“There is magic even in the name,” Jonathan Wilson wrote in Behind the Iron Curtain. “Nowhere in the world has air like Odessa,” Sergei Shmatovalenko – a seven-time league champion with Dynamo Kiev – recalled of his childhood in the Black Sea port city. Shmatovalenko, like 1986 Ballon d’Or winner Igor Belanov, Ukraine and Russia international Ilya Tsymbalar, the USSR midfielder Leonid Buryak and 74-time capped former Leverkusen and Liverpool striker Andriy Voronin, progressed from the city’s youth academies to acclaim around the world. Viktor Propopenko - who took Shakhtar Donetsk into the Champions League and became the first coach of the Ukrainian national team – Euro ’88 runner-up Viktor Pasulko, Nikolai Morozov and the legendary Valeriy Lobanovskiy each has their own Odessa connections, passing through the blue-and-black shirted ranks of Chernomorets, the city’s dominant club side and winners of two Ukrainian and one USSR Federation Cups. “Not only the pearl of the Black Sea but also the footballing centre of Ukraine,” the mayor’s office boldly states.
Isaac Babel, born in Odessa in 1894, executed 1940.
As with almost everything of substance in Odessa, football emerged from the port. British sailors started playing the game in the dockyards of the Russian Empire – “Football is an English sport with a big ball. Usually it is played by people with solid muscles and strong legs – a weak one would only be an onlooker in such a mess,” a St Petersburg-based periodical had observed in the late 1860s - long before a group of traders and workers from the Indo-European Telegraph Company founded the Odessa British Athletic Club in 1878. As the first team in the whole of Tsarist Russia – St Petersburg Football Club wasn’t formally established until the following year - Odessa’s footballing pioneers were initially restricted to games against visiting British crews or fellow telegraph workers based across the border in Romania. In 1884, the year Ukraine’s first officially recorded football match took place in Austrian-ruled Lviv, Odessa’s expatriate players laid out the country’s only permanent pitch off the fashionable Frantsuz'kyi Bulvar (French Boulevard). By the turn of the century local players such as the remarkable Sergei Utochkin – a multi-talented sportsman and aviator - were being invited to participate, though it wasn’t until 1910 that a city-wide championship was arranged. The all-conquering British were joined by the recently-formed Ukrainian sides Odessa United Sport Club, Sporting Club and Sheremetievskiy Sport Club. Sheremetievskiy opened the tournament on March 5th 1911 with a 3-0 win over Odessa United, the foreigners seeing off Sporting 3-1 in the second game. Two years later a combined Odessa side featuring “five Englishmen, four Russians and two Jewish members” lifted the All-Russian Championship by defeating St Petersburg 4-2 in front of 4,000 spectators at the French Boulevard ground only to be – dubiously in the eyes of those from the host city - stripped of their title for breaching competition rules on the permitted number of foreign players.
Names such as Carr, Perkins, Jones and Jacobs featured prominently in the early years of Odessan football – Ernest Jacobs scoring twice in the victory over St Petersburg - but the expatriates’ hegemony would soon wane. City champions in the competition’s first two seasons, OBAC were beaten by Sheremetievskiy in 1913 and could thereafter manage no better than third place before disbanding four years later. Capped once for Russia, Grigoriy Bogemskiy had played and scored in the 1913 Odessa side and assisted Sporting Club to the first of two city titles the following year. “He had rather a flabby appearance,” the writer Yuri Olesha recalled, “but the sight of Bogemskiy dribbling upfield was one of the most spectacular sights of my childhood.”
Sergei Utochkin, one of Odessa's footballing pioneers.
Revolution, civil war and the Soviet Union’s early international isolation forced Bogemskiy abroad – he would play in Bulgaria and win a Czechoslovak title with Viktoria Žižkov – and saw football begin to serve an explicitly political purpose. The local secret police founded Sparta Odessa in 1923, while the city representative side were second only to Kharkov – the national capital while Kiev remained tainted by association with the fleeting Ukrainian People’s Republic – in three of the first four Ukrainian SSR championships. Sparta became Dynamo in 1926, were the first recorded opponents of Dynamo Kiev (a 2-2 draw on June 17th 1928) and lifted their first city championship in 1933 as burgeoning crowds led to the construction of two new areas. The Pischevik, named after the food workers’ union, held its first game in 1927; the following year a 10,000-capacity stadium was completed in time to mark the tenth anniversary of the founding of Komsomol, the Communist Party’s youth wing. The Pischevik was renamed when it became the home ground of SKA Odessa, the club side of the Red Army’s Odessa Military District, who were founded shortly after the city’s liberation from Romanian occupation in 1944. The Komsomol underwent a name change of its own, the three-sided Spartak Stadium nowadays hosting rugby, lower-league football and, for almost three years prior to November 2011, the city’s Ukrainian Premier League side, Chernomorets Odessa.
