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Ukrainian football's dark side

Ukraine football official looks at Olimpiyskiy Stadium (file)

With Ukraine facing England in World Cup qualifying, and preparing to co-host the European Championships in 2012 with Poland, football in the country is firmly in the spotlight.

But with evidence of organised crime infecting the game and the state at risk of financial collapse, is Ukraine really fit to play host to the rest of Europe, asks Margot Dunne of BBC Radio 5 Live.

Extortion rackets, money laundering, drugs and even murder - these are among the dubious activities with which ordinary Ukrainians believe some of their football club owners are involved.

Yet on a recent trip to the capital Kiev, taxi drivers and cafe owners laughed and rolled their eyes when I said I was there to report on corruption in Ukrainian football.

"People are laughing because everybody understands what's going on. But to them, it's not really a big deal," explained Vlad Lavrov, a local investigative journalist and one of the few reporters to write about the problem.

Everyone knows that there are four or possibly five clubs which really try to play football - the rest are just there to make money by other means
Wife of former Ukrainian player

In the chaos following the break-up of the Soviet Union, football clubs were seen as lucrative prospects for criminals.

Not only did the clubs enjoy tax breaks for the import of alcohol and tobacco, but they provided useful fronts for money laundering and extortion.

"Everyone knows that there are four or possibly five clubs which really try to play football. The rest are just there to make money by other means," said the wife of one former Ukrainian professional player, who asked not to be named.

Political connections

Mr Lavrov said he had been shown an entry from a police database which named the owner of one prominent club as the head of a large criminal gang.

Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU) headquarters in Kiev
The Football Federation of Ukraine has a new headquarters in Kiev

But as the club owner has not been prosecuted - perhaps because of his political connections - he has not published the story.

"They use the services of very expensive lawyers from Britain and the United States to make sure nobody even tries to investigate what was going on," he complained.

But thanks to the efforts of some Ukrainian prosecutors, there was at least one case I could report on.

FC Tavriya Simferepol is a Ukrainian Premier League club based in the Crimea.

In 2007, its former president, Viktor Karasev, was sentenced to seven years in jail for ordering an arson attack and the use of illegal weapons.

The club's former commercial manager, Ruvim Aronov, is in prison awaiting sentence.

'Gang HQ'

I later met up with Victor Shemchiuk, an MP and former prosecutor from Crimea who was involved in the case.

Many Ukrainians I spoke to found the idea of gangsters running a Premier League club so unsurprising that they told me it was 'not a story'

"We were interested in the men's membership of an organised criminal gang: how they got started, who was in it, the realities of running a gang and the use of weapons," he said.

The local police say FC Tavriya was used as the headquarters of a criminal gang called "The Bashmaki" (The Shoes), which they say was responsible for around 50 murders, as well as kidnappings.

If something like this happened in the UK, it would be headline news. Yet many Ukrainians I spoke to found the idea of gangsters running a Premier League club so unsurprising that they told me it was "not a story".

New football stadium in Donetsk (April 2008)
Ukraine has begun improving its stadia for 2012, but will the work be finished?

I wanted to ask those running the Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU) whether they had known that one of their Premier League clubs was owned and used as a base by organised criminals.

I telephoned them repeatedly, asking for an interview with the FFU president or general secretary.

I even turned up at their glittering, new multi-million-pound headquarters in Kiev. But the top officials were apparently too busy to speak to me for a few minutes.

Crumbling infrastructure

Rumours about match fixing are also widespread, and pressures on Ukrainian referees are such that, as Viktor Derdo, a tournament organiser from the football union, admitted to me, foreign match officials often have to be brought in for top games.

Michel Platini shakes hands with President Viktor Yushchenko (July 2008)
Michel Platini was determined to take the tournament to Eastern Europe

Ukraine seemed like an odd choice for the European Championships when the announcement was made in 2007. But two years on, it seems like an even more unlikely venue.

The Ukrainian state is facing imminent financial meltdown - most of the banks are bust and customers cannot get their money out.

However, the country's crumbling infrastructure - a legacy of its Soviet past - still requires a vast amount of investment.

New stadiums, airports and hundreds of miles of new road are needed to cope with the event. As many as 80% of the new hotels required are unlikely to be ready and there are now serious doubts about the country's ability to host the competition.

So why was Ukraine chosen in the first place?

Uefa President Michel Platini was determined to take the tournament to Eastern Europe because of the much needed boost it will undoubtedly bring to football in the region.

But however well intentioned, has Uefa been naive?

The charges against the FC Tavriya management were made before Uefa announced that Ukraine would be hosting the 2012 championships.

Another club, FC Zakarpattya, was raided by police in 2004.

In that case, 36 armed men were arrested and police say another 150 armed men got away. The club president faced charges of banditry, terrorism, robbery and kidnapping and was later jailed.

While Uefa could not, perhaps, have predicted the collapse of the Ukrainian economy,it certainly ought to have been well aware of the evidence of corruption and links to organised crime.



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