In 1992, Tavriya Simferopol made history when they became the first ever champions of independent Ukraine. The country had emerged a year before from the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a process that demanded not only the restructuring of borders, armies, and civil services, but also of national football leagues. Tavriya, from Crimea, beat Dynamo Kyiv, the giant club from the capital, in the final to win Ukraine’s inaugural competition.
That victory may be the first and last time a club from Crimea ever achieves that feat. Two Sundays ago on March 16, while Tavriya was losing to Dynamo Kyiv, a referendum held in Crimea returned a 96.77% vote in favor of uniting the territory with the Russian Federation.
As if on cue, the Russian Football Union (RFU) has also announced its intention to incorporate the two major Crimean clubs. “In the near future, at working meetings we will prepare a project of the relevant documents” needed to absorb the two clubs, said RFU President Nikolai Tolstykh. “We will hold consultations with FIFA and UEFA, and with the Ukrainian Football Federation.” It looks as though Ukraine’s first national champions may no longer play in Ukraine.
At stake are the two crown jewels of Crimean soccer, currently competing in the Ukrainian Premier League. Tavriya Simferopol, the aforementioned inaugural champions of Ukraine, and FK Sevastopol, recently promoted from the second tier, both regularly entertain clubs from mainland Ukraine.
Tavriya remain one of only three teams to win the Ukrainian Premier League, in the esteemed company of Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk. Despite this history, their recent form remains worrying. Current manager Nikolay Kostov has been unable to arrest their fall into the lower reaches of the league, with attendances at the nearly 20,000-capacity Lokomotiv Stadium waning.
Away from the pitch, financial struggles also threaten the club’s existence. Tavriya’s main financial backer Dmytro Firtash—a titanium magnate whose rise has been closely linked to the now-ousted, pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych—was arrested in Austria on suspicion of bribery before posting the largest bail in Austrian history last week. He says the charges, which come after a long FBI investigation, are politically motivated. Either way, the drama has led to speculation about his future willingness to pay the wages and transfer fees of his team, the Krymchyany (Crimeans).
At stake are the two crown jewels of Crimean soccer
On the pitch at least, FK Sevastopol are on a different trajectory than their neighbors in Simferopol. The club was only founded in 2002, the self-proclaimed “spiritual successor” of previously failed Sevastopol clubs. They found their competitive feet in the Ukrainian third tier, eventually climbing to the second tier in 2007, before reaching the holy grail of the Ukrainian Premier League for the first time in the 2010/11 season. Since then, the club have yo-yoed in and out of the top division, but now sit comfortably in mid-table in the Premier League.
Sevastopol’s success, like Tavriya’s decline, was facilitated by the fortunes of a major financial backer with close ties to Yanukovych. Vadim Novinsky, a native of Russia and a metallurgy billionaire, was awarded Ukrainian citizenship by Yanukovych before winning a 2013 Sevastopol by-election as an independent, then joining the Party of Regions (headed by none other than Yanukovych). Owning a successful soccer club in Ukraine has always been a way to build political support and influence, as illustrated emphatically by Rinat Akhmetov at Shakhtar. Akhmetov first became president of FC Shakhtar after a 1995 bomb attack in the stadium killed his mentor and predecessor. He has since become one of the wealthiest men in the world, intimately connected to Yanukovych’s former political party.
But if key soccer oligarchs are stacked in Yanukovych’s camp, soccer supporters across Ukraine have been involved on both sides of the Maidan uprising and the subsequent Crimean crisis. During the tumult in Kyiv, “ultras” guarded the protestors, protecting them from the pro-government muscle, the Titushky. Dynamo Kyiv’s ultras pushed for a truce between the ultras of Ukraine’s varied and often antagonistic clubs, supported by the ultras of Tavriya and Sevastopol. “We have decided to conclude a truce between the movements of fans of different clubs indefinitely,” the statement read.
Owning a successful soccer club in Ukraine has always been a way to build political support and influence
The actions of the ultras of both Tavriya and Sevastopol belie the common wisdom about the political leanings of people in heavily ethnic Russian Crimea. Tavriya’s ultras in particular supported Maidan protestors in large numbers.
Tavriya have two main ultras groups, each named after the areas of the stadium that they occupy, Sektor 5 and Sektor 9. Both were noted for their active support for the Maidan, striking away from the norm in an area that has traditionally leaned towards the Party of Regions, the party of pro-Russian Yanukovych. Each of the Sektors has been outspoken on social networks, defending Ukrainian territorial integrity and, by necessary extension, the continued status of Tavriya as a Ukrainian, not Russian, club. Indeed, Sektor 9’s profile photo on the VKontakte network asserts “Crimea is Ukraine” with Sektor 5 even less subtle, mocking up a photograph of Vladimir Putin in the style of Hitler, complete with moustache and fringe.