Soccer, Like Democracy, Still Kicking in Ukraine

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. Vladimir Shcherbytsky, the republic's Communist Party boss during the 1970s and '80s, built up a powerful feeder system and stocked his beloved Dynamo with its best graduates.

That system came crashing down along with the Soviet Union. The best Ukrainian players pulled up anchor and moved to Russia, whose clubs offered better money.

''We had everything taken from us,'' rues Ukrainian soccer federation president Viktor Bannikov. ''It was like when the Germans left in 1944 - only scorched earth remained. Russia took all the promising players.''

In terms that will be familiar to fans of the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Clippers, Mr. Bannikov talks of rebuilding the national team via the youth movement. And now, clubs now have players locked into contracts.

Soccer officials also hope attendance at premier-division matches will grow. ''It's a terrible thing when a league game draws 2,000 or 3,000 fans. It hurts,'' says Dynamo Kiev president Grigoriy Surkis. ''The Romans believed people needed bread and entertainment. Well, most people in the Ukraine think about bread when they go to sleep and when they get up in the morning.''

There is still the matter of corruption among game officials, which Bannikov says is still a problem. The federation is awaiting legislation that would formalize soccer's transition from false amateurism to professionalism.

For now, many clubs still hire players as ''sports instructors'' in a carry-over from the Soviet days, when the euphemism was needed to preserve their amateur standing. For tax reasons, salaries are kept low and bonuses high.

If nothing else, Ukrainian soccer is proving that, like the nation itself, it can survive the post-Soviet chaos. Only four of Ukraine's 84 club teams have gone bust in the four years since the country declared independence.

On a mild Friday evening, a couple of thousand fans file into Dynamo's 100,000-seat stadium to watch a league game. Mr. Surkis is there too, dreaming of a time when his country can rejoin Europe's soccer elite. For Ukraine, that's a goal worth shooting for.

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