FYI.

This story is over 5 years old.

Sports

Heroes Are Not Dead: How the Conflict in Ukraine is Playing Out in its Top Soccer League

Fighting in Ukraine has turned soccer clubs into refugees, and rival ultras into unlikely allies.
September 16, 2014, 2:20pm
Photo by R.J. Rico

"If everyone will go fight in the battalions, who will go and support the team?"

Roman, 20, is a Zorya Luhansk ultra. Once, he was one of about 150 ultras who traveled to attend every Zorya Luhansk home game—a small but significant group supporting a small but successful club in the Ukrainian Premier League. On Saturday night, as Zorya hosted Dynamo Kiev, the ultras' numbers were limited to just 30.

Advertisement

With fighting having broken out in eastern Ukraine, neither Roman nor his beloved team's players live in Luhansk anymore. Mortar fire has partially wrecked Zorya's Avangard Stadium and left a crater in the middle of the field. So Roman and the team he supports have fled to the industrial city of Zaporizhia, some 230 miles southwest of the war-torn city.

During Saturday's match in Zaporizhia, there may have been 30 young men standing in the stadium, vociferously singing Zorya's songs, but the real number of Zorya ultras was smaller than that. Only six of the 30 were longtime supporters from Luhansk. The other 24 were actually Metalurh Zaporizhia ultras who put on Zorya's black and white colors in solidarity, to support their city's new inhabitants.

"It's because of heritage," 19-year-old Zaporizhia ultra Vitali said, explaining his newfound secondary allegiance. "Since Soviet times, fans of both of our clubs have been very friendly. Now especially it's very important to support each other."

Zorya is one of five teams in the 14-team UPL that have been relocated, and Roman is one of its few ultras who are still able to attend the club's games. The rest have either stayed behind in Luhansk or scattered across Ukraine and Russia. Some have joined voluntary Ukrainian militias, including Azov Battalion, the controversial nationalist paramilitary group that is especially popular with the ultras.

Advertisement

There were eight pro-Ukraine, pro-Zorya banners hanging in the Zorya ultras' section of the stadium on Saturday night, and many more throughout the stadium. The largest, a white banner with handwritten black letters said: "Heroes are not dead: AKSYON 4.07.1994 - 20.08.2014."

Aksyon was one of Roman's friends. They were ultras together and played soccer together. Earlier this year, Aksyon joined Azov Battalion. Roman did not. Last month, Aksyon was fatally shot in the eye while fighting in the town of Ilovaysk. The banner has been at Zorya matches ever since.

"The best thing we can do is not to forget [Aksyon] as a group," Roman said. "I've thought about joining the battalion, but that's a very big step to take. If it becomes necessary, I will join the ranks and fight. Right now my team needs the support."

******

For the Dynamo Kiev ultras, trips to Zaporizhia used to be an occasion to fight. Most away trips were. Before the conflict, fighting was one of the primary things Ukranian ultras were known for.

Artem, a seven-year veteran of the Dynamo Kiev ultras, who is now one of their organizers, loves talking about the old days.

Unprompted, with two taps on his smartphone, Artem pulls up a video of a huge swarm of red-clad men—Chornomorets Odessa ultras—marching towards a slightly smaller group of Dynamo Kiev ultras wearing white. Chaos ensues.

"250 [vs.] 150," he says. "2009."

Those were different times. Now, the Kiev and Odessa ultras get along just fine.

Advertisement

Fighting between the ultra groups, which because of heavy police presence around the stadiums was always carefully orchestrated in secret locations, has been entirely shelved this season.

"We used to have a longstanding war with the Donetsk ultras, but after many of them had to flee Donetsk [because of the war], we helped them find apartments and jobs in Kiev," Artem said. "I miss [the fighting], but during the war there's no place for it."

Ever since the Euromaidan protest movement of last winter, which led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych, ultras now go to UPL games to show support for their club, their country and, surprisingly, the other team's ultras.

During the match in Zaporizhia, the ultras sang to each other multiple times throughout the night.

"Kiev!" the Zorya Luhansk ultras yelled. "Luhansk!" the Dynamo Kiev ultras, standing behind the opposite goal, responded. The two groups repeated the exchange for about 30 seconds, before they died down.

Later, the groups unleashed a more elaborate call-and-response song:

"Glory to Ukraine!" the Dynamo ultras started.

"Glory to the heroes!" the Zorya ultras answered.

"Glory to the nation!"

"Death to the enemies!"

"Ukraine!"

"Above all!"

The entire crowd of 4,100 applauded.

******

That attendance figure of 4,100 was surprisingly high, and likely only because of the draw of powerhouse Dynamo Kiev. Last month, Zorya drew just 1,000 fans for its "home" debut.

Advertisement

Of course, before the crisis, when their home games were actually played at home, Zorya Luhansk drew much larger crowds. The club routinely played in front of more than 10,000 fans, garnering as many as 13,100 when Kiev was in town last season.

Those who did make it to Saturday's match, however, were rewarded with a thriller. Zorya, which entered the game in eleventh place, scored the first goal midway through the first half off of a perfect, curling free kick into the bottom corner of the goal. The underdogs held on against third-place Dynamo until the fifty-ninth minute, when Kiev equalized. Dynamo scored again in the eighty-eighth minute to unleash massive celebrations from the players and flare-wielding Dynamo ultras. But the game wasn't over yet, and in the final minute of stoppage time, Zorya scored a second time, shocking everyone. The draw was Zorya's.

After the game, the athletes from both teams gradually left their locker rooms and walked out to the players' parking lot. In front of the Dynamo exit, a crowd of 100 people was pressed up against the fence, rabidly cheering for the famous club.

The Zorya players—the "home team"—got no such greeting. No one yelled their names, and as they quietly stepped into their cars, no one asked for their autographs.

Not that it mattered to midfielder Mykyta Kamenyuka, the captain of Zorya and seven-year veteran of the club. All he wants is to be back in Luhansk.

"It's awful here—we all want to go home, honestly," he said. "We lack peace and face all the uncertainty and anxiety comes from that. I spend every day thinking about my family, relatives and friends [in Luhansk], wondering if they are alive. That makes it hard to concentrate [on playing soccer]. If I could, I would have them all brought here to Zaporizhia. But I can't."