Thursday, October 10, 2019

Ukrainian power takes world, Euro soccer travelers

The world and European traveling championships in soccer have entered a new country, with the top club in Ukraine wrestling the prizes from the Italian club Atalanta at the start of October.


This is the quite interesting crest for the Ukrainian soccer club Shakhtar Donetsk, which now controls the world and European traveling championships. You might want to run a translator on this account of the logo from the club's website.

Running together, as they do, the European and World traveling soccer titles have been around quite a bit in less than two months since the European seasons began.

The big traveling occurred within a split second on Oct. 1, when a 20-year-old Israeli midfielder, off the bench, scored five minutes into extra time, giving Shakhtar Donetsk a 2-1 win over Atalanta in the group stage of the Champion's League.

With that, the European and World prizes moved from Italy to Ukraine under the flag of Shakhtar Donetsk. It appears unlikely that the prize will get lost deeper in the Ukranian Premier League. Shakhtar has played nine games in its domestic league so far and won all of them.

We like to keep the real world out of sports, but where do we play sports except in a real world? The part of the world concerning us here is the basin of the Donets in southeastern Europe, a region known as the Donbas that includes far eastern Ukraine and southwestern Russia. The unofficial capital of the region has traditionally been Donetsk, a metro of about two million that is on its fifth name since 1779. Donetsk is a resource town known for its easy business climate and fatal mining accidents. The region is split pretty evenly between Ukrainians and Russians as the dominant ethnicities.

Ukraine, of course, once was part of the Soviet Union, becoming independent in 1991 as the Soviet arrangement came apart from the edges. We know, too, that independence is something of a mislabeling. No nation is truly independent. You need allies. What are your defense arrangements? Who are your trade partners? Who are you going to line up with? 

All of that has been something of a stuck-in-the-middle proposition for Ukraine, especially the Donbas, where no clear mandate exists about whether to face Europe or Eurasia. These last three decades have been quite a strain on Ukraine, which has dropped more than three million souls to a nudge fewer than 44 million in the last 25 years, due mostly to death rates being higher than birth rates.

Ukraine and NATO had their eyes on each other from the start. Ukranian membership in NATO has been a sore spot with the Russians, who would rather not have NATO on their border. And Ukraine was just about to work up an association agreement with the European Union (EU) in late 2013. The balance was tipping strongly toward Europe.

At about that time, though, the Ukranian president, Viktor Yanukovych, thought it might be better to try an agreement with the Russian Federation and Vladimir Putin's dream of a Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) instead. Hoping to keep debt-strapped Ukraine in orbit, Putin offered to purchase $15 billion in Ukranian government bonds and slash 33 percent from the price of Russian natural gas. 

Yanukovych said at the time that Ukraine would need $20 billion to enact the reforms needed for EU membership. But for Ukrainians worried that Putin was attempting to reconstitute the Soviet Union on a trade basis, the EEU was the wrong play.

Ukrainians favoring European affiliation took to the streets and a wave of demonstrations ensued with calls to replace the government. Naturally, the Ukranian parliament fanned the flames by banning pubic demonstrations. Violence was inevitable. It didn't take long for Russians in the Donbas to demonstrate support for the Russian government. The Russians sent in forces and annexed Crimea. 

When the EEU nations sat down with their founding papers in May 2014, Ukraine was not present. The Yanukovych government had been run out of Kyiv and a new president, Petro Poroshenko, charted a course toward European partnership, signing an EU association agreement in late 2014. Estimates at the time said Ukraine would have been the second-largest nation in the EEU, but five years of war later, Ukraine would be down to fourth on that list. At $9,283 in Gross Domestic Product per capita purchasing power (according to 2018 International Monetary Fund figures), Ukraine would, by far, be the smallest EU nation, with not even half the economy of the next smallest nation (Bulgaria, $23,156).

