It's been said that Ukraine's powerful oligarchs are the deciding factor in whether Ukraine chooses to look east or west. And the oligarchs play the starring role on another stage of economic competition that is decidedly leaning toward the east -- the future of Ukraine's soccer league.
There has been talk of forming a super-league that would recreate the former Soviet league -- or at least unite the top Russian and Ukrainian soccer clubs in a joint competition, since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A Commonwealth of Independent States Cup briefly united them, but soon fell by the wayside for the bigger, richer clubs looking to Europe for competition.
But, following the success of a tournament held in June-July 2013, which comprised Russian teams Zenit St. Petersburg and Spartak Moscow as well as Ukraine's Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk, and the announcement of another tournament to be held in January-February 2014 in Israel featuring Zenit and Shakhtar again, along with Metalist Kharkiv and CSKA Moscow, talk of the Unified League actually happening has taken on new life.
Unsurprisingly, the main motivation is money. And where the oligarchs in Russia and Ukraine may have conflicting interests in other economic sectors, their interests in the soccer world come much closer to converging, especially since the 2009 announcement that UEFA, European soccer's governing body, would begin monitoring the economic sustainability of clubs seeking to enter its competitions as part of its "Financial Fair Play" rules.
Given that the top clubs in Russia and Ukraine are heavily supported by either oligarchs or other financial backers, such as Russian gas monopoly Gazprom in Zenit's case, they face a direct threat to their current business model. Revenue from television rights and ticket sales in the two countries is far less than in Western Europe, which would make it much more difficult for the big clubs in Russia and Ukraine to compete on an equal footing with big clubs in the West.
That fragility can be seen in the recent collapse of Arsenal Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital's second club. Abandoned by oligarch Vadim Rabinovich in April, the club was unable to find another powerful backer and was forced out of Ukraine's top league and into bankruptcy this month.
As Manuel Veth observes in his obituary for Arsenal Kyiv on Futbolgrad.com, the proposed Unified League with Russia "might be the only way to salvage football in Ukraine. It would ensure that Ukraine's top clubs would compete against clubs from Russia that are on a similar footing. Smaller clubs in Ukraine would be able to evolve organically as they would no longer need to spend beyond their means in order to keep up with Ukraine's biggest clubs."
So maybe there is something that Russia's and Ukraine's oligarchs can agree on after all.
-- Dan Wisniewski