Ukrainian football bosses have plunged new depths of incompetence in recent months

By Oleg Zadernovsky in Kiev
If ever there was a country where football was a theatre for the absurd, rather than a theatre of dreams, it is Ukraine, where it would appear that some things have changed little in more than two centuries.

Way back in 1787, it was the Russian general Grigory Potemkin who gave his name to the phrase “Potemkin villages” when he ordered settlements to be built on the banks of the Dnieper river to impress visiting monarch Catherine the Great.

Fast forward to Kiev, where Potemkin built his imitation houses, in June 2008 and the arrival of visiting dignitaries from UEFA, led by president Michel Platini. The welcome prepared by another Grigoriy – Surkis, the Ukraine Football Federation [UFF] president – who was desperate to allay concerns about Ukraine’s inactivity in preparing for the Euro 2012 finals was from the great tradition of Potemkin.

When Platini’s party arrived at Boryspil airport, workers had covered the terminal with signs and hoardings announcing grandiose plans to convert the small airport into a major European terminal. After the visit, the boards were taken down.

Meanwhile, Surkis gave his driver the day off and drove Platini himself to the Hyatt Regency hotel in downtown Kiev, where the Frenchman stayed in the presidential suite at a cost of almost £3,000 a night.

The city’s best French restaurant was closed to the general public for the duration of the visit, with the owner reportedly paid £20,000 for each meal he served to the UEFA delegation.

“Platini’s visit to Kiev did not include an inspection of sports facilities. He wanted to hear from the Ukrainian president and prime minister that they will guarantee the commitments they made in the Euro 2012 bid document,” commented Sergiy Vasyliev of the UFF.

But Evhen Chervonenko, the head of the Euro 2012 organising committee, had another explanation: “There was nothing to show the UEFA president in Kiev. Absolutely nothing!” Soon afterwards Chervonenko, one of Surkis’ biggest critics, was fired.

It’s hard to predict a happy ending to the Euro 2012 preparations when millions of citizens are queuing up to change the local currency (hrynias) into euros and dollars.

The Ukrainian government plans to fund the preparations for Euro 2012 with only minimal state funds, with most of the money coming from the private sector and foreign investment. Yet the country has one of the lowest levels of foreign investment of any European nation and is one of the eastern European countries most affected by the global financial crisis.

The expenditure lavished by Surkis on his UEFA guests is in stark contrast to the state of club football in Ukraine.

The Ukraine Premier League has turned into something of a farce with two clubs, Arsenal Kyiv and FC Lviv, not even having home grounds and being forced to move around the country borrowing pitches from one match to the next. Another three clubs, Chornomorets, Zorya and FC Kharkiv, have stadiums that do not meet the federation’s licensing requirements.

Zorya have not paid their players a penny in wages this year, while FC Lviv have cut their players’ wages five times. Some players are resorting to legal action to claim monies owed to them, with former international Oleg Venglinsky saying he will go all the way to FIFA to claim money owed to him by Chornomorets.

In the lower divisions, many clubs are on the verge of bankruptcy. The owner of FC Knyazha recently put the club and its stadium up for sale via the internet for £25,000, while Oleksandr Kravchuk, son of Ukraine’s first president Leonid Kravchuk, agreed to sell FC Nafkom for a symbolic one hryvnya (about 10p).

The idea for the Premier League came from the presidents of two of the league’s poorest clubs: Vadim Rabinovich of Arsenal Kyiv and Vitaliy Danilov of FC Kharkiv.
To date Danilov has proved a disastrous interim president of the league, though that probably should not come as a surprise given his problems at Kharkiv, who no longer play matches in their home city.

Meanwhile Rabinovich, a colourful character who once persuaded six Arsenal players to pose with nude models in the Ukrainian edition of Playboy, has sold the club to the son of the mayor of Kiev, reportedly for the price of a bottle of cognac.

Rabinovich, who is backed by Dynamo Kyiv, is now standing for the presidency of the league against former G-14 boss Thomas Kurth, who has the support of Shakhtar Donetsk, in an election on May 15. Whoever wins will have an unenviable task of trying to bring some order to the chaos.