A cup with a history of post-Soviet success

  • A cup with a history  of post-Soviet success
Issue 27, September 2010.

Will Karpaty be able to upset the pundits and score an unlikely group stage success in this year’s Europa League? If the Lviv side can make it beyond this stage of the competition, they will be fancied to emulate fellow post-Soviet sides Shakhtar Donetsk, CSKA Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg, who have all gone on to win the trophy after benefiting from the rejuvenating winter break which remains customary in post-Soviet football.

Teams from the former Soviet Union have struggled since 1991 to make an impression on the Champions League but they have faired far better in the competition now known as the Europa League, with former USSR sides winning the trophy in its former incarnation as the UEFA Cup three times since 2005. Many observers have speculated that this recent run of relative success is attributable both to a resurgence in the Russian and Ukrainian domestic leagues and also to the added advantage former Soviet teams derive from their tradition of extended winter breaks. Ukrainian  and Russian clubs generally take a three-month break from December throughout the winter months to late February or early March, a period when temperatures often drop below minus twenty and seasonal snows make outdoor matches a physical impossibility. Other European countries also employ winter breaks, but nowhere is the lay-off  period even nearly as long as the mid-season break in the Russian and Ukrainian domestic leagues. For example, the German Bundesliga has recently reduced its winter break to three and a half weeks and yet the German model remains seen as a factor behind the relative success of German club sides in the latter stages of European competition.
This apparent advantage enjoyed by Ukrainian and Russian club sides in the second half of the European season has meant that in practice post-Soviet sides are still relatively fresh in the early spring period while many players from  other European leagues are starting to show the telltale signs of tiring as their long, hard season drawers closer to the finish. The advantage provided by a long winter break was never more dramatically demonstrated than during the latter stages of the 2008-9 UEFA Cup campaign which saw Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk battle it out in the first all-Ukrainian European semifinal in history. This came after Dynamo had knocked fellow Ukrainian side Metalist Kharkiv out in a previous round. However, while post- Soviet sides are generally regarded as dangerous opponents in the second half of the season, few of Karpaty Lviv’s group stage rivals will be overly concerned about the threat posed this autumn by the Ukrainian side. Karpaty will have the advantage of their relative anonymity on the European stage, but they will also enter the group stages as rank outsiders.   
The recent exploits of Ukrainian sides in the UEFA Cup have gone some way to healing the wounds created by a decade of underachievement on the European stage. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars which has been invested into the squads at the country’s two megaclubs Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv, Ukrainian sides have failed to excel in the Champions League itself since the glory days of Valeriy Lobanovskiy. In the late 1990s the
celebrated Ukrainian trainer created one of the most well-balanced sides of the modern age, with the young Andriy Shevchenko and Sergiy Rebrov spearheading an attacking Dynamo team which claimed a string of top footballing scalps (including a 7-0 two-leg win over Barcelona in 1997) on the way to reaching the Champions League semi-final in 1999, where they threw away a commanding lead to Bayern Munich before losing out 3-4 on aggregate. Since the death of Lobanovskiy in 2002 his beloved Dynamo Kyiv has failed to live up to the high standards the Ukrainian trainer always set for his teams. In the intervening eight Champions League campaigns a string of humiliating last place group stage finishes have served to cheapen the once feared Dynamo brand, while Shakhtar  Donetsk’s failure to progress past the group stages of Europe’s premier club competition has also served to dampen the prestige of Ukrainian football on the continental stage. This is perhaps surprising given the relative dominance enjoyed by Ukrainian clubs in the Soviet football of the 1980s. Three different Ukrainian sides claimed the Soviet league title in the final decade of its existence, while the brilliant Soviet national side which delighted fans at the Mexico World Cup in 1986 before reaching the final of Euro 1988 was an almost exclusively Ukrainian affair. Can Karpaty now write the next chapter in Ukrainian football’s history books? Recent history suggests that if they can progress from the group stages then they will have a fighting chance of glory.