For as long as most people remember Ukrainian domestic football has been dominated by two clubs - Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk – but that may all be changing.

Putin’s war abruptly halted the 2021/22 season, leaving Shakhtar Donetsk just shy of a title they were on the verge of winning. During a truncated 2022/23 season, Dnipro-1 nearly clinched the championship but faltered at the end of the season, allowing Shakhtar to yet again claim another title.

In the current 2023/24 season, against all predictions, it is some of the smaller, less-resourced clubs that are currently leading the league standings marking a possible end to the duopoly enjoyed by Kyiv and Shakhtar.

Currently FC Kryvbas is top of the league, with newly-promoted Polissya Zhytomyr in close pursuit.

A quick flashback to the 1992 season – it was the first season of football in an independent Ukraine. Tavriya Simferopol won the championship, marking the first and last time a team other than Dynamo or Shakhtar won. Despite their best efforts, clubs like FC Metalist Kharkiv and FC Dnipro made valiant efforts to win the league, but glory was always a step too far.

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President Zelensky's hometown Kryvyi Rih team, FC Kryvbas, was once a regular top-tier competitor, but met an unexpected downfall in 2013. The club was resurrected in 2020 as a result of Zelensky's vision to revitalize football in some overlooked Ukrainian cities. With Kostyantyn Karamanyts steering the ship, the rechristened Hirnyk-Kryvbas made a thunderous return, finishing 7th in their comeback season, under the guidance of one of Ukraine's master tacticians, Yuriy Vernydub.

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Vernydub's dedication to his homeland is unparalleled. When war broke out in 2022, he swapped his coaching kit for a soldier's armor, joining an artillery brigade on the frontlines. His commitment to both his nation and the sport saw him juggle his military duties with managing Kryvbas, a feat that sees them leading the Ukrainian Premier League this campaign.

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Credit for Kryvbas' impressive run goes beyond Vernydub's tactical brilliance. The squad's harmony, built around a blend of homegrown talent and international flair, has reaped dividends. Players like Danylo Beskorovaynyi, Maksym Zaderaka, and the dazzling Cameroonian, Yvan Dibango, have turned heads with their exemplary performances.

Off the pitch, Kryvbas's PR team has captured the imagination of fans beyond Ukraine’s borders, with on-line viral content celebrating their on-field exploits, commemorating their fans who have fallen on the battlefield and finding creative ways to raise money for the war effort.

On July 31, Kryvyi Rih was attacked by a Russian missile strike, in which 3 people, including a four year old child, died and 33 people were injured. The football club published a social media post reminding its fans around the world that Russia was recognized by the EU "as a state sponsor of terrorism and as a state which uses means of terrorism.”

The post concluded with this line: "31/07/23. We'll never forgive. We hate you all." In Ukraine, sport, like all ordinary civilians, is not shielded from war. The Ukrainian people and their sport has simply adapted to the wartime conditions.

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Close on Kryvbas' heels, FC Polissya Zhytomyr's journey is equally remarkable. Spearheaded by billionaire Hennadiy Butkevych, they've risen from obscurity to challenge the might of Dynamo and Shakhtar. Under the guidance of former Dynamo Kyiv star, Yuriy Kalitvinstev, the team is proving that it is more than just a passing sensation. Butkevych is deeply committed to his project.

Another team drawing attention is Chornomorets Odesa. Currently among the top 5, their re-emergence in recent years is attributed to new leadership and the comeback of renowned coach, Roman Hryhorchuk. In the early 2010s, the team once soared in the Europa League under Hryhorchuk. Now, they boast an exciting blend of local talent and international players. However, a cloud hangs over the club as co-owner Borys Kaufman faces legal troubles with the implications of those on the team remaining uncertain.

Meanwhile, Shakhtar is having a bumpy journey. After a change in leadership from Croatian coach Ihor Jovicevic to Dutchman Patrick Van Leeuwen, the club experienced instability. Despite Van Leeuwen’s departure after only 12 games, there's hope there will be a rediscovery of their past form following the appointment of new coach Marino Pusic on Oct. 24.

The current league table may not provide a clear picture due to European competition schedules disrupting match counts. For instance, while Dynamo Kyiv currently lies seventh, it ahs played fewer games than leader Kryvbas. Yet, given their recent form and a significant injury to star player Andriy Yarmolenko, nothing is guaranteed. Long-time manager, Mircea Lucescu, faces mounting pressure after the team's European struggles.

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Nonetheless, the war continually casts a shadow over football in Ukraine. In Ukraine, the lines between football, politics, and war have become indelibly blurred.

The frequent disruptions to matches because of air raid alerts, coupled with the absence of fans in stadiums, stand as somber reminder of the times. Personal tragedies have struck some players; Dynamo Kyiv's Oleksandr Tymchyk and Shakhtar Donetsk's Dmytro Riznyk have both lost brothers serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Each time Ukraine's footballers play, they represent more than just a game. They show their country's strength and unity against Russia's barbaric war. Their heart on the field mirrors the courage of the Ukrainian people. Amid all the chaos and instability, having two underdogs leading Ukrainian football is a welcomed surprise and will continue to make for an interesting season.

Andrew Todos is a British-Ukrainian freelance sports journalist and broadcaster. He is the founder of the leading English language resource on Ukrainian football - Zorya Londonsk and is a Co-host on the Ukraine + Football podcast.

David Kirichenko is a freelance journalist and an associate research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank. He can be found on X @DVKirichenko.

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