Dynamo Kyiv took advantage of Shaktar’s European success to secure the Premier League title.

By Oleg Zadernovsky in Kiev
The introduction of a new Premier League established by the owners of the top 16 clubs, Shakhtar Donetsk’s victory in the last-ever UEFA Cup Final and provincial club Vorskla Poltava’s heroics in the domestic cup competition all made it a season to remember.

In the league, Dynamo Kyiv recovered from last year’s disaster – when they went through four coaches while slumping at home and abroad – and the hiring of Yuri Semin finally helped disband the cliques within the dressing room. Things had got so bad that the various Brazilian, African and Serbian players were so hostile that they sat separately during meals and refused to talk to one another.

Semin quickly restored order by getting rid of Serbia internationals Marjan Markovic and Goran Gavrancic, and the Brazilian quartet of Rodrigo, Michael, Kleber and Diogo Rincon. Meanwhile, veterans Valentin Belkevich, Vladyslav Vashchuk and Serhiy Fedorov were not offered new contracts, and goalkeeper Oleksandr Shovkovskiy and Uzbekistan forward Maksim Shatskikh spent most of their time on the bench.

Semin built a completely new Dynamo machine by recruiting promising goalkeeper Stanislav Bohush from Metalurh Zaporizhya, Brazilian defender Betao from Santos, Finland’s Roman Eremenko from Udinese and powerful Croatian midfielder Ognjen Vukojevic from Dinamo Zagreb. He also put faith in academy graduates such as playmaker Oleksandr Aliyev and forwards Artem Milevskiy and Artem Kravets, and all proved to be crucial figures in the championship race.

As the season progressed it was more and more evident that Semin’s desire to win the title was stronger than that of Shakhtar coach Mircea Lucescu, who was putting all of his efforts into Europe. In the ninth round of the season Dynamo thrashed Kryvbas 3-0 to go top of the table – a position they held until the end of the campaign. They clinched their 13th Ukraine title in the 27th round when Aliyev scored an injury-time winner to beat Tavriya 3-2.

However, Semin resigned at the end of the season and went home to coach Lokomotiv Moscow. “After the win on the last day of the season, over Shakhtar 1-0, we were shocked by the news that Semin quit. Many of us can’t suppress the tears,” revealed Serbia midfielder Milos Ninkovic.

Dynamo president Ihor Surkis, impressed by the work of the Russian coach, offered the vacant position to Semin’s compatriot Valery Gazzaev, who was previously at CSKA Moscow.

Dynamo were impressive in Europe too, and reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup. They beat Metalist Kharkiv in the last 16 on away goals, defeating their local rivals 1-0 at home and losing 3-2 away. In the semis they lost 3-2 on aggregate to eventual winners Shakhtar.

To win the UEFA Cup, Shakhtar practically conceded the league title to Dynamo. The Pitmen secured their place in next season’s Champions League by finishing runners-up, but they were a humiliating 15 points behind their arch-rivals – the biggest gap since the 2000-01 season.

Metalist, who are sponsored by industrial oligarch Oleksandr Yaroslavsky, put up a strong challenge for the second Champions League spot and produced a very impressive run in the UEFA Cup. The Polecats, lead by experienced and ambitious coach Myron Markevych, beat Turkish side Besiktas 4-2 on aggregate in the first qualifying round and finished top of their group, beating Galatasaray, Olympiakos and Benfica, and drawing with Hertha Berlin. In the round of 32, Metalist demolished Serie A side Sampdoria 3-0 on aggregate. Only Andriy Berezovchuk’s own goal 11 minutes from time in a fierce clash with Dynamo put an end to their dream of European glory.

Metalist will get the chance to repeat the feat in next season’s Europa League, where they will be joined by Metalurh Donetsk who, under care of Bulgarian coach Nikolay Kostov, were the league’s early pace-setters before dropping to fourth.

The Ukrainian Cup was won by the rising Vorskla, who beat the UEFA Cup winners 1-0 in the Final to become the first side other than Dynamo or Shakhtar to win the competition since Chornomorets Odessa 15 years ago. They will also play in the Europa League, which is a fine achievement for a club that have proved football is a game that can unite nations. In an age when the UN, the EU and NATO are still trying to diminish the negative effects of the Balkan war, Vorskla’s squad includes Kosovo Albanians Armend Dallku, Debatik Curri and Ahmed Yanuzi, Serbia’s Jovan Markoski, Denis Glavina from Croatia and Macedonian Filip Despotovski.

“There are no any ethnical conflicts in our team,” says Vorskla president Oleh Babayev. “Thanks to an incredible unity and togetherness we managed to win the cup. I believe this happened because football unites all of us.”

However, some of the more positive moments of the past season have been overshadowed by the incompetence of the Premier League founders – which led to postponements, poor refereeing, unacceptable stadiums and serious organisational problems.

At the end of the season the club owners split into two hostile camps: those requesting that the Premier League be dissolved and organisational rights are handed over to the Ukraine Football Federation; the other seeking continued support for the new league.

“We are categorically against disbanding [the Premier League],” says Vorskla’s Babayev. “The football federation is the public organization, while the Premier League is the commercial enterprise. We want to earn money from our football activity and the Premier League is the only route to achieve this target.”

It comes as no surprise, then, to learn that the starting date for the new season, not to mention of the identity of who will be in charge of the country’s elite division, remains as yet unknown.