Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk – Angels amidst War

The Final of the UEFA Europa League, the second tier continental championship in Europe, is just around the corner. Will it bring about a fairy tale ending for a small club from Ukraine? Debojyoti Chakraborty pays tribute to one of the most inspiring underdog stories in modern football here at Goalden Times.

The Prelude

A country devastated by civil war;One of the largest economies of Europe buried into deep depression;Citizens of the country having lost any realistic hope of closure;Media discourse and day-to-day conversations inevitably circling around the crisis.If only there was some inspirational story to encourage them, some landmark achievement to instil optimism among a hapless bunch of people, some significant victory to unite the citizens of the country and make them believe that everything will soon be alright. This is why the success of FC Dnipro is unique – it provides the suffering people of Ukraine an escape route from everything bad that has happened, if only for a while – like a small ray of light in darkness, a moment of happiness in sorrow.

Football Club Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, an established club in Ukraine,had hardly achieved anything significant beyond domestic football. In fact, even at national level, their last successful campaign was more than 15 years ago when they were crowned the champions of the then Soviet Premier League. Their only historical significance remains in them being the first professional football club in the old Soviet Union in 1989. But all of that is about to change shortly. Within a couple of days, they are about to play the biggest game in the history of the club – the final of the UEFA EUROPA League.

 Jubilant fans invaded the pitch in celebration.
Jubilant fans invaded the pitch in celebration.

As the runner up of the Ukrainian Premier league, Dnipro qualified for the 2014-15 UEFA Champions League third qualifying round. They could not make it beyond that stage as the 2014 pro-Russian conflict in Ukraine hampered their pre-season and the qualifying matches came too early in the season for them. They drew blanks against FC Copenhagen at home but the match hogged the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Visiting Dane supporters were attacked by the home fans after being allegedly provoked by the away group waving a Russian flag inside the stadium. Tension was already brewing between the pro-Russian separatists and forces deployed by the Ukrainian government following Russia’s controversial annexation of Crimea. The Danish club did not take things lightly and lodged an official complain to UEFA.

In a bid to quash similar volatile incidents in the future, UEFA confirmed that Ukrainian and Russian teams cannot be drawn together during any European tournament in the next season. The investigation could not nail down the culprits but the situation definitely highlighted the danger that supporters from any nation visiting a troubled area could be facing. It was time for UEFA to take a stern stand on how to save the beautiful game from hooligans.

Talking about the beautiful game, Dnipro subsequently lost 2-0 away and entered the play-off round of the UEFA Europa League, thus started an unforgettable journey.Pitted against the Croatian side Hajduk Split, all seemed to go downhill as Dnipro conceded early in the second half at home. However they bounced back to win the first leg 2-1 and playing out a goalless away match, qualified for the group stages of the Europa League.

The Journey Started

Europa League is notorious for its rigorous fixtures and since the games are held on Thursday nights, it gives the clubs very little time to prepare for the weekend league matches. Dnipro’s task was made even tougher as they were drawn in a group of European heavyweights such as Italian giants Internazionale and top French club AS Saint-Étienne. Champions from Azerbaijan, Qarabağ, completed the group. The journey did not seem to be easy and it turned out to be a tough one indeed with Dnipro managing a solitary point midway through the group stage. They started the last match day against Saint-Étienne desperate for a win. Even then a Qarabağ victory over Inter would have broken their hearts but thankfully, results went their way. Dnipro won by their favourite scoreline (1-0), Inter held to a goalless draw and thus the former found themselves in the knock outs.

Myron Bohdanovych Markevych took charge of Dnipro before the 2014-15 season. He had not experienced much success thus far in his professional career spanning more than 20 years but the constant rigors of club football had sharpened his game reading skills. He did not have any continental exposure but he made the most of his home conditions, something he knew like the back of his palm.  He showed his true worth when it came to shutting down the defence and squeezing out that one vital goal.

The Dream Begins

Olympiacos FC, Dnipro’s opponent in the round of 32, got the first taste of his waterproof strategy. Dnipro won 2-0 at home and that proved a bit too much for the Greek team to overcome. A 2-2 away draw saw the Ukrainian side through to the round of 16, their best ever showing at the competition.

Up next were AFC Ajax, another heavyweight who, like Olympiacos FC had come through the Champions league route. Again, the result was similar – a hard fought 1-0 home win where the clean sheet proved to be vital. Ajax won the return leg 1-0 forcing extra time but Dnipro managed to score a critical away goal in the 97th minute. The Dutch side fought back and again took the lead but Dnipro scraped it through on the away goal rule.

Buoyed by these back to back giant killing efforts, Dnipro got lady luck shining on them once more as they were drawn against the weakest team alive in the quarter finals – third seeded Belgian side Club Brugge. Markevych followed his master blue print – win 1-0 at home, draw 0-0 away and Dnipro progressed to the semis.

Riding High

By now it was April and Dnipro were confident with the way they were playing. A memorable season seemed to be on the cards. Most of their home matches had been played in the freezing Ukrainian weather and the away teams found it extremely difficult to adapt to playing at sub-zero temperatures. Along with their European exploits, even domestically, Dnipro had by then qualified for the semi-finals of the domestic cup competition, a tournament they had never won. Dnipro were also vying for the second spot in the league which would have given them a shot at the Champions League next year (subsequently they have tailed off a bit and find themselves in third spot, preferring to concentrate on the Europa League matches. Now a direct entry at the Europa league seems the most they can get out of it). So when Dnipro were handed their sternest test so far in the form of Italian powerhouse Napoli, Markevych and his boys had nothing to fear.

