x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Ukraine keeps it together

Despite partisan bickering, red tape and growing cases of hooliganism, one nation's preparations seem right on track.

Steady progress has been made since Boris Kolesnikov, not pictured, the Ukrainian deputy prime minister, took over the complete responsibility for organising Euro 2012.
Steady progress has been made since Boris Kolesnikov, not pictured, the Ukrainian deputy prime minister, took over the complete responsibility for organising Euro 2012.

For a moment, everything seemed perfect. Gianni Infantino, the general secretary of Uefa, European football's governing body, smiled benignly and confirmed that, after all the doubts, all the questions about infrastructure, Ukraine would remain as co-host of Euro 2012 with Poland.

He hailed the two men who had overseen the surge in construction and development as heroes. Suddenly, Hryhoriy Surkis, the president of the Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU), and Boris Kolesnikov, the Ukrainian deputy prime minister, with responsibility for Euro 2102, became, to the Ukrainian press at least, Super-Hryhoriy and Super-Boris. They accepted Infantino's plaudits, posed for pictures and shook the requisite number of hands and then, as soon as he had left, got on with the business that has occupied them for most of the past decade, fighting with each other.

On Monday, Uefa rubber-stamped the provisional schedule for Euro 2012, reiterating that despite all the problems, half the tournament will still be held in Ukraine and that Kiev will host the final. But while Ukraine breathes a sigh of relief that their stadia and airports at last look like making it through inspections, a host of other problems remain, not least the relationship between Surkis and Kolesnikov.

Kolesnikov used to be vice-president of Shakhtar Donetsk. Surkis used to be president of Dynamo Kiev, a post now held by his younger brother, Ihor. They are natural rivals, representing not merely the two biggest clubs in the country, but also two of the biggest groups of oligarchs. Euro 2012, like Ukrainian football as a whole, like Ukraine as a whole, has become a negotiation between those competing power blocs.

Under the presidency of the elder Surkis, Dynamo were suspended from European competition for a year after Lopez Nieto, a Spanish referee, reported an attempt to bribe him with two fur coats ahead of a Champions League tie in 1995, an incident Kolesnikov used to bring up at every opportunity. "Surkis," he once said, "personifies the shame of our football." Yet five years after that ban, Surkis was elected president of the FFU. He is now serving his third term. In some ways he has been very successful: he has stimulated investment into academies, something to which Ukraine's recent achievements in youth football can probably be attributed.

But his time in charge has been characterised by repeated claims from rival club owners he manipulated referees in favour of Dynamo. He seemed to be facing a vote of no confidence when Uefa announced in April 2007 Ukraine would co-host Euro 2012, a staggering coup that instantly boosted Surkis's popularity and credibility, and pretty much left him fireproof until at least the next elections after the tournament in 2012.

But then, in April this year, Kolesnikov was made vice-president and given governmental responsibility for the championship. He immediately stripped Surkis of any real economic influence over Euro 2012 and limited his role to a symbolic one, comprising little more than welcoming Uefa delegates. While having the two heads at each others' throats clearly is not ideal, Kolesnikov's seizure of control has helped.

"According to Euro 2012 programme, the Federation has only to test the stadiums and must not poke its nose into other affairs," Markiyan Lubkivskyi, the Ukraine Euro 2012 director, said. "The centralisation of power has drastically changed the situation for the better. After some battles for power we have only one centre of decision making and that is the most important thing when bringing those decisions to life."

Progress, at last, is being made, particularly in Lviv where both the new airport and the stadium had been behind schedule. Having inspected both sites, Infantino pronounced himself both "surprised" and "optimistic". The stadium in Kiev, which will host the final, is back on track, with Jitess Arquissandash, the Portuguese project manager who was appointed in April, saying three years' work had been done in the six months since he took over and that, if construction continues at the present rate, the stadium will be complete by next June.

In both Donetsk and Kharkiv, the stadiums are already in use; the new air terminal in Donetsk should be operational early next year, while Kharkiv's was opened in August. Hotels are another issue, but they are far less pressing. As concerns over the infrastructure recede, though, other problems rise up. This season has seen an unprecedented rise in incidents of hooliganism, which had never previously been much of a problem in Ukraine.

In Dnipropetrovsk, a linesman and a Metalist Kharkiv player were injured when Dnipro fans reacted to a late decision to disallow a home goal by hurling missiles on to the pitch. Pierluigi Collina, who has overseen refereeing in Ukraine since July, was appalled. "I can't accept what I saw," he said. "A beautiful day was spoiled by barbarians. "First of all, numerous fires were lit in the section where families sit with their children, then a bottle hit the linesman and left him with blood pouring from his face. This must not happen again. Nobody has the right to threaten the life of fans, referees or players."

That was only one incident among many. After Metalist had lost at home to Shakhtar, for instance, the Shakhtar coach was pelted with stones. "It's incredible," said Andriy Pyatov, the Shakhtar goalkeeper. "There were police officers two metres from the bus and they didn't react against the mob. One of the policemen even hit our bus with his fist for effect." Lubkivskyi acknowledges that this is a major concern.

"We have to pay special attention to these incidents," he said. "Especially with regard to the police who work on the football matches." The problem is heightened by the rise of the far right. When Volyn Lutsk played Arsenal Kyiv at the Victor Bannikov Stadium, around 300 metres from the FFU headquarters in the capital, away fans unveiled a banner celebrating the Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler, the Fuhrer's personal bodyguard. Stadium security did nothing to remove it.

In Lviv, Karpaty ultras directed Nazi salutes at a group of Borussia Dortmund fans who were relaxing in a bar the night before their Europa League meeting last month. The Germans responded by throwing bottles at them and a street fight broke out that was only quelled by the arrival of riot police. Stewards then had to take down Nazi banners in the stadium before the game could kick off. On the pitch, the Ukrainian game has been hit by allegations of match-fixing.

It has been generally accepted for at least a decade that a number of games in the top flight were fixed, but matters came to a head in 2008 when Petro Dyminskyi, the president of Karpaty Lviv, learned that a number of his players had sold a game to Metalist for US$110,000 (Dh403,700). He called Serhiy Laschenkov, the Moldovan midfielder, to his office, and questioned him about suggestions he had been the intermediary between Karpaty's players and Metalist's deputy general director Yevhen Krasnikov.

Laschenkov confessed, not realising Dyminskyi was secretly videoing their interview. Dyminskyi then used the tapes to force the guilty players into written declarations, which he in turn used to avoid paying them salaries or bonuses. In June last year, one of those players, Volodymyr Fedoriv, complained to the FFU's Disciplinary Committee that Karpaty had failed to pay him. The FFU found for the player, and imposed a transfer embargo on Karpaty. In January, Karpaty hit back by handing over the incriminating DVD to Alexander Bandurko, the FFU's vice-president.

The FFU, demonstrating rare initiative, took the case to its Committee of Fair-play and Ethics. In August, the case of match-fixing was deemed proven, and both clubs were awarded technical defeats for the game in question, both were fined $25,000, and each had nine points deducted. Krasnikov and Laschenkov were banned from football for life, Dyminskyi was suspended for 12 months, and 18 Karpaty players were fined.

That, though, was not the end of it, as Miron Markevich, the coach of the Ukraine national team, who was also the coach of Metalist, resigned, believing the points deduction to have been designed to help Dynamo Kiev in their battle with Metalist for Champions League qualification. "I've worked in the Ukrainian football for more than 27 years," Markevich said. "Nobody can surprise me. Yet all in a flash it has become very honest and respectable and only in Metalist are there any bad boys. They must clear themselves from dirt first and only after that punish the others."

That the problem stretches far wider than just Metalist and Karpaty was acknowledged by Vitaliy Danilov, a former president of FK Kharkiv and now the president of the Ukrainian Premier League. "I know which referees take bribes," he said. "I even know how their schemes work. "People approach the referee offering a certain amount of money and the referee tries to increase it by telling them that the other side has already offered more."

The infrastructure may be on track, but Ukraine is facing a host of other problems. That perfect moment with Infantino looks increasingly illusory. 

sports@thenational.ae

KIEV
The rebuilt Olympic Stadium promises to be spectacular, a worthy stage for the Euro 2012 final, but costs have risen from US$278million (Dh1.021 billion) to $380m. The biggest problem, Kolesnikov says, is its location in the centre of the city. “That decision to reconstruct the old stadium was a mistake of my predecessors,” he said.

DONETSK
The 51,540-capacity Donbass-Arena is one of the best venues in Europe, and has been operational for a year. Now the priority is to finish the airport. “There is no problem with building of the new air terminal,” insisted Alexander Lukyanchenko, the mayor of Donetsk. “We plan to finish it in the first quarter of the year 2011.” Hotels and amenities remain an issue.

KHARKIV
The 35,721-capacity Metalist Stadium, visited by Michel Platini, the Uefa president, below, has been reconstructed while the rebuilding of the airport was completed in August. The headache for Kharkiv organisers is the road network, as PSV Eindhoven’s players found when they were trapped in a traffic jam on their way to a Europa League game last month.

LVIV
A Unesco world heritage site that played host to over a million visitors when Pope John Paul II visited a decade ago, there were few doubts about the city’s capacity to cope with the Euros. Wrangles over construction of the stadium threatened its viability but great progress appears to have been made.