Football is a sport where adversity and joy coexist, their dividing membrane ever pushed and pulled to the furthest extents of their resistance by events on and – increasingly frequently – off the field.
At the end of the 2001/02 Ukrainian season, Metalist Kharkiv finished on 40 points. They were level with both Metalurg Zaporizhzhya and FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, but they had the best three-way head-to-head record, and therefore (according to league rules) they would qualify for the UEFA cup. The opportunity to play European football for only the second time in their history was a dream come true, with the only previous occasion coming way back in 1989 on the back of their USSR cup win.
But the dream was snatched from them.
Despite the rules being set out before the season, Metalurg Zaporizhzhya lodged a protest on the basis that independently, they had better results against the two sides that they were tied with, and inexplicably, the Vyscha Liga and the Ukrainian Football Federation contrived to side with Metalurg, leaving Kharkiv instead back in fifth place.
The cloud of morosity that hung over their little North-Eastern corner of Ukraine was one that would prove impossible to shift. Despondent and accusatory – although their allegations of corruption were never proven nor taken seriously – the next campaign was one of sullen mood and cauchemardesque incompetence, as they slumped like a sulking teen; first to the foot of the table, and helplessly, to relegation.
Financial problems began to bite, and although they managed promotion in their first year, the club was desperate for a takeover that could ignite the club like it had to Shakhtar of Eastern neighbour Donetsk.
The co-owner of one of Ukraine’s biggest banks stepped in with some steady and controlled investment, which led to steady and controlled development. In fact, since Oleksandr Yaroslavsky bought the club, they have never looked back, literally, as their league position year-on-year is yet to see a single regressive campaign. Stuck behind what has been the big two since Shakhtar first ended Dynamo Kiev’s hegemony, Metalist have finished third for five consecutive seasons, qualifying for Europe and progressing there too.
At a club that can only peer in longingly on the dominion of Ukraine’s big two, a third place finish appears to be the best on offer. This is, after all, a club with limited success in their history.
The club came into existence in 1925 when the local zavod that built diesel train engines agreed to provide funding and land so that a recreational football team could start up. It took the initials of the Kharkiv Locomotive Factory where games were played, and was originally known as KhPZ. They only began to play on a national level when they won local Kharkiv championship, thus qualifying them for the USSR cup, a competition that drew together teams from all corners of the union, from Latvia to the West, Tajikistan to the South, and way out beyond the Eastern horizon. Promotion to the fourth tier of USSR football in the 1940s was a short-lived experience, but in the second half of the 50s, they had the joy of three successive promotions, finding themselves in the top flight for the first time in their history in 1960.
As so often with this club though, joy would once more be replaced by its old friend adversity, as they slipped back down through the divisions, enduring a couple of near misses before yo-yoing into the 1980s. This was the beginning of an upturn in fortunes for the club that was now known as Metalist, with 1982 being their first year back in the top tier, where they’d stay right up until the breakup of the Soviet Union. In 1983, they became the first side from the Sloboda region to reach a USSR cup final, which they lost to Shakhtar, only finally getting their first piece of silverware in 1988 when they beat Torpedo Moscow in the USSR cup final.
This lead to their first foray into European competition, having qualified for the beautiful but sadly defunct Cup Winner’s Cup. They would face Borac of Yugoslavia, overcoming them principally due to a 4-0 win on home soil with two goals from club legend Yuri Tarasov. His status as the club’s leading marksman in Europe would not be replaced until 2010, over ten years after his premature death in 1999 at the age of just 38.
The aforementioned victory in the USSR Cup remains their only piece of silverware ever, and, going some way to prove how bleak a history they had, it took just 36 goals in two years to put Brazilian forward Jajá among their top ten all-time goal scorers.
Now departed, Jajá was part of the first wave of South Americans that came to Kharkiv with the promise of European football, and as they prepare to face Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League quarter finals this week (the furthest they have ever progressed) Metalist will be relying on South Americans more than ever.
Littered throughout the team, these players are handsomely rewarded for trading Ipanema for the Sloboda, yet are still overlooked by clubs from Europe’s bigger leagues. In Jose Sosa, they even boast a player so highly-rated by Argentina boss Alejandro Sabella, that he has played in eight of their nine games since he took over of the Albiceleste.
Their best Ukrainian player is in fact a naturalised Serb, Marko Dević (now Devych), but nationality of the players matters not one jot to the fans, who are happy to see a progressive, improving club at their highest-ever point. When Devych netted the 86th minute winner away at Olympiakos in the last round, Metalist fans were jubilant. Ecstatic.
Think back to their lowest ebb; cheated by the establishment and then watching on as a despondent bunch of players were relegated in their club’s shirt, it only enhances their joy at what they are currently achieving, and sits nicely alongside the delicious schadenfreude of Metalurg Zaporizhzhya’s fate, knocked out by Leeds United in 2002 and since relegated down to the Persha Liga.
Once separated by only the technicalities of a three-way tie, their distinct paths show that in football, neither of those two friends, joy or adversity, are permanent.
By Ed Malyon
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona