"Ukrainian football's just like Ukraine," a cynical Dynamo Kyiv grumbled in one of my classes. "There's no money, it's run by fools and anybody with sense just wants to get out." The European exploits of Shakhtar Donetsk, Dynamo and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk have managed to keep the Ukrainian Premier League above the likes of Belgium, Turkey and the Netherlands in the UEFA rankings, but a truer reflection of the competition's curent state was a regular season average attendance of 4,361 in 2016-17 - a 13% decrease on the already dismal turn out during the previous campaign.
Crowds aren't all that's going down. Dnipro - Europa League finalists in 2015 - started the 2017-18 season in the third-tier after owner Igor Kolomoyskyi pulled his funding from the club. Metalist Kharkiv made the top-three in eight successive seasons between 2008 and 2014 but finished last season bottom of a regional amateur league, their owner having fled to Russia charged with stealing $180 million from bank investors whole owing another $130 million in unpaid tax. Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk, the twin behemoths of Ukrainian football, continue to dominate but have also been shrunk by economic reality, the shelling of Shakhtar's 52,000-seater stadium forcing them to play in Lviv and Kharkiv, and Dynamo beset by money troubles stemming from the nationalisation of Kolomoyskyi's Privat Bank.
The big two are still doing better than anybody else in the 12-team UPL. Shakhtar's erstwhile city rivals Metalurh fielded Yaya Touré, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Jordi Cruyff and Darren O'Dea at various points in their nineteen year history but went bankrupt in 2015 and re-emerged in Dnipro, where they now play to meagre crowds as Stal Kamianske. Donetsk's third side, Olimpik, left their home ground behind for a training pitch belonging to the Ukrainian Football Federation and then moved across the capital city to the small but perfectly formed Lobanovskyi Stadium, named in tribute to the legendary coach of Dynamo Kyiv.
Formed in 2001, Olimpik reached the Premier League in the same year the war forced them out of Donetsk, staying afloat on attendances that barely scrape into four figures thanks to a no-frills recruitment policy, loan signings, academy products and Roman Sanzhar, an Eddie Howe-esque figure who played over 200 times for the club before taking over as manager in 2013. Promoted at the end of Sanzhar's first season, Olimpik made a Ukrainian Cup semi-final in his second and the Europa League at the end of his fourth, the top-flight neophytes bested in the final standings only by the big two and Zorya Luhansk, yet another team playing hundreds of kilometres outside their hometown.
The third of four meetings between Zorya and Olimpik was played on a April afternoon in central Kyiv "Easily my favourite ground in Ukraine," Adrian Colley reckoned as we walked up to the white-columned entry gates, passing blokes flogging Zorya scraves, wizened babushkas hawking newspaper cones packed with sunflower seeds and a statue of Lobanovskiy leaning forward off a bench with his feet on a giant football. At the ticket window we plumped for the posh seats - the extra 30p getting us armrests and a place in front of the press box while the 16 Zorya ultras slummed it above a spare set of goalposts and a corner flag. The beer was 75p wherever you sat and the programme came free along with a five-minute lecture on Russian incursions into eastern Ukraine. "It's a war no matter what Putin tries to tell you," an Olimpik fan confided. Behind him, a man strolled past in a t-shirt with a picture of a gun and the slogan 'It's an Uzi Life'.
Olimpik cracked the bar before Zorya took the lead, Ivan Petryak lumbering unopposed down the left and the Brazilian Paulinho (no, not that one) heading into the corner of the net. Almost the entire main stand clapped the scorer back to the halfway line while the ultras stripped to the waist and twirled scarves around their heads. "Black and whites to victory," they chanted but Zorya missed out on a second goal when a striker shot against his own foot and conceded an equaliser from a looping header that prompted celebrations from a few scattered handfuls of the 1,138 crowd. A lone Olimpik fan blew into a vuvuzela, the announcement of the attendance garnered a polite round of applause and Zorya ended up a player short, Artem Gordienko dismissed for protesting about the non-award of a penalty kick in the last minute of the game. "We understood they had more skill and we had to beat them for effort," Sanzhar said later. "It's hard," admitted Zorya's Yuri Koval. "The general trend is that the quality is going down and the financial situation makes it hard for us to attract players."
The TV cameras packed up and the exiles drifted back towards Kreshchatyk, where thousands of people were going about their Sunday afternoon oblivious to the game next door. "That was alright for a quid," said Liverpool fan Jim, taking one last look at the semi-deserted ground.
Admission: 40UAH (£1.10)
Date: Sunday April 30th 2017