Far away in the east of Europe lies Ukraine; once a diamond in the rough of footballing nations. For a nation without any major national honours, Ukraine once boasted players at some of the best clubs in the world: Anatoliy Tymoschuk, once of Bayern Munich, and legendary striker Andriy Shevchenko.
And, for a while, Ukrainian clubs were emerging as something of a European force. In 2009, Shakhtar Donetsk won the UEFA Europa League, and in 2010/11 reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League. In the same year, Shakhtar won the Europa League, Dynamo Kiev also reached the semi-finals. In 2015, Dnipro made it to the final of the Europa League, only to beaten by the somewhat imperious Sevilla.
The league was on the up and, bolstered by players like Alex Teixeira, Willian, Fernandinho, Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka, there was the potential for growth.
But Ukraine and its football clubs had a dark underbelly. In 2013, protests broke out against the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, following his rejection of an EU bill, eventually leading to the ousting of the President. Following the unrest, Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the region of Crimea, sending Ukraine into a time of Financial Crisis.
It was from here that Ukrainian football troubles began. The financial crisis meant that Ukrainian clubs’ owners no longer had millions to spare, leading to reluctance to part with their money. It is then no surprise that the league saw a mass exodus of players, with only Yarmolenko of the afore-mentioned players still playing in the league.
Ukraine’s civil unrest and financial crisis has hit all clubs hard, ruining the proud history’s of some of the nations top sides. Dnipro, just over two years after reaching the Europa League final, now reside in the third tier of Ukrainian football. It was a time of such highs that spent Dnipro spiralling down to a pit of lows.
After their loss to Sevilla, a number of key players, including Yevhen Konoplyanka, left Dnipro, and failed to be replaced. The club’s owner, Ihor Kolomoyskyi, was no longer providing the club with the finances they needed.
Despite finishing third in the 2015/16 season, UEFA banned Dnipro from competing in European competitions for the next three seasons for breaching Financial Fair Play regulations. The Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU) then placed restrictions on Dnipro for signing players for unpaid debts to former manager, Juande Ramos. The former boss led Dnipro to their highest ever league finish in Ukraine, but lodged a complaint after wages to him and his staff failed to be paid.
The financial crisis, and Kolomoyskyi’s reluctance to invest meant that debts continued to rack up for Dnipro. Following numerous sanctions and a total deduction of 24 points from the FFU meant Dnipro finished 11th, and were instead relegated to the Ukrainian second division, rather than the first.
Before this, fellow Ukrainian club, and Dnipro’s rivals, Metalist Kharkiv, had already been declared bankrupt. Following the unrest in 2014, their owner fled the country, and was seeking asylum in Moscow, leaving the club with no financial backing. The club who once competed in European football ceased to exist after the 2015/16 season.
The league is now left with two dominating sides: Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev, and the future is far from certain for them. Shakhtar have had to sell many key assets over recent years, including the aforementioned Alex Teixeira, Willian and Fernandinho, as well as fellow Brazilians Douglas Costa and Luiz Adriano. Shakhtar have since also had to relocate, playing for two years in Kiev before now playing in Kharkiv.
Dnipro and Metalist fans now face a very uncertain future. Whilst Dnipro compete in the third tier, they are joined by SC Dnipro-1; a breakaway club bolstered by Dnipro’s former player and manager, but still partly owned by Ihor Kolomoyskyi. In Kharkiv, a new club under the name FC Metalist 1925 Kharkiv has formed an, although currently amateur, harbour ambitions of becoming professional.
What was once a nation on a football resurgence, is now one of recovery. For Dnipro, Metalist and all of Ukrainian football, it is now a long way back to the top.