Chernomorets were founded as Dynamo Odessa on March 26th 1936, the year the first all-Soviet league competition took place. The original Dynamo had already folded, the local authorities instead drawing the city’s best footballers together at a new stadium which had recently been constructed on land initially set aside for a boating lake in Shevchenko Park. Named after Stanislav Kosior, general secretary of the Ukrainian SSR until he was purged in 1939, it held 22,000 spectators and was constructed in the classic Soviet elliptical roofless-bowl-with-running-track design. “You cannot imagine a more wonderful spectacle,” Yury Olesha eulogised. “Above the sea, the stadium is so much like a dream.” With the team promoted to Group A of the Soviet League in 1938, the ground was soon hosting the likes of Spartak Moscow and the Dynamos of Kiev and Tblisi, although a disastrous second season in which Odessa were trounced 8-0 by champions Spartak and lost 6-0 at home to Dynamo Moscow, meant Chernomorets finished bottom of the fourteen-team top league and were relegated back to the second-tier. The playing staff was subsequently transferred to another club, the merged sides christened Spartak Odessa, and the team placed straight back in the top-flight only for the whole league to be suspended ten games into the season on June 24th 1941.
Post-war Odessa was a markedly different place. Under Romanian occupation for 907 days from October 1941 to April 1944, only 200,000 people - roughly a third of its pre-war population – remained in the city. The 1926 Soviet census had counted 158,000 Jews resident in Odessa. In November 1944, military officials calculated the figure was a mere 48. In his memoirs, the film director Sergei Eisenstein reflected on the possible fate of the baby whose bouncing pram had featured in the most famous scene of his Battleship Potemkin. “What is he doing? Did he defend Odessa as a young man? Or was he driven abroad into slavery? Does he now rejoice that Odessa is a liberated and resurrected town? Or is he lying in a mass grave, somewhere far away?” Like everything else the city's football teams took time to recover, SKA’s run to the Soviet Cup semi-finals in 1959-60 heralding the start of a decade in which both they and Chernomorets (semi-finalists themselves in 1965-66) took part in the Soviet Top League. The 1970s saw SKA relocated to Tiraspol in the Moldovan SSR and Chernomorets take third place in the Soviet-wide league table, behind only Dynamo Kiev and Spartak Moscow – an event which is still widely ranked as the high point of Odessa’s footballing history.
Playing table football during the city's April 1st celebrations
Last ever holders of the USSR Federation Cup (a post-season tournament roughly comparable to England’s League Cup) in 1990, Chernomorets were placed alongside SKA in the newly-organised Ukrainian Premier League two seasons later. Chernomorets – coached by Viktor Propopenko and with CIS, Ukraine and Russia-capped Yuriy Nikiforov marshalling their defence - lifted the first Ukrainian Cup through an extra-time Ilya Tsymbalar goal against Metalist Kharkiv, twice finished league runners-up and won the Cup again in 1994, defeating Tavriya Simferopol on penalties in the final. SKA folded in 1999, their name briefly resurrected in the 2012-13 Second Division; Chernomorets, three times relegated, had recovered to finish fifth in the UPL, lost to Shakhtar Donetsk in the Ukrainian Cup Final and thereby qualified for this season’s Europa League, where they navigated a group including PSV Eindhoven and Dinamo Zagreb before falling 1-0 on aggregate to Lyon in the round of 32.
The winter break saw five foreign players depart the redeveloped Chernomorets Stadium. “Given the extremely difficult socio-political situation in Ukraine and Odessa….we were forced to meet the persistent requests of foreign players and their families who are extremely concerned for their safety,” the club’s website reported. With owner Leonid Klimov – a fireman turned banking and real estate magnate – a parliamentary deputy and prominent supporter of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, the future funding of the club remains uncertain, leaving manager Roman Grigorchuk reported to be looking for a new job. The recent unrest in the city - Chernomorets and Metalist Kharkiv ultras implicated in the running street battles with pro-Russian demonstators which culminated in 48 deaths after Molotov cocktails set a building ablaze - saw the scheduled home fixture with Karpaty Lviv played instead at the Obolon Stadium in Kyiv, 3,200 fans witnessing the goalless draw which left Chernomorets - among the early season pacesetters - having to settle for another fifth-placed finish. For the city’s football fans setbacks are nothing new. “Odessa,” thought the US academic Charles King, ”disappoints as much as it inspires.”