3 December 2009 ~ Ukraine's 1-0 victory over England in Dnipropetrovsk in October secured the runners-up spot in their World Cup qualifying group and a chance of reaching a second successive finals. After being drawn against Greece in the play-off and securing a credible goalless first-leg draw in Athens the return match was scheduled to be played at Shakhtar Donetsk's brand-new 50,000-capacity Donbass Arena. The stage was set. But then things started to unravel. Ticket prices for the Greece match were set by the Ukrainian football federation at between £15 and £600. The average monthly wage in Donetsk is less than £150 and the area, dominated by heavy industry, has been hit hard by the economic crisis.
The ticket pricing seemed like a bad joke. Rinat Akhmetov, the owner of Shakhtar Donetsk, was so outraged he offered to buy up all 50,000 tickets for £1 million and sell them at between £1.50 and £90. But remarkably Hryhoriy Surkis, the president of the federation, declined the offer claiming that Akhmetov was attempting a "black PR" campaign against him. That Ihor Surkis, Hryhoriy's brother, is the chairman of Dynamo Kiev had everything to do with the spat. The rivalry between Shakhtar and Dynamo has become very bitter in recent years and the controversy completely overshadowed the build-up to the national team's play-off match against Greece.
After a dismal 1-0 defeat in the Donbass Arena played in the pouring rain and in front of a half-empty stadium the national team coach was furious. "Against England the crowd were our 12th man and they helped us secure a famous victory," said Oleksiy Mykhailychenko. "It's ridiculous that the national team became a bargaining chip before such a big match. It's the first game we've played where the stadium wasn't full. It felt like we weren't playing in Ukraine but in a neutral venue."
So disillusioned were Ukraine's football fans that when Dynamo Kiev hosted Shakhtar Donetsk three days later there were almost as many empty seats in the Valeri Lobanovsky stadium. And all this from a country that is supposed to be co-hosting its first ever major tournament – the European Championship – in 2012. Except even those plans are beginning to unravel. On December 11, after recent site visits from UEFA, an announcement will be made as to whether Ukraine will provide four stadiums for the tournament, as was originally planned, or just two. It's expected to be the latter.
With the exception of the capital Kiev, Ukraine's transport, tourism and communications infrastructure is completely inadequate to host such a major tournament and efforts to improve things are well behind schedule. Given the Akhmetov/Surkis dispute before the national team's World Cup play-off it's easy to see why so little progress is being made. It seems UEFA president Michel Platini's faith in the country has been misplaced. Whatever happens these are not happy times to be a football fan in Ukraine. Neil Billingham