The ghosts of Pripyat: how the Chernobyl disaster ended the progress of a promising local football club

The ghosts of Pripyat: how the Chernobyl disaster ended the progress of a promising local football club

On 26 April 1986, an incident occurred at a nuclear power plant near the little-known city of Pripyat in Ukraine that would result in global ramifications in the approach towards nuclear energy. During a routine safety test, a nuclear reactor exploded; consequently, the entire city of Pripyat had to be evacuated. In a United Nations study, it is claimed that the eventual death toll from the disaster surpassed 4,000.

It has attracted widespread media attention over the past few weeks thanks to HBO and Sky’s TV hit, Chernobyl. However, there are still many elements of the catastrophe that people don’t know about. Pripyat is a hotspot for adventure tourists these days, people flocking to the abandoned city each year to witness nature claim back its former territory. 

Pripyat was only founded in February 1970 and was, by all means, a technologically advanced city. The Soviet term for projects like the Chernobyl plant was “peaceful atom”, with nuclear energy considered to be even safer than traditional sources like coal. It led to the construction of plants in and around young cities like Pripyat that were considered to be at the forefront of innovation. Figures from the start of 1986 state that Pripyat’s average age was just 26, with over a fifth of the 49,400 population under the age of 18. 

Due to the demographics of the city, sport played a big part in the day-to-day lives of its citizens. There were ten gyms, ten shooting galleries, three swimming pools and two stadiums, a mirror of Ukrainian and Soviet culture-at-large.

The city is a ghost town now, with plenty to explore – including the Avanhard Stadium, a 5,000-capacity arena located next to the iconic amusement park and Ferris wheel that dominate the images when you type Pripyat into Google. It was named the Avanhard after the trade union sports society of the same name. 

Avanhard was comprised of construction and industrial workers from 14 other Ukranian sports societies, some of which, such as Shakhtar and Torpedo, ring familiar bells for football fans because of their associated clubs that still remain relevant today. The society lent its name to a number of grounds around the country, the stadium in Pripyat just one of many. 

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However, when FC Stroitel Pripyat was formed during the mid-70s, they played their games in another, more modest stadium. The club anticipated the opening of their 5,000-capacity Avanhard Stadium during the mid-80s – but they were destined never to play there. 

In Ukranian, Stroitel translates to builder and the club was, at the time of its inception, mainly formed of players from the nearby village of Chistogalovka, as well as workers involved with the construction of the Chernobyl plant. Chistogalovka had one of the best teams in the region at the time and their captain, Viktor Ponomarev, switched to join Stroitel Pripyat upon the club’s foundation.

Vasili Kizima Trofimovich was a respected figure within Soviet circles and was partly responsible for the formation of Stroitel Pripyat. Trofimovich, who was awarded the prestigious Order of Lenin for his services to the Soviet state, decided that Pripyat needed a football team, on the basis that the many young workers who were involved with the five-year construction of the nearby nuclear power plant would need entertainment between their shifts. Therefore, the concept of Stroitel Pripyat was conceived and the club began their search for players. 

They immediately turned their attention to Chistogalovka as they began to build their squad, largely due to the village’s reputation in the Kyiv region for its football team. Once Stroitel was established, they began to participate in regional tournaments, primarily the amateur championship and cups within the Kyiv region. 

Between 1980 and 1981, Stroitel were led by former Dynamo Kyiv and Chernomorets player Anatoly Shepel and, in 1981, they were crowned champions of the Kyiv region’s amateur division. They would win the next two regional championships over the following years, cementing their domination within the amateur football scene in Kyiv.

Aside from their participation in the amateur competitions, Stroitel Pripyat participated in their first KFK Championship in 1981. They would endure a mixed run of form in the division; victory of which could’ve led to them challenging for professional status. 

