The decline and fall of Chernomorets Odessa

Might not be a name that trips off the tongue, but Chernomorets Odessa were once major shakers in Soviet football.  Their decline has made the setbacks suffered by other clubs look positively tame.  Welcome to IBWM, Michael Hudson.

On May 9th 2010, watched by a crowd of 4,400 in a two-sided stadium, Chernomorets Odessa drew 1-1 with Zorya Luhansk and are relegated to the Persha Liga, the second tier of Ukrainian professional football.

In a post-match press conference, Director of Sport Oleg Blokhin bats away a question about the role of club president Leonid Klimov and places the blame on the players instead: “It is necessary to change the mentality, the whole system.  The only one of them I can thank is (captain Vladislav) Vashchuk”.  “It’s the indifference that really gets me,” says a fan as we file out of the ground.  “They’ll be lucky to get cockroaches here next season.”

The only club in a fiercely proud city of more than a million people, Chernomorets were among Ukraine’s most successful sides before and after the break-up of the Soviet Union, winning the Ukrainian Cup in 1992 and 1994 and twice finishing runners-up in the league to Dynamo Kyiv. Fans still talk with reverence about the team which came third in the 1973-74 Soviet Top League and the 2-0 win over Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk which secured the fifth and final USSR Federation Cup. “How can a side which won the last trophy in the whole of the Soviet Union play in the second division in Ukraine?” is the question now being asked for a third time since 1998.

Supporters accuse Klimov, bank owner and parliamentary deputy for a party affiliated with President Viktor Yanukovych, of failing to invest in the team while using the club’s name as a vehicle for his other business interests. “Chernomorets Limited builds hotels, supermarkets, petrol stations and houses but where does all the money go?” asks long-time fan Artur Golovashkin.  Not to Blokhin, the ex-national team coach and European Footballer of the Year, who in his resignation speech claimed he had been working on a voluntary basis “in deference to Klimov”.

Blokhin arrived at the start of September with his 2006 World Cup assistant Andriy Bal appointed as head coach.  Klimov had identified a Europa League place as an achievable target for a side that had finished the previous season tenth of sixteen clubs and suffered a six-point deduction after a contractual dispute with an ex-player. The campaign started disastrously with a 5-0 defeat at Dynamo Kyiv, the first of four successive losses which resulted in the resignation of Victor Grishko after just a year in charge. “I have no words,” he announced in a press conference after a 1-0 home defeat to newly promoted Obolon Kyiv. “To continue would be impossible, a mockery of the fans.” A meeting with Klimov was called amid speculation the players had not received their salary.  Afterwards goalkeeper Vitaliy Rudenko would only comment cryptically: “As far as I know if there were any issues they have now been settled.” Bal managed four wins in his twenty-four games in charge and departed complaining “there was no money to buy new players.  We took only those who would come for free”.

Golovashkin is one of many fans staying away from games in protest. Only 5,500 people turned up for the last game at the 34,000-capacity Chernomorets Stadium in November 2008.  The ground’s redevelopment was due to be completed in time for Euro 2012, but Odessa was controversially dropped from the list of host cities in May last year and construction work has slowed significantly despite the announcement of a new financing agreement with the China National Machinery Industry Complete Engineering Corporation. Conspiracy theorists point to Klimov’s appointment as a Special Advisor to Viktor Yanukovych and the Ukrainian President’s visit to Beijing, when the Chinese company was also awarded the contract to build a high-speed rail link between Boryspil Airport and central Kyiv. Klimov’s deputy Sergei Sivolap blamed weather conditions and the economic crisis for the delays and rise in costs. “250 million hryvnia (about £20 million) has been spent and we need 500 million more”. “Construction has not stopped for a minute,” he added.  Sceptics laughed that the same could be said for Valencia’s Nou Mestalla.

In the meantime, home games take place at the Spartak Stadium, a city-owned facility shared with a rugby club and rented free of charge until the end of next year, though nobody but Sivolap expects the renamed Prokopenko Arena to have opened by then.  Club vice president Sergei Kernitsky held a “frank conversation” with the players after their disappointing start to the new season. With the team currently fifth in the Persha Liga table, fewer than 3,500 spectators saw their last game against FC Lviv.

“Chernomorets were once called ‘The Threat to the Big Clubs’ but we’re missing that spirit today,” says Golovashkin. “It would be better if Klimov sold the club but I don’t believe it will ever happen.”

You can read more from Michael at the excellent Accidental Groundhopper and be sure to follow him on Twitter @DolphinHotel