A Bleak Future for Eastern European Soccer

By | January 26, 2015

Frequently left out in the discussion of International Soccer are the leagues of Eastern Europe, but they give us a great insight into the power and political influence soccer can have on a society. This blog post will go on to speak of the corruption in the Ukrainian Premier League is and how it doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon.

During the Soviet regime, football teams were owned by state industries. Of course, the teams owned by more powerful organizations like Moscow Dinamo, a club owned by the Soviet security and secret forces always finished at the top of the league. Therefore, the league was completely unfair due to the greater support put forth by larger organizations, and corruption. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, all of these previously state-owned teams became open to privatization. The oligarchs of Eastern Europe immediately jumped on this opportunity and bought the clubs after seeing great opportunity in ownership. This privatization of sport was expected to create a fairer, and less corrupt world of football in Eastern Europe. This was not the case. The oligarchs took control of these teams, but had other goals in mind than football. They now use these clubs to gain political power, money and fame. It is evident when analyzing the Ukrainian Premier League that the transition from communism to private ownership has created an even less fair league and has also introduced more corruption, crime and violence to Ukraine sports.

The two perennially top teams in the Ukrainian Premiership are Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk. They also both happen to be shining examples of the lack of parity in the Ukrainian Premier League. Both Kiev and Donetsk are owned by extremely rich oligarchs and have the most money in the League. Therefore they can buy the best players since there is no salary cap, and then sell them for even more. As Melissa McDonald states in her thesis, “transfer fees and contracts ultimately create a bigger gap between rich and poor clubs.” With the most expensive players, the most connections and the largest fan bases in Ukraine, the other teams never stood a chance.

Obviously the financial gap between these two teams and the rest of the league creates an unfair advantage, but it is not purely because they can buy better facilities or players. Strangely, they are the only teams that actually care about football in the league. As sad as it is, one wife of a pro-Ukrainian football player stated, “Everyone knows that there are four or possibly five clubs which really try to play football, the rest are just there to make money by other means.” After the privatization of football in Ukraine, the league has been used as a medium for laundering money, ameliorating oligarchs’ images and gaining power, not football.

For example, Simon Kuper, author of Soccer Against the Enemy did an in-depth study of Dynamo Kiev’s football undertakings and uncovered the unimaginable corruption occurring within the club. Apparently every player on the team owns a Mercedes and makes almost 30 times as much money as the Ukrainian president, to go even further, Dynamo Kiev has enough money to buy the Ukrainian government. However the craziest evidence Kuper found was that Dynamo Kiev had licenses gained through bribery to export, “nuclear missile parts, two tons of gold per annum and metals including platinum” Dynamo Kiev is a special example because they are so rich and have such a great success streak, but to put it bluntly, Kuper writes, “The club could be successful without even playing soccer”

The corruption is not just in extortion and money laundering as is seen with Kiev. There is also a phenomenon of corruption through match fixing. Ukrainian club Metalist Kharkiv was expelled from international competition for match fixing just this year. However, this was a rare incident of sanctions for match fixing because the ban was orchestrated by an international source. The Ukrainian Premiership suffers greatly from match fixing and the country itself cannot do much against it since the teams are all so powerful. According to the FIFPro Black Book on Eastern Europe, 7.6% of all Ukrainian players have been approached about match fixing and 13% of all players know of corruption in the league regarding match fixing. Organizations like FIFA and UEFA are also unsuccessful in changing this because the clubs’ priorities lie in their moneymaking ventures and banning them from international soccer doesn’t affect them.

Past the crimes of money laundering and corruption in match fixing perhaps the worst aspect of Ukraine’s Premiership since the privatization of the league is the newfound violence. In Kuper’s research he found multiple sources openly admitting that there were multiple Mafia ties to every club. According to a BBC article, “Many Ukrainians I spoke to found the idea of gangs running a Premier League club so unsurprising they told me ‘it was not a story’.” The Mafia’s involvement in all of these clubs created the biggest issue of the privatization of Ukrainian football, as they bring violence into the picture. FC Zakarpattya is a premiership club that exists solely as a front for crime and corruption and is terrible at football. In 2004, police raided the club and 36-armed men were arrested with more than 150 escaping. The club president was then later charged with robbery, kidnapping and terrorism. Another example of the violence brought by gangs is with the club FC Tavriya, a club following a similar business model of Zakarpattya. In 2007, their president was charged with possession of illegal weapons and ordering an arson attack. It is pretty unbelievable to think that football clubs are serving as smokescreens for arson attacks and terrorism. The Ukrainian government is currently too weak to enact governance on these clubs, for even when they do these raids; the teams get their patrons out of trouble. For example, the Tavriya boss charged with arson was supposed to serve seven years, but is now free.

The effects of the privatization of football are clearly negative. The expected outcome involved a level playing field and less corruption, but the opposite occurred. The worst part of the situation is that the world is practically powerless in altering this corrupt landscape. The Oligarchs entrenched in Eastern European football have completely ruined the game for the fan base. James Riordan writes, “30 years ago, major grounds were packed to capacity with some 35,000 fans at matches. Today, the six major teams… average just 7,000 fans a game between them.” A change needs to come and reform the system, but it is hard to see any coming in the near future, with Ukraine being too weak, FIFA and UEFA being inadequate and powerful countries not caring.


“Ukrainian Football’s Dark Side.” BBC News. BBC, 04 Jan. 2009. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
Ukrainian Football’s Dark Side

Kuper, Simon. Soccer against the Enemy. New York, NY: Nation, 2006. Print.

FIFPro Black Book Eastern Europe. FIFPro, Feb. 7, 2012 Print.

Riordan, James. “Football: Nation, City and the Dream.” (n.d.): 545-58. Print.

2 thoughts on “A Bleak Future for Eastern European Soccer

  1. Pingback: Soccer During Wartime: The Situation in Ukraine | Soccer Politics / The Politics of Football

  2. Marsha Kononenko

    Great read! As a Ukrainian-American, stories about corruption within Ukraine are never surprising. More generally, this widespread corruption is seen in most former Soviet nations. On the world stage, we see similar trends in corruption among these nations. Take for example, the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics and Euro 2012 hosted in Poland and Ukraine. Both Ukraine and Russia faced harsh criticism in the media for completing their stadiums so late and not having proper accommodations for tourists visiting for the respective competitions. Additionally, there is no doubt that it was the oligarchs, rather than the nations themselves, who benefitted from the economic revenue, as suggested by many who supported the decision to host the tournaments in Ukraine and Russia. An article published in the Guardian states that most of the companies hired to build stadiums were owned by government officials (http://www.theguardian.com/football/2012/jun/20/euro-2012-corruption-allegations-ukraine).

    On a slightly different note, when you mentioned that there are two top teams in the Ukrainian Premier League, I automatically thought of the rivalry and dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona in La Liga in Spain. When I was in Madrid, many of the people I met would support Atlético Madrid instead of Real Madrid because they believed that Real Madrid’s greatest asset was their money. Undoubtedly, the degree of corruption in Ukrainian football is much greater than in Spain but I don’t think that we can say the Ukrainian Premier League is so vastly different from various other European leagues. Many teams across Europe will never be able to qualify for the Champion’s League or truly challenge the top ranked teams solely based on the fact that they cannot afford the transfer fees of other players. What do you think?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *