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Sports Section February 25, 2005
 
Chasing Little Brother
 
 

Ukraine's relationship with big brother Russia has had its ups and downs throughout the ages. But it's safe to say that since the fall of Kievan Rus, Ukraine has never occupied the weightier side of the scales of influence. However, when it comes to the most popular sport in the world (and this includes Russia and Ukraine) -- that is, soccer -- Ukraine is a few solid steps in front of its northern neighbor. With European club competition once again underway after winter break and World Cup 2006 Qualifying set to resume shortly, now is as good of time as any to examine Russia's future on the European soccer horizon.

The most prestigious international club competition in all of sports is the Champions League, where all of Europe's club soccer heavyweights compete for the title. There are currently 16 teams left, and, not surprisingly, not a single one is a Russian club, unless one counts Roman Abramovich-owned Chelsea. The amount of money that Roman Abramovich (who also owns Moscow-based CSKA) has sunk into London's Chelsea over the past couple years is more that many countries' GDPs. Even fellow owners in the English Premiership, perhaps the single richest sports league in the world, have begun to bitch and moan about Abramovich's bottomless wells of monetary liquidity. Also bitching and moaning are fans of CSKA, who rightly note that the 19.85 million pounds transfer fee Abramovich paid to bring defender Ricardo Carvalho to Chelsea could have been used to quite significantly improve CSKA's roster. (On a non-sports note, one can easily argue that Russia's vast resources of oil could be put to better use than securing world-class soccer players for London-based soccer teams. But I digress...)

Speaking of CSKA, they represent Russia's sole remaining squad in international club competition. Their 2-0 UEFA Cup victory over Benfika (Portugal) on Feb. 17 vaulted Russia over traditional soccer powerhouse Israel (I'm being sarcastic here, in case you can't tell) into 15th place in the European club soccer standings. How a country of 6.7 million people with constant border concerns and no international athletic triumphs whatsoever could occupy a higher position than a country of 150 million people with hundreds upon hundreds of Olympic medals won is beyond me. And, I'm not buying what seems to the theory of most Russian sports fans -- an admixture of Russophobia and the worldwide conspiracy amongst referees to humiliate and humble Russia. Now that Russia has finally passed Israel, directly ahead of them in the tables are Austria, a country that hasn't done anything since the Hapsburgs, tiny Czech Republic, with a population of all of 10 million people, and, yes, Ukraine.

In contrast to Russia, Ukraine still has three teams alive and kicking (horrible pun, sorry) in the UEFA Cup -- Dinamo Kiev, Shakhtar Donetsk and Dnipr Dnipropetrovsk. (This as of press time -- on Thursday, Feb. 24, the results of the matches will halve the field from 32 to 16.) This reveals several things. One, that the quality of play in the Ukrainian league is better than in the Russian league. Two, big companies in the Ukraine invest more money into the soccer teams they own, which is effectively a public works project. Strength of club teams is more or less determined by two things -- the quality of the homegrown players and the amount of money management makes available to buy players from other countries. By importing Brazilian soccer players, these companies are effectively keeping the workers' and peasants' attention diverted from their pickaxes and pitchforks. Following from the second point, we can conclude that Ukrainians soccer fans are more hardcore than Russians.

An example here is illuminating: on the very first night of the Orange Revolution, when crowds were gathering on Kiev's Independence Square, both Moscow's CSKA and Dinamo Kiev played Champions League games at home. (I remember this vividly because during NTV's broadcast of the Dinamo Kiev/AS Roma game, ITAR-TASS news bulletins ran across the bottom of the screen reporting what was happening concurrently a couple of kilometers away.) And even still, when comparing attendance figures in the next day's paper, more people (40,000) were at the Dinamo Kiev game than at the CSKA game (21,500). Talk about passion -- your country might be heading to civil war and/or utter currency collapse and yet you still decide to go to a soccer game. Simply amazing.


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