Soccer rivals choose sides in Ukraine upheavals

Ukraine are due to play the United States tomorrow in one of those matches which cries out for George Orwell to do the post-match analysis in the studio.

Soccer rivals choose sides in Ukraine upheavals

Admittedly Orwell was never that keen on organised sport and less still on football. In 1945, Moscow Dynamo visited Britain for a series of friendlies that included a bad-tempered match against Arsenal at White Hart Lane, where it was so foggy that no one noticed the Russians had 12 men on the pitch. After the recriminations that followed Orwell observed: “If you want to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world at the moment, you could hardly do it better than by a series of football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Indians and British, Russians and Poles, and Italians and Yugoslavs.”

Tomorrow’s kickabout was due to take place in Kharkiv (or Kharkov, if you’re Russian), which also has a team named Arsenal, but anticipating trouble — and with no sense of irony — the Ukrainian Football Federation decided to switch the venue to Cyprus.

The match is due to be broadcast by Ukrainian TV channel Inter, although at the time of writing neither the venue nor the kick-off time has been disclosed, but even in a sports-mad country you imagine it may not have people on the edge of their seats.

Yet football and politics are closely related in Ukraine, especially in its two main centres Kyiv (or Kiev) and Donetsk.

The Kyiv ultras — fans of Dinamo, Metalist and other clubs — usually fight each other, but joined forces in January first to protect the anti-government demonstrations and then to take part in the riots against the police. Usually shunned by political parties, their support was enthusiastically welcomed by the ultra-nationalists of Svoboda, whose leader Oleh Tyahnybok declared: “Glory to Ukraine! And I’ll continue the theme of the football fans. Let us applaud the heroic fans of Dnipro Cherkasy, Karpaty Lviv, and Vorskla Poltava! This is where solidarity starts. This is where patriotism starts!”

The ultras in the eastern, more Russian, part of Ukraine seem a lot less enthusiastic about Svoboda, although it has been claimed that hundreds of Dnipropetrovsk fans also supported the demonstrations.

In Donetsk the political line-up is significantly different, and is home to the most powerful man in the country: Rinat Akhmetov, boss of the massive conglomerate System Capital Management (SCM), and owner of Shakhtar.

Shakhtar’s rise to football domination in Ukraine almost exactly mirrors Akhmetov’s ascendancy. After the “Orange Revolution” of 2004, SCM soon became the most powerful company in the land, benefiting from the integration of coal, steel and iron companies and also from the favourable privatisation terms provided by Akhmetov’s political contacts.

In the 10 years before 2004, Dinamo Kyiv won the title nine times; since then they’ve won it just twice and Shakhtar have become a force not only in Ukraine but in Europe.

Akhmetov’s rise was similar in some respects to men like Roman Abramovich and Alisher Usmanov in Russia, although unlike Abramovich, he was already a business boss under the old regime. There was a fight to the death — literally in some cases — among members of the old “Red Directorate”, and one of the victims was Akmat Bragin, former president of Shakhtar, blown up along with four bodyguards on the way to watch a match against Simferopol in October 1995.

Rinat Akhmetov’s alliance with the ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych helped both men enormously — Rinat provided the finance, Viktor the favours — but Akhmetov has also spent a lot on funding healthcare and social services and promoting Ukrainian culture.

He is not ethnically a Russian, but a Tatar and a Muslim, from a community that was persecuted and deported under the Stalin regime. His political stance has been, and remains, to agree a compromise between Ukrainian, EU, Russian and US interests — but above all to ensure stable conditions for his huge multinational enterprise.

Akhmetov does, however, have a bolthole. Not in Cyprus, like some ill-advised Russians, but in London, where he purchased a modest pad in Knightsbridge three years ago for just over €165 million.

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