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Their worst finish in the league was eighth – rock bottom – in the 1982 edition, but three years later, in 1985, things were looking up, Stroitel finishing as runners-up in the KFK Championship, just four points behind the champions from Akhtyrka. During that campaign, the Pripyat side set a divisional record for the most goals scored in a single match, putting 13 past Lokomotiv Znamenka.

With their improvement, it was decided that the club deserved a new stadium to play in. Their current ground was modest and doubled as an all-purpose arena for a number of different sports. Therefore, it was proposed to construct a new venue: the Avanhard Stadium. 

The Avanhard was due to host its first game in 1986, set to officially open on 1 May. This date chosen was the Soviet annual Workers’ Day; deemed the ideal moment by the authorities to hand over something new to the people of Pripyat.

Meanwhile, over at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, a fifth nuclear reactor was announced as under construction, with Vasili Trofimovich quoted as saying: “The new stadium is as important to the people as the new reactor.” It highlighted the cultural significance of both the club and their new arena to the people of Pripyat.

However, due to nuclear disaster, the Pripyat side would never play in their new ground, the city subsequently evacuated after the incident. Although the Avanhard was never graced by the presence of Stroitel Pripyat, the ruins of the ground remain to this day and are a popular place for tourists to visit when exploring the abandoned city.

On 26 April, the same day as the explosion at the plant, Pripyat were due to host Mashinostroiteli in the semi-final of the Kyiv regional cup. However, the match was cancelled after the incident at Chernobyl. The story is famously told of how, as Stroitel’s opponents from Borodyanka were training ahead of the match, a helicopter landed at their training ground, an official informing them that the match against Stroitel was cancelled and that the side no longer needed travel to Pripyat.

In addition, a youth tournament with teams from around the region was due to be held in Pripyat on that same day but this was also cancelled after the disaster struck the city.

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Stroitel Pripyat withdrew from the 1986 KFK Championship as the team, along with the rest of the city, were evacuated and sent to live in neighbouring towns and communities. Stroitel wouldn’t get to return to the field until 1987, under the new name FC Stroitel Slavutych.

Slavutych was built for the express purpose of housing the evacuated citizens of Pripyat and would serve as a replacement for the now-uninhabitable city. Located just 45km from Pripyat, Slavutych is still populated to this day and is the birthplace of former Ukraine under-21 international Serhiy Rozhok, who currently plays for Belarusian side Smolevichi.

Stroitel Slavutych would return to action in 1987, but not all of the Pripyat-based players joined them. During the 1987 KFK Championship, Stroitel finished in third, before languishing in eighth the following season. After the disappointment of 1988 and with players leaving, the decision was made to dissolve the club. Thus came to an end the story of the Stroitel side.

Although Stroitel Slavutych was dissolved, football would return to the city in 1994 when FC Slavutych was founded, a team that replaced bankrupt outfit FC Transimpeks Vyshneve. Slavutych, which was then known as Skhid Slavutych, following a good run of results, earned themselves a place in Ukraine’s second tier, turning them professional. 

However, life on the pitch for FC Slavutych was even more short-lived than their predecessors, with the club dissolving in 1998. Although they bared almost no connection to the original Stroitel Pripyat, Slavutych were born out of the consequences of the nuclear disaster, a long-serving reminder that football will likely never grace the town of Pripyat again.

Stroitel Pripyat and the Avanhard Stadium have sadly been lost to time. Although the stadium still stands, nature has run its course and it remains overgrown and derelict. The Chernobyl disaster was an alarming wake-up call for the fine margins that human beings play with, a symbolic reminder of the fragility of life.

Clubs from around the neighbouring communities offered to help take in and assist those who played for Stroitel Pripyat after the explosion, and the whole nation came together in a time of great need, despite the State’s blasé response. By the time Slavutych was constructed to replace Pripyat, a large number of the Stroitel side had been snapped up by fellow clubs – both amateur and professional – allowing them to continue the legacy of a club whose potential we never got to witness.

By Sam Wilson @snhw_

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