As Ukrainian football enters a period of winter hibernation amid Russia's continuing full-scale invasion of the country, let’s take a moment to reflect on one team’s performance in particular. To the surprise of many pundits, Dnipro-1's performance has allowed them to stretch five points clear of both Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv. The team now has a good chance of winning the league and breaking decades of dominance by Shakhtar and Dynamo.
SC Dnipro-1 was founded in 2017 and promoted to the Ukrainian Premier League in 2019. As the unofficial successor to FC Dnipro, the club took over the academy infrastructure and now represents the city of Dnipro. Its formation was controversial, and many Dnipro Ultras staged a boycott. Even ex-players such as Roman Bezus have openly stated that Dnipro-1 is “not a continuation” of Dnipro and have been unfavorable in their assessments.
FC Dnipro went bankrupt in 2018 for failing to pay its players and managers. Allegedly the previous owner Ihor Kolomoyskyi – who led the club into bankruptcy – is a ghost owner of the new Dnipro-1 club. The club’s emblem is also somewhat unorthodox, having been modeled on the Police Special Patrol Detachment Dnipro-1, highlighting how early the club is in its development.
Nevertheless, Dnipro-1 are league leaders in Ukrainian football going into the winter break. The club did not throw vast amounts of money to buy their way to the top, but made good, judicious use of their investments and talent, producing long-term results.
Last season, the club finished in third place, allowing them to play in the European competition this season. The previous coach, Igor Jovićević, had some success in growing young talent and is doing the same with Shakhtar on a bigger scale this season.
Jovićević took a player who Shakhtar rejected – Oleksandr Pikhalyonok – and transformed him into a top-rated Ukrainian midfielder, earning Pikhalyonok a call-up to the Ukrainian national team.
He also helped Artem Dovbyk develop into a top striker. Dorbyk finished as the top goal scorer for Dnipro-1, with six goals and two assists in the UEFA Europa Conference League’s group stage. He is also the top goal scorer in the Ukrainian Premier League with 11 goals this season. Dovbyk grabbed the winner against Shakhtar to snatch a 2-1 statement victory, showing that the club is a serious title contender.
Dnipro-1 got off to a bympy start to the current season, losing head coach Jovićević to rivals Shakhtar. Oleksandr Kucher left FC Metalist to take the job at Dnipro-1, having never coached in the Premier League before. With an unproven coach, many expected Dnipro-1 to crash and burn this season.
However, the club is holding steady and is having a successful season in domestic and European competitions. Dnipro-1 finished second in the UEFA Europa Conference League group stage, advancing to the knockout stage to be played in February. Like other Ukrainian clubs, Dnipro-1 has been disrupted due to the war, for example their match vs Oleksandriya in late November was canceled due to air raid sirens.
Dnipro-1’s home base for the past few months has been Kosice, Slovakia. The club returned to Dnipro for the first time in five months on Nov. 27, although the players are weary from travel. With no civilian flights currently possible in Ukrainian airspace due to the war, the players have been forced to endure ten-hour coach journeys across the border into Poland before and following European games. This perhaps puts Dnipro-1’s performance into perspective.
Dnipro-1 will be in a fierce battle for the title come springtime. If they win, it will be a gargantuan achievement. In 1992, Tavriya Simferopol made history, becoming the first-ever champions in an independent Ukraine. It was also the last time a club other than Dynamo or Shakhtar won the league, as both clubs held an oligopoly on league titles.
A few clubs have come close to challenging for the title, such as FC Metalist Kharkiv and FC Dnipro. However, it has always eluded their respective grasps. Now, Dnipro-1 is leading the race as the most unlikely title contender in Ukrainian football history.
David Kirichenko is a freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe and an editor at Euromaidan Press.
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.
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