Lviv’s Footballing Legacy

  • Lviv’s Footballing Legacy
  • Lviv’s Footballing Legacy
Issue 70, July 2014.

Lviv’s Footballing Legacy

While football fans around the world are glued to their TV sets to watch the world’s biggest football spectacle in Brazil, Lviv Today takes the opportunity to look at our own footballing heritage. While Ukraine has existed as an independent state since only 1992, our football history goes much further back. The history of football in Lviv dates back to the late 19th century with the rising popularity of the sport and the first decades of football in Lviv are associated with the history of football in Austria and Poland.

Football in Austrian Lviv

Organized sport benefited from the environment of cultural freedom in late 19th Century Lviv and it was then that Polish and Ukrainian football took its first true steps. July 1894 saw Lviv host a series of sporting tournaments, including a football match between the Sokol clubs of Lviv and Krakow. The match saw Lviv take an early lead on a goal by Włodzimierz Chomicki, however the match was called off early due to a conflict with a gymnastics competition that was set to be held in the same stadium soon afterward. Chomicki’s goal is considered to be the birth of football in both Poland and Ukraine. As in many other spheres, the game is claimed by both Poles and Ukrainians as the start of their football legacies; the Poles because the two sides were from Polish secondary language schools, and the Ukrainians as the game took place in what is now Ukraine.

The sport soon blossomed in the city, even though it took another nine years before the first Lviv-based club was created. Lviv’s first football teams were formed in 1903-04 when four local gymnasiums formed their own clubs: the Gymnasium for Boys formed a club that became Pogoń Lwów, the State Schools I and II created the Sława Lwów club (which became Czarni Lwów), and Lechia Lwów rounded out the new squads. There is debate as to which side was organized first as the teams were poorly organized. However, Czarni Lwów is generally credited with being the first Polish professional football team.  Ethnicity, it seems, played an important role in the establishment of football clubs at the time. As each side was set-up by Polish Leopolitans, the teams can be considered Polish clubs. But Lviv’s Jewish citizens also had their own side: Hasmonea Lwów.  Football acted as an opportunity for different ethnic groups to express themselves in a safe environment.

It wasn’t long before Ukrainian Leopolitans organized their own side. The Ukrainian pioneer of the beautiful game in Galicia was John Boberskyi, a teacher at a secondary school in Lviv. Boberskyi was a mover-and-shaker in Lviv’s sports community where he had his students participate in several sports, including: athletics, boxing, hockey, skiing, guiding, and sliding sports. In addition, he invited a Czech football coach to train his students. By 1906 he had set up a ‘Sports Circle’ at his school and later travelled Galicia to spread the popularity of football to his fellow Galicians. For example, it was Boberskyi that convinced Ukrainians in Stanislawów (now Ivano-Frankivsk) to take up the game.  Indeed, it was he that organized the first Ukraine-wide ‘Sports Circle’ in 1908. By 1911 his students formed the patriotically-named ‘Ukraine Lwow’ squad, which was to become the strongest Ukrainian football club in Galicia.

Football in Lviv 1921-39

Ukrainian football fundamentally changed following the Polish-Ukrainian war. Many athletes had fought on opposite sides of the barricades and Ukrainians were reluctant to participate in the Polish football system. For patriotic Ukrainians, playing against Polish teams was surmount to accepting Polish state control and tantamount to collaboration. Despite this, Ukrainian clubs re-establish themselves across Eastern Galicia, including Lviv. Ukrainian teams refused to play Polish squads until the middle of the 1920s. The breakthrough came in autumn 1925 when they played their first friendly against a Polish Hasmonea Lwów.  This marked an important first step in normalizing relations on the football pitch between Poles and Ukrainians.

By 1928, Ukrainian teams took a further step by deciding to join the newly formed second-division Lviv A-Klasa. Their entrance initiated a chain reaction amongst Lviv-based Ukrainian clubs – by the mid-1930s, a good number had begun to participate in the Polish football system. The presence of these clubs marked an important symbolic step for the Ukrainian community in Poland. For example, when in 1929 the Lviv-based Ukrainian newspaper ‘Dilo’ was flabbergasted that Ukraine Lwow couldn’t find a Ukrainian side to play against in the city of Stanisławów, a new team – Prolom (Breakthrough) – was organized in the city to take part in the Polish system. Apart from these two sides, other Ukrainian teams like Skala Stryj and Sian Przymyśl also decided to join the Polish system.

The interwar period can be considered the golden era for football in Lviv; indeed, the city was famed for its footballing strength. Pogoń Lwów, the Polish community’s club in the city, led the way with four Polish titles between 1922-26. The squad featured superstar Wacław Kuchar, known not only for scoring an incredible 1065 goals for the club, but for also being a Polish champion in speed-skaing, ice hockey, and several athletics events. While the club saw a drop in form in the 1930s, the side would remain a staple of the Polish premiere division. Several other Lviv-based squads saw success during the interwar period, with Czarni Lwów, Hasmonea Lwów, and Lechia Lwów all reaching the premiere division during the period. The high level of competition led to heated rivalries and an amazing football climate in the city.