The first leg was played in Naples where Dnipro clinched a vital away goal in a 1-1 draw. It is really fascinating to note that they have scored an away goal in all but one of their knock out matches. And then came the home match in a rain soaked Kyiv. A heavy pitch definitely aided the defensive-minded Dnipro team as they needed to do what they did best – shut the door out (or as they call it, park the bus). Rafael Benítez, planning to create a record by clinching the trophy with a third club, having previously won it with Valencia in 2003-04 and Chelsea in 2012-13, had to return empty handed as Dnipro eventually won it 1-0.

A Maverick Tactician

Markevych’s philosophy is quite simple – he knows player for player his team stands no chance against teams of much higher pedigree. So he has moulded his strategy to inspire his troop to play for each other, to cover each other’s back – a war cry that epitomizes the players’ struggle in a war rift nation.  Dnipro players press quite high up the pitch and attack in numbers to seize the opportunity when it arises, but more often than not they are content to let their opponents have the ball. Each and every player tries to close down the space and chase his opponents all over the pitch.

There are bound to be some heroic performances during such an epic campaign. The shot-stopper Denys Boyko has punched above his weight, especially in the semis when he denied a lethal goal scorer like Gonzalo Higuaín four times in one-on-one situations. Yevhen Seleznyov grabbed his opportunity with both hands as he got to play in the absence of injured team mate Roman Zozulya and scored in both the legs against Napoli. The Ukraine international scored late in the 80th minute at Naples, allegedly from an offside position, as he stabbed home with his first touch after coming off the bench moments earlier. A fairy-tale David vs Goliath story is never complete without these strokes of luck embedded within it.But it was more of a team effort – what Dnipro lacked in individual brilliance, they made up for in doggedness.

Anti-Terrorist activities in Ukraine (Source: Euro Maiden)
Anti-Terrorist activities in Ukraine (Source: Euro Maiden)

The War Cry

Time and again they have echoed the sentiment that their strength rests not with great men but the great many. And they are not playing for a mere trophy, as the great man Markevych has put it – “Every day our people are dying. Today all the boys fighting in the East were probably watching football, and we also played for them.” This feeling resonated throughout the team. He also added after the semi-final win – “We played for people, especially for the boys who are now taking part in anti-terror operation.

We played for people, especially for the boys who are now taking part in anti-terror operation.

The players rejoiced the moment but did not let go their sense of humour. When senior defender Artem Fedetskyi was asked about his feelings after the match he stunned everyone with his cheeky comment that he has been waiting for the retirement of Gonzalo Higuaín. The Napoli forward had promised to do so if Napoli could not make it to the final before the tie and Fedetskyi was quick to remind him that “Man said – man did.

Dnipro’s success has not gone unnoticed in the social and political sphere also. President Petro Poroshenko took to social networking to congratulate the team, hailing them as the “glory of Ukraine”. Their semi-final win has been described as “a historic victory” and “a present for the whole of Ukraine” by the national media. Dnipro’s success could again unite the nation, as happened during the Euro 2012 when Ukraine co-hosted the tournament with Poland.

In the middle of the ongoing war in the eastern part of Ukraine, with thousands of deaths during the past months, Dnipro supporters posing from the war zone
In the middle of the ongoing war in the eastern part of Ukraine, with thousands of deaths during the past months, Dnipro supporters posing from the war zone

Dnipro derives its name from the nation’s longest river Dnieper, which both divides and united the nation. Nothing can be more symbolic and dramatic than the upcoming final when Markevych wishes that the entire nation would stand up and cheer for his brave men. And the signs have been encouraging.

During the entire course of the campaign, FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk had to play all of their home matches some 400 kilometres away to at Kyiv due to the war. The home stadium support has been limited as the football fans from capital preferred to watch their beloved FC Dynamo Kyiv’s away games on TV rather than turning up at the field for an outsider club. But things changed after the quarterfinals as Dynamo Kyiv was knocked out and the war torn nation got united to support their only representative in the competition.

A Winner – Already

Dnipro’s success goes a long way beyond the boundaries of the football pitch. Football movement in Ukraine has played a vital part in uniting the nation and keeping the youth away from unwanted distractions. The football fans first initiated a movement to secure their cities from bandits and in doing this, became instant role models for the entire nation. The beautiful game has taught them to be tolerant and respect even the rival fans. So regardless of whether they are from Donetsk or Kyiv, Lviv or Kharkiv, fans will stand united behind Dnipro. As our friend from Ukraine puts it: “I am sure that they (the groups of football fans) did a great job for the country that most politicians could have never done. Football is much bigger than just a game, it’s a religion that unites people across different age, sex and social status”.

History Beckons

Amidst torrential rain, a whopping 62,344 fans watched the semi-final match and supporters of the East Ukrainian club became a bit too excited as the final whistle was blown. Jubilant fans invaded the pitch in celebration. The club now faces a disciplinary hearing for the improper conduct of their fans from UEFA on 21st May. A much bigger and tougher test awaits them though in Warsaw on 27th May when they will face the Spanish side Sevilla. After out thinking renowned European stalwarts like Benítez over two legs, it remains to be seen if Markevych can adjust to the one-off affair and mastermind a victory over Unai Emery. But, whatever happens, they have surely cemented their place in Ukrainian football folklore and will serve as a source of inspirations for the have-nots and underdogs for years to come.

This piece would not have been possible without the valuable first hand input from our friend Kirill Kukuruza. Goalden Times would like to take this opportunity to express their gratitude towards Kirill for his contributions.