Establishment club in fear of Ukraine's protesters

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

When I visited Ukraine in 1992, I ate every day in the canteen of Dynamo Kiev football club. It was one of the only restaurants in Kiev.

Admittedly it was lacking in Michelin stars: when the club president's secretary passed through one day carrying an electric kettle, it felt like the difference between Them and Us. But at no other football club have I felt closer to a nation's centre of power. The stadium's forecourt, scene of a famous recent murder, was always full of Mercedes and skinheads wearing tracksuits. One day a club official told me over a beer at Hotel Intourist: "Dynamo have licences to export nuclear missile parts, two tons of gold per annum, and metals including platinum." How did it get the licences? Friends in high places, the official explained. He showed me the list of guests accompanying Dynamo to a game in Vienna two weeks later. It read like a Ukrainian Who's Who: a leading banker, the son of a leading government official etc. This was the establishment that the orange-clad protesters in Independence Square now want to oust.

The clan running Dynamo was replaced soon after my visit but the club remained just as close to power. It is now the fief of Hryhoriy Surkis, an oligarch and politician who was recently denied an American visa because the US suspects him of corruption and electoral fraud. Dynamo's main rivals, Shakhtar Donetsk, belong to Ukraine's richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov.

In short, the people who run Ukrainian sport also run Ukraine but that may soon change. Akhmetov and Surkis have been backing Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian candidate for president and beneficiary of last month's rigged election. But now Yanukovych is in trouble, Ukraine's supreme court having annulled the vote. On December 26, he will probably lose the re-run to his pro-western rival, Viktor Yushchenko.

This is partly thanks to Ukraine's sportsmen, who are at last peeling away from the sitting power. The boxing Klitschko brothers deserve credit, though the footballer Andriy Shevchenko doesn't.

In Soviet tradition, athletes are part of the state apparatus. Like the army, they fight for the Motherland, which essentially means the government. Hence Serhii Bubka, Ukraine's legendary pole vaulter, said recently: "Thanks to [Yanukovych], Ukrainian athletes received a 100 per cent increase in financing for the first time since Ukraine's independence." Ukrainian athletes have always said things like that.

A statement in this genre came last month from Oleh Blokhin, Ukraine's football manager, who sits in parliament for Surkis's party. After Ukraine won in Turkey, Blokhin dedicated the victory to Yanukovych, who enjoyed, the coach assured Ukrainians, the entire team's support.

Blokhin is an incorrigible apparatchik. However, other sportsmen are switching sides. Serhii Rebrov has played for West Ham United wearing an orange wristband to support Yushchenko. Also in London, his former team-mate Oleh Luzhny addressed Yushchenko supporters.

Vitali Klitschko, preparing for the world heavyweight title fight in Las Vegas, addressed the world. "I'm really proud of the people in Ukraine," he said. "This game they are playing is very dangerous." Klitschko nearly abandoned his fight to fly home to campaign but Yushchenko asked him to use the boxing ring as a bully pulpit. So Klitschko thrashed Danny Williams wearing an orange ribbon on his shorts, and then posed before a flag reading "Tak! [Yes] Yushchenko."

The point is not that the Klitschkos will sway many votes. Rather, by showing it is possible to campaign for Yushchenko and live, they encourage other public figures and journalists to do likewise. Several journalists and politicians critical of the regime have been murdered in recent years, while Yushchenko was poisoned so severely that he was found to have the second highest concentration of dioxin ever recorded in a human being.A number of television channels have stopped making propaganda for the government.

Shevchenko has been less brave. On November 18 he appeared on the pro-Yanukovych channel 1+1 to endorse him. Barely lifting his eyes from a prepared text, he looked like a hostage reading his own ransom note. It looks as though Shevchenko was leaned on to do this. Few viewers took "Sheva"'s endorsement seriously: he has always been a strictly sporting hero, not a leader like Luzhny. Nonetheless, it did seem spineless. Shevchenko lives in Milan, has an American wife and is rich. What did he have to lose? "Your choice made the nation weep," said a banner at the recent Milan-Shakhtar Donetsk match in the Champions League.

On Monday Shevchenko was named European footballer of the year. Told the news, he said he had "barely slept" for three days for worry that the Ukrainian conflict would turn bloody. He has since tried edging away from his broadcast. "People in Ukraine deserve democracy," he said on receiving his award. He spoke to Yushchenko and reported that "it was very pleasant to hear warm words from the presidential candidate".

If Yushchenko wins next week, Ukrainian sport may change. Surkis could lose his protected status. Already his former business partner Konstantin Grigorishyn is preparing lawsuits to regain control of Dynamo. Uefa, the European football authority, should consider following the US's lead and drop Surkis from its executive committee.

Generally, if Ukraine becomes less oligarch-ridden, its football clubs will decline. Today a disproportionate share of national wealth goes to sport. Thanks to the oligarchs, who spend their riches on Brazilian stars, Ukraine had two clubs in this season's Champions League: as many as all other eastern European countries put together.

Yushchenko, asked once whether he liked football, said he used to. "Now football, in its worst manifestation, has become a political game in Ukraine. It pains me to see what it has brought to my people." The game is a symptom of Ukraine's sickness, as is Shevchenko.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.