Upheaval continues to rage. The city of Donetsk now is under control of the pro-Russian Donetsk People's Republic, which is not recognized by the United Nations. Going on 10,000 have died in less than six years of fighting, which continues. 

One imagines that it's tough to run a football business in this environment, and Shakhtar didn't wait for us to figure that out. In 2017, the team temporarily picked up its stakes, placing its administration in Kyiv and playing its home games in Kharkiv, about 200 miles north-northwest of Donetsk. 

Pro-Russian sentiment runs heavily in Kharkiv, too, but the Ukranian forces have kept that city in their fold. So, that's where Shakhtar Donetsk plays its home games, until it's safe again to really go home. Another Donetsk club in the Ukranian Premier League, Olimpik Donetsk, has moved its home games to Kyiv until it's safe to go back.

That's where the European and World traveling soccer championships live at the moment, in war-torn eastern Ukraine, which is so war torn that it can't be there. Not surprisingly, the hostilities have done terrible damage to the Ukranian Premier League. At least four clubs have been wrecked financially and the league now is down to 12 clubs after playing with 16 clubs as recently as 2014.

Subsequent to winning the traveling championships, Shakhtar defended them domestically with a 2-0 road win against Dnipro-1 in Dnipropetrovsk on Oct. 6. The smart money says Shakhtar still will have the titles after their home tilt with Kolos Kovalivka on Oct. 18 and will take them back to the Champions League on Oct. 22 against a Croatian side, Dinamo Zagreb. A regional power going back to the earliest days of the old Yugoslav First League, Dinamo is second right now in the Croatian First Football League, barely trailing arch-rival Hajduk Split.

The European and World traveling championships began the year in a Mediterranean setting, Rome, to be precise. AS Roma held both international championships, as well as the Italian title. The Romans defended the titles with Serie A draws against Genoa and Lazio before notching a 4-0 win against a Turkish side, Istanbul Basaksehir, on Sept. 15, in the Europa League.

A Roman win at Bologna in the domestic league followed, but then an emerging Atalanta squad entered Rome on Sept. 25 and claimed a 2-0 win to simultaneously take the Italian, European and World traveling championships. After an easy win at Sassuolo in Serie A, Atalanta met in Milan with Shakhtar Donetsk for a Champions League group match at the start of October.

Atalanta took the lead in the 28th minute, when Zapata found the goal, but the Ukrainians tied it before half with a score by Júnior Moraes. In the 69th minute, the young Israeli Manor Solomon entered the game as the inside left forward in Shakhtar's 1-4-1-4 look, replacing Alan Patrick. The game remained 1-1 until five minutes into extra time, when Solomon scored the game winner.

Bella Dea. The Goddess is beautiful. That's the kind of sentiment filling the headlines of the Italian sporting press in the aftermath, even though the Goddess lost, 2-1, to the Ukranian miners. Now with two losses in as many outings in Group C, Atalanta still faces two games in the group with Manchester City and one each against Shakhtar and Dinamo Zagreb, which beat Atalanta, 4-0, in their pool opener. The chance of Atalanta advancing to the knockout phase is remote.

It also appears that the dream of taking the world traveling prize to the Club World Cup in December and separating it from the European prize is all but out of the question. The only team that can take it there is Liverpool, as the defending European champions. It happens that Shakhtar and Manchester City of the English Premiership are scheduled to meet in the Champions League on Nov. 26. But Manchester City and Liverpool already will have played in the Premiership on Nov. 10. So, even if City wins on Nov. 26, the chance of Liverpool taking the world prize before the Club World Cup is lost.

With four defenses to begin the year, AS Roma improved its position in three different traveling championships.

In the world competition, Barcelona remains the all-time leader with 36 games of championship, but Roma is second at 23. In Europe, Real Madrid has the all-time lead with 44 games of title, followed by Roma with 23. Juventus, which has been no factor in the world or European titles, dominates the Italian title with 73 games in four years. Napoli is second there at 26, followed by Roma with 19.




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