Ukraine Lwów, Aleksandr Skocen & the President’s Cup

“Ukraine Lwow” was the flagship Ukrainian side during the interwar years in Poland. While they never qualified for the premiere division, they played at the highest level of regional football in Lviv from 1928-1940. The late 1920s saw the club reach its greatest successes as they finished as runners-up each year between 1937-39. Let’s take a look at the glory years of Lviv’s first Ukrainian football heroes.

In 1937, a time when storm clouds hung over Europe with Hitler in power in Nazi Germany and the Great Terror and its gory manifestations in full swing in the Soviet Union, Lviv’s A-Klasa division was just getting started. The league was comprised of 14 teams, including one Jewish club (Hasmonea) and one Ukrainian squad (Ukraine Lwow). As part of Lwow’s preparations for the beginning of the season, the team played the touring Bocskai team from Hungary. The team unfortunately went down to defeat 4:3, but took spirit in making a strong showing after trailing 3:1 at half.

Surely the indisputable star of the Ukraine side in the late 1930s was the unmatched Aleksandr Skocen. Skocen, born to a sporting family in the late throes of the Great War, was a true sporting prodigy. He loved hockey in winter, football in summer, and stood out among his peers in terms of athletic ability. Hailing from a family of patriotic Ukrainians, Skocen spent a good deal of time at the local branch of the Prosvita Ukrainian cultural organization. At just 15, he learned that Prosvita was forming the ‘Tryzub’ (Trident) football team and jumped at the chance to sign up. A few years of playing striker for Tryzub and Ukrainian scouts took notice after he netted a hat trick against Skala Stryj in the final of a youth tournament. He soon became a star for the Ukrainian national team and was relied on as the team’s main goal-scoring threat. A mark of how good he had become came in summer 1938 during the President’s Cup, an annual tournament organized by the Polish President. This knock-out format tournament featured teams representing different Polish provinces. Lviv’s team was made up nearly exclusively of Pogoń players with the exception of two Ukrainians: Skocen and his teammate Vladimir Bohurat. While the two only appeared in one match, what a match it was! The team from Lviv hammered Śląsk 7-1 with Skocen and Bohurat setting up a number of the goals.  Following this tremendous showing, Pogoń made several attempts to sign the talented Skocen; however he stayed with Ukraine until the outbreak of war in 1939. Following the Soviet invasion of Eastern Poland in 1939, football teams in Lviv ceased to exist. NKVD officers brought Skocen to Kyiv to play for Dynamo before he made his wake back to Lviv following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. He played only one more time for a reformed Ukraine side in 1944 before he was forced to flee to the West in fear of returning Soviet troops. He eventually made it to DP camps in Austria and Germany before having two successful seasons with the French First Division side OGC Nice from 1948-50. Skocen left Europe behind for good in 1950 when he immigrated to Canada.

FC Karpaty Win USSR Cup

Lviv’s colourful cultural mosaic was shattered by the Second World War as the holocaust brought an end to Jewish life in the city and the new borders and population displacement emptied the city of its Polish population. For example, according to the last census, the Lviv Oblast is now 95% ethnically Ukrainian. The history of football in Lviv tells of a time when things were more diverse and a heck of a lot more complicated, but more interesting as well. In the decades following the Second World War, Ukraine asserted itself as a football powerhouse on the world stage. It is generally considered that Russia is the official successor to the national team of the USSR, however this appropriation of history overlooks just how influential Ukrainian players and clubs were in the Soviet era. Named after the nearby Carpathian Mountains, the local FC Karpaty evolved from the factory squad Silmash and inherited their forerunners’ colours when the replaced the squad in the Soviet Second League. The club made history in 1969 as the only team outside the top flight to lift the USSR Cup.

Ukraine’s Post-Soviet Football Legacy

If one looks at the official FIFA records, they will find that the Ukrainian national team as a separate and recognized entity has existed for only 20 years. The record over these two decades is full of close-but-no-cigars as the team has fallen in World Cup qualification in the final round on 3 of 4 occasions. The team made one World Cup appearance in 2006, where our heroes fell to eventual champion Italy in the quarterfinals. The team nearly qualified for the quarterfinals as co-hosts of EURO 2012, but dropped a controversial 1-0 decision to England to prevent further progression. Ukraine nearly qualified for this summer’s World Cup in Brazil taking a 2-0 lead into the final qualification game in Paris, before dropping a heartbreaking 3-0 loss to France. The loss left Ukraine as the highest ranking team in the world to not qualify for the main draw. Ukraine currently sits as the 17th-ranked team in the world, higher than the successors of the USSR (Russia), and a proud reminder of the glorious footballing legacy that Ukraine left behind as part of the Soviet Union.