When Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk won its UEFA Europa League semifinal against Napoli, it prompted a mass pitch invasion. There was the usual joy of a football victory but there was also something more. There was a delirium to the celebrations. This was a victory that meant more than simply a medium-sized Ukrainian club reaching the final of the Europa League.
The venue was telling. Dnipro has had to play every home game of its Europa League campaign in Kyiv, 243 miles to the north-west of Dnipropetrovsk, which itself lies just 150 miles west of the front-line of the ongoing conflict in the east of Ukraine. The celebrations had an extra edge because of the political context.
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Dnipro’s players have tried to play down any notion that they are playing in Wednesday’s final against Sevilla (live, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go, 2:45 p.m. ET) for the whole of Ukraine, and yet the sense is inescapable. "Football and politics probably don’t go together well," said the 33-year-old captain, Ruslan Rotan. "At least that’s my opinion. Football is a holiday for the people primarily. The trophy is the most important thing. With the war in the east, people are deprived of emotions. There is chaos but maybe if we win we will give some joy to those people."
Rotan’s midfield colleague Valeriy Fedorchuk was less circumspect. "What is happening in the Donbass is not good for my country," he said. "We have always believed we are the biggest friend with Russia. We will play for Ukraine because we represent out country."
The conflict has caused practical difficulties. Myron Markevych, the coach, an experienced and wry presence, admitted that having to play home games in another city has caused problems. "We have been flying a lot," he said. "Initially it was very difficult. Moreover few supporters were coming and we were playing in a big stadium and that depressed us a little bit. But then when we got in quarterfinal against Club Brugge there were a lot of supporters and in semifinals against Napoli more than 60,000 spectators."
That increase in support has reflected how Dnipro have come to be seen as the team of all Ukraine. There were Dynamo Kyiv fans in the stadium supporting them in the semifinal and cub rivalries have to a large extent been put aside for the final. Whatever happens against a high-class and in-form Sevilla, this has ben a remarkable run. "I wouldn’t be honest if I said we’d planned to play in the final," Markevych said. "But you get more appetite when you start eating, As soon as we beat Olympiakos [in the last 32], I started to believe."
Markevych, who replaced Juande Ramos as coach last May, has been a major factor in Dnipro’s progress. At Metalist, his former club, he was noted for his attacking approach but his Dnipro sides are solid and play on the break. "When he came to us, he said, ‘Guys, you have a very good team, but in a tactical way you’re too emotional,’ and that’s what we had to work on. He stopped those emotions, he gave us his tactical exercises and we became calmer and this helped us really, we gained some self-assuredness. I can’t tell you how, but it comes with every game. We became more balanced and we came to stop being influenced by alien factors."
There’s no doubt, though, that while Dnipro have a sense of playing for a greater cause, Sevilla is the strong favorite. Its coach, Unai Emery, was a serious contender for the Real Madrid job — although that appears to be going to Rafael Benitez — and he has his side playing an attractive, hard-pressing style. The battle on the Dnipro left between its highly rated winger Yevhen Konoplyanka and fullback Coke will be key, but game is likely to be played predominantly in the Dnipro half. "Sevilla have a number of very good attackers," said Markevych. "This is a headache for us, but our defense at least up till now have played at a good level."
Sevilla, the defending champions, could become the first team ever to win the tournament four times. It is familiar with the stage in a way that Dnipro is not. Even without the war, it would be hard to escape the sense that this is a once in a career chance for the club, and for that reason it has done what it can to subside the 9,500 fans expected to come from Ukraine.
"From an economic point of view not all the fans can get to such a historic game for Dnipro," Rotan said. "We’ve helped those people for whom it’s hard financially. We have helped financially, paid for tickets and transport. We have problems of our own but we especially tried to help people with disabilities. Hopefully we can give them joy."
The vast majority of Ukraine is united in hoping the same.