Europa League

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Football takes backseat in Europa

Tottenham slipped up against Dnipro in the Europa League.
Tottenham slipped up against Dnipro in the Europa League.
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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.

   
 

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Two years ago, the morning after the Euro 2012 final, I left the Ukraina Hotel just above Independence Square and headed off for lunch. Because accommodation was so hard to find during the Euros, I’d ended up sleeping on the floor of a colleague’s room and, because he’d had an early flight, I had to check out pretending to be him, praying he’d remembered to pay and I wasn’t going to be lumbered with three weeks of laundry and bar bills. The square itself was dominated by a fan park, a garish temple to football’s devotion to commercialism that had been blasting out Europop for a month. As I skirted it and headed for the cafes and bars of Podil, it occurred to me how radically Kiev had changed since my first visit, in 2001.

Back then, it had been a grim, drab city, one that seemed almost afraid to make the most of its many stunning churches, one in which good food seemed almost impossible to come by. By 2012, though, the domes gleamed and decent restaurants seemed to have sprung up everywhere. Accommodation was hard to find -- after all, I’d ended up sleeping on the floor of a colleague’s room -- and Kiev, like the rest of Ukraine, had struggled under the strain of the Euros. Yet, it had become a city, I thought to myself, that I might conceivably go back to on holiday. The football had been slowly improving as well, with the Ukrainian league ranked in Europe’s top ten by the UEFA coefficient every year since 2007. The reasonable expectation of improvement was reasonable given the investment in infrastructure the Euros had brought.

A little under two years on, reflections on the UEFA coefficients seem dreadfully trivial, my anxiety in the Ukraina ridiculous. Television crews filming from the windows have reported being shot at by snipers, while the mock-marble lobby of the Ukraina has become a temporary medical center. Journalists reported seeing 12 bodies laid out there on Thursday morning. The square itself has become a battleground, as armed police have tried to clear demonstrators protected by burning barricades. On Thursday, the violence escalated, with protestors wielding axes, knives and truncheons driving police back. Both sides have reported the use of firearms, with footage released that seems to show government forces firing on protesters carrying makeshift shields. Dozens have been killed and hundreds injured.

Yet somehow, the football, at least in two Ukrainian cities, has gone on. The Ukrainian league is still on its winter break, with serious doubts about whether it can restart as scheduled on Feb. 28. "I see what's happening in Kiev,” said Shakhtar Donetsk manager Mircea Lucescu. “It's just unbelievable. I cannot believe it. I know that we have to play on March 2 in Kiev, but if the protests will continue, I do not think that we were going. Almost impossible to play football in such circumstances. There is a strong likelihood that the resumption of the championship will be postponed.”

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This week’s Europa League ties weren’t, though, although Dynamo Kyiv’s fixture against Valencia was moved to Nicosia. Tottenham still went to Dnipropetrovsk, 220 miles south-east of Kyiv, with journalists reporting a sense both of calm and of shock, locals glued to television pictures from the capital and the streets quiet apart from locals queuing at banks, keen to take their cash while they still can. In Odessa, 300 miles south of Kyiv, Chornomorets’s game against Olympique Lyon also went ahead as scheduled.

Kiev was always the likely flashpoint, not just because of the symbolic value of Independence Square but because as much as being a protest against the government, this is a conflict between East and West; between the half of the country that looks naturally to the European Union and the part that looks instinctively to Russia. Dnipropetrovsk, like Donetsk, lies to the east, it is Kiev that lies on the faultline -- quite how significant a faultline is made clear by the fact that one of the two main theories for the etymology of the word Ukraine is that it means "borderland."

That’s not to say there has not been dissent in Dnipropetrovsk, though, with Dnipro’s ultras last month declaring themselves supportive of the protests. Fans sung the Ukrainian national anthem during the minute’s silence for the dead before kickoff on Thursday, seemingly a gesture of solidarity with the protestors, who have also been singing the anthem in Independence Square.

Anti-government protesters continue their clash against police in Independence Square (Image: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty).

Many stayed away from Dnipro Arena, perhaps because of the cold, perhaps because of fear a public gathering could become a locus for trouble, or perhaps simply because football didn’t seem all that important compared to events in Kiev. Regardless of the reason, the home fans who turned up saw their side beat Tottenham Hotspur 1-0. Tottenham bossed possession but, after Roberto Soldado had missed a sitter, an 81st-minute Yevhen Konplyanka penalty gave Dnipro the win.

Chornomorets Odesa drew 0-0 at home to Lyon, while Dynamo went down 2-0 to Valencia in Cyprus thanks to two goals in the final 11 minutes. The Chilean forward Eduardo Vargas headed in a Daniel Parejo corner before Sofiane Feghouli added a second in injury time. In the Czech Republic, the Ukrainian champions Shakhtar drew 1-1 with Viktoria Plzen, Luiz Adriano cancelling out Stanislav Tecl’s opener. Perhaps the distraction was welcomed by some, but in Ukraine this was a day when football didn’t feel particularly important.

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