Metalist, Lies & Videotape

It’s those men again. Despite catcalls in Kharkiv, derision in Donetsk and vilification in Lviv, the longest-running comedy show in Ukraine shows no indication of planning for a graceful retirement.

The question today is how much longer the Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU) will remain the only show in town. As a result of recent events, dissatisfaction with the organisation has reached such levels that the observer has to wonder if a full-blown civil war in Ukrainian football is inevitable – if it hasn’t already started.

Of course, we’ve been here before. Whether it’s revenues, refereering appointments, fixture scheduling or the price of a ticket to see the national team lose to Greece, the complaint from the club owners, the fans and sometimes even the players remains the same – the priorities of the FFU are not those of Ukrainian football as a whole. On the other hand, the accusations continue, they do bear a marked resemblance to the interests of Dynamo Kyiv.

Sometimes the FFU is innocent. Sometimes the owners themselves are equally capable of creating an utter mess. Although the fact that FFU president Hryhoriy Surkis is the brother of Dynamo president Ihor Surkis – and preceded his younger sibling at the Dynamo helm – would appear to constitute a clear conflict of interest, conclusive evidence of any resultant wrong-doing is nevertheless thin on the ground.

However, on August 17th the FFU presided over a sequence of events so remarkable that all the old insinuations and allegations have once again taken on a very heavy cumulative weight.

This was the day in which the FFU’s disciplinary committee ruled that a league match between Metalist Kharkiv and Karpaty Lviv on April 19th, 2008 had been fixed. The committee awarded both clubs technical defeats in the game, which Metalist had won 4-0, and fined each the equivalent of USD 25,000. Ten Karpaty players were fined USD 10,000, whilst a further eight were stung for USD 5,000 apiece.

That was just for starters. Metalist deputy general director Yevhen Krasnykov and the former Karpaty player Serghei Laşcencov received lifetime bans, whilst the Lviv side’s honorary director Petro Dyminsky and general director Ihor Dedyshyn were barred from football for one and five years respectively. And last but perhaps most significant of all, both Metalist and Kaparty were deducted nine points from their league totals for the current season.

The basis for this remarkable outbreak of gavel-banging was a video recording which surfaced earlier this year appearing to show Laşcencov (now playing in Azerbaijan and the current captain of the Moldovan national team) admitting that the game was fixed. According to several media reports, Laşcencov had acted as an intermediary in the transfer of USD 110,000 to the other Karpaty players from Krasnykov in exchange for a Metalist win.

The response from both clubs was, predictably enough, one of outrage. Metalist president Oleksander Yaroslavsky, backed by Shakhtar supremo Rinat Akhmetov, dismissed the ruling as ’illegal’, whilst the Lviv city council passed a motion calling on the FFU to reconsider. The clubs immediately filed appeals with both UEFA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, at which point the penalties were suspended pending a verdict.

What happened next, however, seems to have taken even the FFU completely by surprise. National coach Myron Markevych, who had combined his role with managing Metalist and had in fact been in charge for the Karpaty game in 2008 but was not implicated in the case, handed in his resignation. By way of explanation, he claimed that he had ”no moral right to work for an organisation that is deliberately destroying football in Kharkiv”, and that ”the FFU has completely discredited itself”.

If their somewhat flustered response to his resignation is anything to go by, the potential impact on relations with Markevych – and three current Metalist internationals, Marko Dević, Denys Oliynyk and Serhiy Valyayev, who declared that they will no longer play for the national side – had apparently been overlooked by the FFU. Initially rejecting the resignation on the grounds that it was submitted by fax, Surkis & Co. then claimed that the terms of Markevych’s contract did not permit departure on moral grounds.

Unfortunately neither party stopped there. Markevych called the situation ”a farce ordered by certain people”, whilst Hryhoriy Surkis claimed that ”I don’t think that Markevych himself made this decision. There is somebody behind him who is using him”. That somebody was clearly implied to be Yaroslavsky, who although admitting to speaking to Markevych about his decision, denied making it for him.

It is from comments such as these that many have concluded that the whole business forms part of an ongoing battle for control of Ukrainian football between the FFU and the club owners. The long-standing allegation that the primary aim of the FFU has always been to secure the domestic standing of Dynamo by weakening the latter’s principal rivals has probably never enjoyed wider currency than at present.

Conclusions have been drawn by just about everybody in the Ukrainian game, and there is little need to add to them here. On the other hand, it feels necessary to pose a number of questions both to the FFU and the ever-growing ranks of their adversaries.

i.) Is the evidence credible? A review of the game reveals some questionable defending by Karpaty, but if that’s a punishable offence then the whole Ukrainian league may as well be shut down right now. Doubts, too, have been raised about the authenticity of the Laşcencov recording, with the player himself insisting that the tape had been dubbed. The fact that it was rejected as insufficient evidence for a police investigation in Kharkiv should also be noted. On the other hand, it may be of significance that Laşcencov has form in this regard – in late 2009 he was transfer-listed by Olimpik-Shuvalan PFC Baku after being accused of throwing a match against Gabala FC. In the end, however, final judgement in this question will be reserved for UEFA and the CAS.

ii.) Do the FFU even need to weaken the competition in Dynamo’s favour? Dynamo may have had an uneven start to the current season, but at no point has their duopoly with Shakhtar Donetsk ever been seriously threatened. Metalist have finished in third spot four times in the past five years, but the average difference in points between them and Dynamo at the end of those seasons has been over 14 points. Moreover, given the sale of Brazilian striker Jajá Coelho – the side’s top scorer for the last two years – to Trabzonspor in August, the current Metalist side are probably less of a threat to Dynamo than this time last year.

iii.) Would this actually be an effective method of artificially strengthening Dynamo’s position? Consider that the Ukrainian League has risen from 12th place in UEFA’s rankings in 2007 to seventh place at present, thereby ensuring two Champions League positions. This improvement is due in no small part to the efforts of Dynamo’s domestic competitors. Although Dynamo reached the UEFA Cup semi-finals in 2009, Shakhtar went on to win the competition, whilst Metalist made it to the quarter-finals. The latter’s position in the UEFA club rankings for 2010 is up five places from 2009, and Shakhtar’s 17th spot is unchanged. Dynamo, however, are down three places since last year.

In other words, the progress of Dynamo’s rivals in Europe is actually supporting the continued qualification of the Kyiv side for the Champions League, given that they finished second in four out of the last six years. To weaken other Ukrainian clubs would be to risk losing Ukraine’s second spot, meaning that Dynamo would need to win the league every year in order to maintain their presence at Europe’s top table.

iv.) Why now? There have been far more obvious times for a pro-Dynamo mafia to resort to manipulation. The most obvious recent example is the first half of the 2007-2008 season, when Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk won 13 of their first 17 games and went into the winter break firmly ensconsed – at Dynamo’s expense – in the Champions League spots.

v.) What role do UEFA play? Ukraine has been under the cosh from Michel Platini virtually ever since the country, along with Poland, was awarded Euro 2012. Delays in preparations have led to strained relations with the FFU, with the UEFA president effectively setting a two-month ultimatum in April for tangible progress. At the same time, UEFA have also been particularly active in launching a series of anti-corruption initiatives across Europe. Could the Metalist-Karpaty affair be an attempt by the FFU to repair their damaged credit with UEFA? Incidentally, since the FFU handed down the penalties, Platini has confirmed that the finals will be split equally between the two host nations, and that ”We [UEFA] feel that Ukraine is fully capable of doing the work”.

vi.) The final question is one which very few seem to have considered – what if the FFU are actually right? Even the most embittered opponents of the Axis of Surkis would agree that a.) Ukrainian football has problems with corruption; and b.) something needs to be done about it. The trouble is that even if an attempt is made to address a.) and b.), assumption c.) kicks in – the FFU are always up to no good. This third assumption consistently trumps everything else.

Whether these questions will be answered is itself open to debate. Judging by the temperature which the situation has now reached – Yaroslavsky recently said that ”Everything Dynamo have won has been without the Surkises. From them Dynamo have won only scandals”, whilst Akhmetov weighed in with ”The Surkis brothers say ”we shall never cheat”. We look at them and we don’t believe them at all” – there is a feeling in the air that the time has arrived for actions, rather than words.

Much of the blame for the situation must rest with the FFU. In an atmosphere of all-encompassing paranoia in which federations and oligarchs relentlessly jockey for power, even the appearance of a conflict of interest is enough for that conflict of interest to exist.

On the other hand, and as this column has previously stressed, incompetence is always as plausible as conspiracy where the FFU is concerned. There is a danger that in their zeal its enemies are ascribing more power to the organisation than it probably possesses. Either way, the question of just how far that power really goes, and how much longer it will last in the face of such opposition, looks set to be resolved once and for all.

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