A bitter legal dispute has threatened the start of the new season

Oleg Zadernovsky in Kiev
In May Dynamo Kyiv president Ihor Surkis said he was the happiest man in the world when his club won the first Ukraine Premier League (UPL) title in style by defeating arch rivals Shakhtar Donetsk at home 1-0.

Two months later Surkis learned that Dynamo Kyiv would not be officially recognised as champions of Ukraine; they could even be excluded from the UPL. “It is already 45 days since the end of the season but we have still not received our championship winners’ medals from the UPL,” said the bitter Dynamo Kyiv boss.

In a dispute which threatened to delay the start of the 2009-10 league season, Surkis also refused to hand over TV rights of his club to the UPL and was threatened by the UPL president Vitaliy Danilov with expulsion from the league.

The argument stems from a Kiev court decision on a case brought by Ihor Kolomoysky, owner of Dnipro and a vice-president of the Ukraine football federation. The court ruled that the UPL had been wrongly registered in April 2008; as a result, all the results of the league’s inaugral 2008-09 season were now in question.

Just a week before the 2009-10 season was scheduled to kick off, the court ruled that the UPL, set up by the owners of the 16 elite clubs and registered as a joint public and commercial organisation, was illegal under Ukraine law.

Cue mass indignation throughout the Ukrainian game.

“It is impossible to imagine a more absurd situation than we have after this court decision,” noted Shakhtar sports director Serhii Palkin. “If the UPL registration is unlawful, so is everything that was done by this organisation during the whole period of its operation. It means that Dynamo Kyiv are not legitimate champions and equally Shakhtar and Metalist do not have the right to play in the European competitions.”

Kolomoysky’s legal action against UPL was the work of a group of five clubs – made up of Dnipro, along with Dynamo Kyiv, Metalist, Arsenal Kyiv and Kryvbas – opposed to the July 1 election of Vitaliy Danilov as the new president of UPL.

The presidents of these five rebel clubs had boycotted the elections after Danilov’s only rival, Arsenal Kyiv owner Vadim Rabinovich, withdrew his candidature.

“The president of UPL has to be elected by the presidents of the 16 elite clubs,” complained Metalist owner Olexander Yaroslavsky. “I can’t accept Danilov as the legitimate president because he was elected by representatives of only 11 clubs.”

“When Rabinovich withdrew, the election process should have been stopped and re-arranged for another date,” added Dnipro boss Kolomoysky.

The election scandal has split the owners of Ukraine’s top clubs into two hostile camps. On the one side is Danilov, backed by a group of clubs headed by Shakhtar Donetsk owner Rinat Akhmetov. On the other side are the five rebel clubs, including Dynamo Kyiv.

The rebels have already announced that they will refuse to transfer their TV rights to the joint pool set up by the UPL. “How we can pass our rights to an organisation that does not exist in the view of the courts?” declared Dnipro’s Kolomoysky.

“How we can tolerate Danilov as the legitimate president when his club Kharkiv failed to pay the membership fee for the second half of last season? Only when Kharkiv were relegated did the UPL deduct three points as punishment for non-payment of the membership fee.”

“We have to defend themselves,” insisted Metalist president Olexander Yaroslavsky. ”We have the biggest income from ticket sales and we could easily find more favourable terms for the sale of our TV rights.”

From a commercial point of view, last season was disastrous for Ukraine club football, with regular postponement of matches, poor quality stadiums, and ineffective organisation of the league. That led to the loss of interest from TV companies, with each club receiving only £85,000 from the UPL – only enough to cover half of the UPL membership fee.

“We need a new league format. The UPL must be reduced to eight or 10 clubs, each with a minimum budget of £9.5m,” Kolomoysky said. “We don’t need insolvent clubs that ruin the positive image of the league. I’ve invested £60m in the new Dnipro arena and would like to have a full house at every game.”

Yaroslavsky added: “How can we justify keeping the league open to clubs that only attract 500 fans? For these games the cost of maintaining the pitch is greater than the income we receive from tickets sales. No more than 10 clubs have the finances to build strong teams.”

So the coming season is set to be the most controversial in the history of club football in Ukraine. Even the inaugural match of the season, the Super Cup between Dynamo Kyiv and Vorskla was threatened with cancellation after Dynamo refused to play on a neutral ground in Sumy selected by the UPL. They relented only following the intervention of the federation. Dynamo won 4-2 on penalties after a 0-0 draw.

The championship is due to start on July 17 while the two camps continue to fight it out in the courts. Over the coming months, lawyers will play a more crucial role than the teams on the pitch. Meanwhile Dynamo Kyiv’s players are still waiting their medals.