On 27 May 2015, the National Stadium in Warsaw played host to a Europa League final that, to most, is famed for being Sevilla’s record-breaking fourth title and second in their hat-trick of continental triumphs. Whilst their periodic dominance in the tournament is rightly remembered, this particular final held an unforeseen significance that stems much further than on-field antics and unrivalled records.
For opponents Dnipro, the match will be remembered for much more than 90 minutes of football. This was their escape from the horrifying homebound reality of the war-stricken streets of Ukraine and the damning effects that were to come.
Since the formation of the Ukrainian Premier League in 1991, and throughout most of their preceding years as a club, FC Dnipro have long lived in the shadows of Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv, but despite their domestic inferiority in comparison to Ukraine’s powerhouse pair, rooted amongst the greatest teams to have represented the country on the continental stage is Dnipro’s class of 2015.
In the football season to take place during the war in Donbass, football fans nationwide wallowed in brief moments of pride as Dnipro portrayed an element of strength and fortitude in the country’s otherwise disastrous state of affairs. Led by the devastating duo of Yevhen Konoplyanka and Nikola Kalinić, both of whom, in their prime years, thrived amongst an experienced side that included Artem Fedetskyi and all-time record appearance maker Ruslan Rotan, they had a recipe for success.
The extent of their success, however, was not expected in the slightest – especially given the 600-mile round trip players and fans had to endure for European home games during the knockout stages.
Having collected just four points in their opening five group games, Dnipro propped up Group F as they welcomed Saint-Étienne to the Dnipro-Arena in front of just over 2,500 with nothing to lose but their ill-fated position in the tournament. The fearless attitude produced as a result of their widely anticipated exit was reflective, not only when Fedetskyi’s winning goal in a 1-0 victory propelled them into the knockout stages, but in every magical minute of Europa League football thereafter.
No matter who entered their temporary residence-cum-indestructible fortress, Myron Markevych’s men simply brushed them aside. Olympiacos, Ajax, Club Brugge and Napoli all fell victim to the powerful Ukrainians. Four matches, four victories, five goals scored and not a single goal conceded on the ground they were so accustomed to defeat at the hands of permanent tenants Dynamo Kyiv.
Despite slender success on their road to the final, the oddity of playing to 10,000 spectators in a 60,000-capacity venue had a strangely hostile yet harrowing effect on the adversaries that Dnipro were seemingly unfazed by. Consequently, their astonishing ability to nullify opponents on home soil meant that resolute performances in the reverse fixtures were enough to pull them through to the final, and in spite of their outstanding efforts against Sevilla, their reliance on home advantage eventually came to bite them.
The Spaniards came away with a marginal 3-2 victory on a night that could so easily have gone in Dnipro’s favour. Such promise, such purpose, but ultimately they fell short – a description that not only proves to accurately summarise the game, but provides an understating truth to their ensuing demise. The sound of Martin Atkinson’s final whistle marked the conclusion of a historic night and campaign. Soon, the historic club would fall too.
The following season began in typical fashion for the Warriors of Light, and as they went in search of building upon the solid foundations provided by their remarkable 2014/15 season, cracks were already beginning to show. Sevilla rubbed salt in their previously inflicted wounds with the signing of star man Konoplyanka, before other top performers in Kalinić and goalkeeper Denys Boiko followed suit with moves elsewhere. As financial dilemmas emerged, so did the failure to replace.
Form soon began to stagnate as a result and fingers were pointed towards owner Ihor Kolomoyskyi. After leaving a failed year-long position as governor of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast – the region of Ukraine in which Dnipro is located – in March 2015, Kolomoyskyi opted for a more reclusive lifestyle in Switzerland and the United States, away from his native country and away from the unwanted restraints of responsibility as owner of Dnipro and the anticipated hatred towards him.
With an estimated net worth which comfortably surpasses $1bn, a news story in June 2016 suggesting that the tycoon had stopped funding the club epitomised the disparaging relationship between the two. By this point, there was only one outcome.
Despite immediately dismissing these allegations, Kolomoyskyi referred to Northern Ireland’s 2-0 victory over Ukraine’s national team at Euro 2016 in stating that “approaches must be reviewed when millionaire players lose to a team of postmen”. The statement portrayed a lack of commitment towards Dnipro as the pursuit of covering tracks and placing the blame elsewhere had already commenced in a clear show of intent to spearhead the decline of an already sinking ship.
As the 2016/17 domestic season began, the remains of the club’s crumbling foundations had all but dissolved into thin air as matches came as frequently as news of disarray disseminated. First it was the resignation of manager Myron Markevych, along with the sales of 17 first team players, all of whom were released on free transfers.
An announcement that the club was unable to sign players excluding free agents, having failed to pay off former manager Juande Ramos and his staff, came as no surprise soon after, as did the points deduction of six and three in October 2016 and April 2017 as Kolomoyskyi’s continued reign of negligence edged them closer to their inevitable plunge. Remarkably, the worst was yet to come.
Dnipro were relegated not one but two divisions as they plummeted into the depths of despair; to amateur football less than three years after a European final. As their 100-year anniversary approached, the hallmark of a historic century at the heights of Ukrainian football had been humiliated by the work of one man; one man who single-handedly disconnected the heart of the city where he was born; one man whose work had only just begun.
Dnipro’s debut season in Ukraine’s third tier took place in bizarrely familiar fashion: all their players, their staff, their pride and a century of heritage had left, but an odd sense of familiarity remained.
For the first time in their history, Dnipro had intercity competition in the form of SC Dnipro-1. Founded in March 2017, coincidentally perhaps, many claims suggested the club was Kolomoyskyi’s ploy to replace the debt-drivelling mess he had caused. Unsurprisingly, the club comes under fire from constant critique as their rise to prominence translates to artificiality to most in the wake of Dnipro’s decline, not to mention that their success has been produced by a squad and management team mostly derived from Dnipro whilst playing at the Dnipro-Arena. The cheek of it.
Subsequently, the emergence of SC Dnipro-1 resulted in an inescapable drop into amateur football for the Warriors of Light, and with their financial backing, the club less than two years old now finds itself coasting clear at the top of the Ukrainian First League and on the verge of Premier League football.
As the battle for their rightful city superiority inaugurates, former fans that are in disagreement of Dnipro’s replacement have formed a new team: FC Dnipro 1918. Sadly, lifelong memories of one-club tranquillity have been all but forgotten as the Europa League’s 2015 finalists are being flushed into extinction just four years on.
Nevertheless, in an emerging era that could see two Dnipropetrovsk representatives at the summit of Ukrainian football, a bitter city rivalry is on the horizon.
By Brad Jones @bradjonessport