Dynamo Kiev had already been crowned champions in another difficult season for football in Ukraine, but when the champions travelled to Lviv to face staunch enemies Shakhtar Donetsk in the Ukrainian Classico, all hell broke loose to add a sour taste to Ukraine’s Euro 2016 preparations.
The Panenka reports on the incident and how it could derail Ukraine’s Euro 2016 chances.
Ukraine has been drawn in Group C with Germany, Poland and Northern Ireland for this summer’s European Championship in France. In qualification they boasted a strong defensive record in only conceding four goals, two of them coming against Spain. They booked their place at Euro 2016 in France via a convincing play-off win against Norway but their preparedness has taken a knock.
Despite being drawn in a difficult group, they are a team that most nations would do well to avoid should they progress to the knockout stage. However, an incident between star man Andriy Yarmolenko of Dynamo Kiev and Taras Stepanenko has thrown their pre-tournament promise into doubt.
As Shakhtar welcomed champions Dynamo Kiev the home side were playing for pride. The game finished 3-0 to Donetsk but the scoreline mattered very little as violence in the stands and on the pitch marred the victory.
After former Arsenal striker Eduardo scored the third goal, Shakhtar midfielder Taras Stepanenko approached the visiting fans and kissed his badge. The Dynamo players considered this a sign of disrespect and unnecessary provocation and remonstrated with the Shakhtar midfielder. Yarmolenko though took the biggest exception to his international teammate’s gesture and drove a forceful kick at him that brought Stepanenko to the ground.
At this point the scene descended into chaos. Just about anyone of any official capacity scattered across the pitch either throwing punches or trying to prevent them being thrown. Both coaches were involved and a firework landed on the field amid the brawl creating the atmosphere of a war zone.
Oleksandr Kucher was the most active aggressor. Even though he spent the game on the bench the defender earned the badge on honor in being sent off despite not actually playing. In the end, more than 30 players and officials were involved in the mass brawl.
After the numerous separate clashes had died down, the referee opted to send off two players. From Shakhtar, Taras Stepanenko and substitute Oleksandr Kucher were shown red, while Dynamo’s star man Andriy Yarmolenko, who also aimed a sequence of punches in the direction of an opponent, was also dismissed. Two other Kiev players were booked as well.
Clashes between the two sides are nothing new. Most notably in January 2012 Shakhtar skipper Dario Srna took a leaf out of Luiz Suarez’s book and tried to bite Dynamo defender Goran Popov. In the same season the return tie descended into another 30-man squabble when the referee fueled the flames of the rivalry by sending off Denis Garmash for entering the field without permission after receiving medical treatment.
In addition, Yarmolenko himself has previous with both Shakhtar and Stepanenko. In 2014 the Ukrainian Cup Final hosted some similar scenes. A horror tackle from Shakhtar’s Oleksandr Kucher prompted another fracas taht led to Yarmolenko and Shakhtar defender Yaroslav Rakitskiy being sent off, in truth though, any of the 22 players could have been punished that evening.
What is most threatening to Ukraine’s squad relationships is not just the fact that Yarmolenko is despised at Shakhtar Donetsk and their players, it is his relationship with the other protagonist in this tale, Stepanenko.
In 2013 during a different Ukrainian Classico a Yarmolenko lunge nearly broke the Shakhtar man’s leg. In the aftermath of the game the pair exchanged shirts in a display of forgiveness. The good feeling was short lived though as seconds later Yarmolenko threw the shirt to the ground in a very pubic display of his feelings. Despite the disrespect Stepanenko honorably and publicly forgave Yarmolenko.
After the latest debacle between these two it appear their professional relationship is beyond repair. Stepanenko, 26, told the Shakhtar club website, “I’d like the whole country to know my friendship with Yarmolenko has ended.” Quite a definitive end to the situation before adding, “What if he’d broken my knee?”
Meanwhile the Dynamo Kiev winger has remained quiet on the situation. 41-year-old Dynamo goalkeeper Oleksandr Shovkovskiy did wadeinto the argument without invitation saying, “Stepanenko should think about his personal security. He lives in Kiev now, and I think that [Dynamo] fans might not forgive him for such behavior.” An unnecessary and completely unfair comment that only adds to the tension.
The pair are both key to Ukraine’s chances. One a robust ball winner while the other Ukraine’s most prolific goalscorer. With just a few weeks to go until the tournament there is no news of the two players reconciling their differences.
The first question the incident and history of incidents raises is, will the dressing room be able to function? Could there be a Spanish Madrid-Barcelona style split that means the team falls to pieces? Those questions cannot yet be answered but the question that has been hinted at being answered is, can coach Mykhaylo Fomenko show the leadership to address the situation?
The answer to that so far is probably not. When asked about the situation he replied, “I hope they will be wise enough not to bring the conflict into the national team, and they are the only ones who can solve the problem.”
Ukraine kickoff their Euro 2016 campaign against Germany in Lille on June 12.