Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Soccer, like Democracy, Still Kicking in Ukraine

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Soccer, like Democracy, Still Kicking in Ukraine

Article excerpt

A BRIBERY accusation that draws European sanctions. A grisly assassination using a remote-controlled mine.

In Ukraine, that's just the soccer news. Like the country itself, the national pastime has been dogged by violence, corruption, and economic decline.

In September, 98,000 exuberant Dynamo Kiev fans cheered their team to victory against a Greek rival in the European Champions' League, the continent's top tournament. They later learned that the club had been barred from international play for three years for an alleged attempt to bribe the referee.

It was as if the Yankees had tried to buy the World Series.

The scandal's convoluted story line features a Spanish referee, Dynamo club officials, and lots of expensive furs. The team vehemently denies any wrongdoing.

The country's president wrote a letter of appeal. Locals who usually complain about corruption reasoned that their favorites were railroaded.

If Dynamo's disgrace was a figurative bombshell, the next one was real. Four minutes into a soccer game Oct. 15, a powerful explosion beneath the Donetsk stadium's VIP box killed the Donetsk Shahter soccer club president, Ahat Bragin, and five of his bodyguards. The game was canceled.

Law-enforcement officials tied the murders to a gang war among organized-crime groups. Mr. Bragin, better known as Alik the Greek, had survived previous assassination attempts. At his funeral, a police helicopter hovered overhead while investigators videotaped mourners.

Bragin was just one of the newly rich business executives who have taken over most of Ukraine's top-division clubs. With government subsidies gone and attendance down sharply in large cities, such sponsors keep teams afloat. The grateful Soccer Federation of Ukraine prefers not to ask where the money comes from.

"That's a law-enforcement matter," says a federation spokesman.

Things have hardly gone better on the playing field. Ukraine, once the powerhouse of Soviet soccer, has failed to qualify for next year's European Championship. While Russia ranks fifth in the latest international rankings, Ukraine languishes in the 67th spot, behind tiny Latvia and Lithuania.

That's an unusual position for a country that has traditionally produced soccer stars by the dozen. …

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