Amidst Russia's continued full-scale invasion of Ukraine, having two underdogs — FC Kryvbas and Polissya Zhytomyr — sit at the top of the Ukrainian football league is a welcome surprise, Andrew Todos and David Kirichenko write.
Amid Russia’s continued full-scale invasion, Ukrainian football is pressing on in its second season in wartime conditions.
This year, a major surprise is unfolding, and few could’ve ever predicted the league standings as less-resourced clubs are currently leading the league. Ukrainian football fans can expect an unpredictable season, with the potential end of the dominance of Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk.
The war abruptly halted the 2021/22 season, leaving Shakhtar Donetsk just shy of a title they were on the verge of winning.
During the 2022/23 season, Dnipro-1 nearly clinched the championship but faltered at the end of it, allowing Shakhtar to claim the trophy again.
Now the league gave us another shocker: FC Kryvbas are at the forefront, with newly-promoted Polissya Zhytomyr in close pursuit.
Kryvyi Rih's team's thunderous rise
But first, a quick flashback to the 1992 season — the first-ever league competition in a newly independent Ukraine.
Tavriya Simferopol won the title, marking the first and last time a team other than Dynamo or Shakhtar took gold. Despite their efforts, clubs like FC Metalist Kharkiv and FC Dnipro made valiant attempts to win the league, but always fell a step too short from glory.
Hailing from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's hometown of Kryvyi Rih, FC Kryvbas, a team that was once a regular top-tier competitor, met an unexpected downfall in 2013.
However, in 2020, under Zelenskyy's vision of revitalising football in overlooked Ukrainian cities, the club was resurrected.
With local mine owner, Kostyantyn Karamanyts steering the ship, the rechristened Hirnyk-Kryvyi Rih — now Kryvbas — made a thunderous return to the top flight, finishing 7th in their comeback season under the guidance of one of Ukraine's master tacticians, Yuriy Vernydub.
When war broke out in 2022, Vernydub swapped his coaching tracksuit for a soldier's armour, joining an artillery brigade on the frontlines.
His commitment to both his nation and the sport eventually saw him juggle his military duties with managing Kryvbas, a feat that now sees them leading the Ukrainian Premier League this campaign.
Sport is not shielded from war
Credit for Kryvbas' impressive run goes beyond Vernydub's tactical brilliance. The squad's harmony, built around a blend of homegrown talent and international flair, has reaped dividends.
Players like Danylo Beskorovaynyi, Maksym Zaderaka, and the dazzling Cameroonian, Yvan Dibango, have turned heads with their exemplary performances.
Off the pitch, Kryvbas's PR team has captured the imagination of fans beyond Ukrainian borders, with viral content celebrating their on-field exploits, commemorating their fallen fans from the front and creatively raising money for the war effort.
On 31 July, Kryvyi Rih was hit by a Russian missile strike, killing three people including a four-year-old child, and injuring another 33. The football club published a social media post reminding its fans around the world that Russia was recognised by the EU "as a state sponsor of terrorism and as a state which uses means of terrorism.”
The post concluded with this line: "31/07/23. We'll never forgive. We hate you all." In Ukraine, sport is not shielded from war just as normal civilians aren’t. People and sports simply adapt to the wartime conditions.
Zhytomyr and Odesa have hot competitors, too
Close on Kryvbas' heels, FC Polissya Zhytomyr's journey is equally remarkable. Spearheaded by billionaire Hennadiy Butkevych, they've risen from obscurity to challenge the might of Dynamo and Shakhtar.
Under the guidance of a 1990’s Dynamo Kyiv star, Yuriy Kalitvinstev, Polissya are showing they're more than just a brief sensation.
Butkevych is deeply committed to his project, and the club even boasts heavyweight boxing champion Oleksandr Usyk on their roster. Although he hasn't featured for Polissya just yet, his debut may come about at some stage after the annual winter break and the fighter’s upcoming bout with Tyson Fury.
Another team catching attention is Chornomorets Odesa. Currently amongst the top 5 places, their re-emergence in recent years is attributed to new leadership and the comeback of renowned coach, Roman Hryhorchuk.
Under Hryhorchuk, the team once soared in the Europa League during the early 2010s.
Now, they boast an exciting blend of local talent and international players. However, a cloud hangs over the club as co-owner Borys Kaufman faces legal troubles, and its implications on the team remain uncertain.
Meanwhile, star-studded teams are struggling
Last year’s runners-up Dnipro-1 have experienced a resurgence of their own after a disappointing start to the championship.
They failed to make it past the qualifying rounds of all three UEFA competitions and saw star striker Artem Dovbyk leave to play for La Liga’s Girona.
However, ever since seasoned Ukrainian coach Yuriy Maksymov’s arrival in September which coincided with the club’s return to the city of Dnipro after a year of living in Uzhhorod; the club remain unbeaten in the league and have bolted back up into the European spots.
Meanwhile, Shakhtar have been in the midst of an uncharacteristic bumpy period. After a change in leadership from Croatian coach Igor Jovičević to Dutchman Patrick Van Leeuwen, the club experienced instability.
Despite Van Leeuwen’s departure after only 12 games, there's hope in the form of new coach Marino Pušić who was only appointed on 24 October.
It is worth keeping in mind that the current league table may not provide the clearest picture of real standings due to varying match counts — a byproduct of European competition schedules.
For instance, while Dynamo Kyiv is currently seventh, they have played three games less than leader Kryvbas. Yet, given their recent form and a significant injury to star player Andriy Yarmolenko, nothing is guaranteed.
Long-time manager, Mircea Lucescu, faces mounting pressure after the team's European struggles that have reared themselves domestically now too.
Two underdogs at the top a welcome distraction from war
Nonetheless, the war continually casts a shadow over football in Ukraine, where the lines between football, politics, and war are indelibly blurred.
There are frequent disruptions in matches because of air raid alerts, coupled with the absence of fans in stadiums, standing as sombre markers of the times.
As a football spokesperson from FC Karpaty Lviv illustrated, “When the air raid siren goes off, the match is stopped and everyone on the pitch and off the pitch goes to the bomb shelter. We cannot host our supporters in the stadium because our bomb shelter doesn’t have the capacity to host thousands of people.”
Personal tragedies have also struck some players; Dynamo Kyiv's Oleksandr Tymchyk and Shakhtar Donetsk's Dmytro Riznyk have both lost brothers serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
According to a survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 78% of Ukrainians have close relatives or friends who have been injured or killed by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Each time Ukraine's footballers play, they represent more than just a game. They show their country's strength and unity against Russia's barbaric war.
Their heart on the field mirrors the courage of the Ukrainian people and continuing to play sports in wartime shows that Ukrainians simply refuse to let the Kremlin disrupt the normal functioning of society.
Most intriguingly, amidst all the chaos and instability, having two underdogs leading Ukrainian football is a welcomed surprise and will continue to make for an interesting season.
Andrew Todos is a British-Ukrainian freelance sports journalist and broadcaster. He is the founder of the leading English language resource on Ukrainian football, Zorya Londonsk, and is a co-host of the "Ukraine + Football" podcast. David Kirichenko is a freelance journalist and an associate research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank.
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