipro's Nikola Kalinic (white shirt) goes for a header against FC Copenhagen in Kyiv last year.

Ahead of a match between Chornomorets and Kharkiv Metalist, fans from both teams joined together to walk to the stadium, expressing their support for the country's pro-Western leaders as they made their way.

But the marchers were attacked by masked men, leading to running street battles and ending at a Soviet-era trade union building where dozens of rebels disdainful of rule from Kyiv later died in a blaze that engulfed the building.

Soccer has also contributed to tensions between Kyiv and Moscow.

Russia ignored authorities in Ukraine by incorporating three Crimean teams into its own leagues five months after annexing the Ukrainian peninsula in March 2014.

The three sides -- FC Sevastopol, Zhemchuzhina Yalta, and Tavria Simferopol -- were given spots in the second division south, part of the Russian league's third tier.

Tavria and Simferopol were both Ukrainian Premier League sides. Tavria was playing Europa League soccer as recently as the 2010-11 season.

Poroshenko has led Ukrainian calls to have Russia stripped of the right to host the World Cup in 2018, something world soccer governing body FIFA says it will not consider.

Ukrainian soccer officials called on UEFA and FIFA to respond, saying Russia had no right to run the sport on Ukrainian territory.

Russia has said Crimea could host team training bases during the tournament.

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