Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
And so the new season begins in Ukraine just as the previous one had ended: with a face-off between the Premier League’s “big two”.
Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk meet later this evening in Poltava to contest the Super Cup, Ukraine’s equivalent of the Community Shield. It is a fixture that offers the victor not only some bragging rights, but also an opportunity to lay down an early marker for the championship.
Certainly at present it’s Dynamo who are the ones with more to prove.
Shakhtar won a sixth league title in 10 years at a canter last season, and defeated their archrivals 2-0 in a tempestuous Ukrainian Cup final to complete the double in the year the club celebrates its 75th anniversary, while Mircea Lucescu’s side also enhanced a burgeoning reputation on the continent with some impressive displays in the Champions League.
Yevhen Seleznyov, the Premier League’s top scorer last season at Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk is one of four new faces to arrive and commented at his unveiling that the Pitmen are “five years ahead of other clubs in Ukraine”.
Rinat Akhmetov assumed the presidency of Shakhtar in 1996 and oversaw a steady rise that coincided with Dynamo faltering.
After Valeriy Lobanovskiy’s passing in 2002, they went through a succession of managers, all of them former players under the Colonel, until the club’s president Ihor Surkis bucked the trend in 2007 with the appointment of Yuri Semin. A respected Russian coach, he wasn't a pupil of Lobanovskiy.
It was under his stewardship that Dynamo last won the league, in addition to reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup in 2009 before he departed for Lokomotiv Moscow.
Semin’s successor Valeriy Gazzaev was, like him, Russian and had no ties to Lobanovskiy and brought back to Kiev the club’s iconic striker Andriy Shevchenko to spearhead a new side he believed would be capable of winning the Champions League. But Gazzaev’s tenure lasted just one-and-a-half years.
Gazzaev, Shevchenko & Surkis had hoped to make a splash in Europe
Dynamo didn’t look like a team and he seemed to have undone much of the good work achieved by Semin, while a draw at home to the Belarussian side BATE Borisov and defeat in Moldova to Sheriff Tiraspol made his proclamations of European success seem like a distant dream. He tendered his resignation at the beginning of October in the aftermath of that 2-0 defeat in Moldova.
Semin returned at Christmas for a second spell at Dynamo, although much credit should be given to Oleh Luzhny who stepped in as interim manager and steadied the ship somewhat.
He oversaw a Premier League record 9-0 win against Illychivets Mariupil and navigated Dynamo through the Europa League group stages.
Luzhny had the respect of both the players and fans but Semin’s arrival lifted the club and there was that so-called “new manager bounce”, evident with victories over Beşiktaş and Manchester City in the Europa League.
Once that had worn off though he would have realised this wasn't the Dynamo team he left behind.
A rebuilding job has begun. There have been new arrivals and it’s no secret Semin covets a new striker.Key though will be the form of Oleksandr Aliyev, a talented, albeit at times temperamental midfielder Semin seems to be able to get the best out of.
The 26-year-old followed his mentor from Dynamo to Lokomotiv and then subsequently back again after a protracted transfer saga during the winter break, although he suffered from a lack of fitness upon his return following a free-scoring season in Russia and struggled to make a significant impact.
Aliyev or not, Dynamo are a side capable of challenging their rivals.
Semin masterminded a 3-0 victory over Shakhtar towards the end of the season at the Valeriy Lobanovskiy Dynamo Stadium to at least salvage something from what was a fairly disastrous campaign.
It’s a result that still riles Lucescu, who was sent off after protestations against refereeing decisions.
Shakhtar and Kiev players go hell for leather back in May
The rivalry runs deep between these two. Broadly speaking, you could draw a line down Ukraine, dividing its predominantly Ukrainian-speaking, Greek Catholic population in the west where Kiev is located, and the Russian-speaking, Christian Orthodox east, home to Donetsk.
There’s also a fierce regional pride in the industrial Donbas region, of which Donetsk is the capital and Shakhtar plays an important role in this. The club’s logo features a flame and hammers in orange and black, colours representing a glowing coal ember.
Even their name “Shakhtar” translates as “miner” in Russian.
In Jakob Preuss’ documentary The Other Chelsea – a Story from Donetsk, one fan quipped after Shakhtar’s win over Dynamo in the semi-final of the 2009 UEFA Cup that “the most important thing was to beat Kiev. It doesn’t matter who wins the cup, the main thing was to beat Kiev. If we’d lost, God forbid, they would have picked on our children for the next 20 years. Heaven forbid. Now it’s the other way round, let them weep!”
And while tonight’s game at the Vorskla Stadium isn't quite at the level of a European semi-final, it is nevertheless Dynamo Kiev versus Shakhtar Donetsk, old foe versus old foe.
For Dynamo and Semin it’s also the chance to show a sign of intent for the year ahead.
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