The Uneasy Partnership Between Russia And Ukraine

Sergey Cheban's idea would mean the pictured Moscow derby between Dynamo and Lokomotiv would take place in the same league as the Dynamo Kiev v Shakhtar Donetsk. (Photo by Dmitry Korotayev/Epsilon/Getty Images)

The Russian Premier League's Executive Director Sergey Cheban mooted the possibility of uniting the Russian and Ukrainian leagues. Our Eastern Europe expert sees some pitfalls in the idea.

Russia and Ukraine have always had intertwining politics and histories. The relationship began with the foundations of Kievan Rus, the original centre of the Slavic world, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, until influence shifted towards Muscovy. The problem for the Ukrainians was that this gravitational pull of influence settled with the Muscovites and the Russians for centuries. The fertile land of the Ukrainian steppe was a prized possession during the early formation of the Tsars' Russian empire and then perilously through famine and death during the years of Stalin's Soviet drive to collectivise agriculture. 

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 the Soviet Top League, which had combined the best clubs from around the Soviet Union, disbanded, leading to the formation of independent associations and leagues. This has remained the case from then on, with both Russian and Ukrainian leagues developing year by year. It, therefore, makes strange viewing to see the Russian Premier League's executive director, Sergey Cheban, mooting the possibility of a partnership between the two associations and admitting that "everything that happens there [Ukraine] is very interesting to us."

Cheban, as with many of soccer's governors around the world, may have some money driving scheme to work around the unification of the two independent nation's soccer systems, but could such an idea work in the future?

Without taking into account the political issues raised (put simply: Ukrainian politics is split into two opposing camps, those favouring Russian relations and those favouring European relations) by any move to create a united league, there are a number of opposing factors that mean a prospering partnership is unlikely to formulate any time soon.

One of the main spanners in the proverbial works is what a united league would mean for each national association, under the ever watchful eye of UEFA and the cash-submerged eye of FIFA, and ultimately the national teams of the independent associations. A union would be faced with a hurricane of adversity and whilst some may crave for the days when Dynamo Kiev competed regularly with Spartak Moscow in the Soviet Top League, less can be said for the popularity of a joint Russo-Ukrainian national team.

Aside from bureaucratic difficulties, the impact that the partnership could and most probably would have on the mythical being that is the "ordinary fan" may fire the idea back into the depths of Cheban's brain. Attendances in Russia and Ukraine, aside from the biggest clubs, are fairly low and, with the distances involved in travelling from your plush city apartment in St Petersburg to the depths of Siberia for a match at Tom Tomsk, the numbers of away fans are even lower. Far from solving the problem of attendances, a united league would compound the issue. A quick internet survey presented me with flights from Kiev to Vladivostok, a conceivable trip for fans of Arsenal Kiev journeying to a match against Luch-Energiya Vladivostok. A one way flight leaving at 10:25pm would take the "ordinary fan" fifteen hours and twenty five minutes and would form a dent in his or her wallet the shape of $1,623.95 (converted from £1,006.60). Do you still want to buy that pre-match hot dog?

The concept is easily dismissed - and for good reason - but one way which it can be looked at positively is the higher quality of football in the top league of the partnership. Before this can happen, however, the complicated process of choosing who is actually placed in the highest tier would have to be decided and acted upon. What's clear is that any top league would feature the two Ukrainian stalwarts, Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk, as well as Zenit St Petersburg and a selection of Moscow clubs. This improvement in quality could create a better spectacle for the national and international media but, as previously indicated, attendances may be forced to decline. If the passion and commitment of the fans cannot be harvested then the idea is dead - as it may already be.

Despite Cheban's idea seeming not feasible based on the issues above, as well as a whole stack of other problems, it's wise to never assume that the Russian and indeed Ukrainian authorities will take the most sensible route. What is certain, however, is that the intertwining history of the two nations will continue and the Russians will be hoping that qualification to the 2012 European Championships, hosted in Ukraine and Poland, cements that continuation.

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