Football fever rises in Ukraine

The opening minutes of the first football game of the 2021 season would seem familiar to most Americans: coaches pacing the freshly painted sidelines with nervous energy, muscular young men on the pitch dressed in pads and helmets, and even a complement of cheerleaders wielding red pom poms. pom poms. Meanwhile, a gray sky threatened to unleash a downpour, suspending play and dashing the hopes of players and spectators alike. The only difference, it’s true, was the teams: the Lions of Lviv and the Wolves of Vinnytsia, clashing on a pitch behind a cluster of industrial buildings in the Lions’ hometown in western England. ‘Ukraine.

American football is generally regarded as a purely national sport, little present in other countries. But after a year of COVID-19 lockdown, a dedicated community of Ukrainian amateur athletes – mostly men, but also women – are reconnecting with their passion and expanding awareness of gambling, one frenetic game at a time.

Football arrived in Ukraine in the early 1990s, say the most savvy Ukrainians, at the end of the Soviet Union and on the eve of the country’s independence. An influx of Westerners arrived in the country to seek new opportunities, and the Americans among them brought their soccer balls, says Alfie Williams, head coach of the Kyiv Patriots, one of the three teams in the Ukrainian capital. .

Before COVID-19 put an end to most group activities in the country last year, Ukrainian soccer teams faced off in more than a dozen teams in two recreational divisions of the Ukrainian Football League. American (ULAF), formed in 2016 after the dissolution of a previous league. (Organizations similar to ULAF exist in Europe and elsewhere, most notably in Germany, which has seven leagues and arose out of the presence of American servicemen in the country after World War II.)

Williams, a die-hard footballer from DC, has coached football in Ukraine since moving to Kiev in 2015 to work as a tech professional. Soon after arriving, he discovered local pigskin players and teams through friends at the gym.

Once on the pitch, “I saw a lot of things were done wrong,” Williams says of his early days as a coach. He describes the challenge of finding local players with the right body type for certain positions, such as offensive linemen, who in US teams are prized for their mass and often weigh over 300 pounds.

The hopes of the home team, however, had a lot of “super fit guys,” Williams says, reflecting traditional 20th-century notions of what a Ukrainian athlete should look like.

“There are Soviet things you can’t shake,” he adds.

Since the humble beginnings of football in the last days of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian presence of sport has grown significantly. ULAF’s “super league” has eight teams, four in the north of the country and four in the south, while eight other teams play in the lower division.

Williams estimates that ULAF has around 400 players in total. And the youth game is growing, with four kids’ teams now active, says Oleksii Zorin, a longtime Ukrainian player currently with the Kyiv Patriots.

“You mean rugby? “

Playing American football in Ukraine requires resourcefulness and a lot of patience with those who are new to the sport. “When I say that I play American football, people often answer me: ‘Do you mean rugby?'” Said Ihor Meluhnov, 34, a member of the Poltava Panthers, based in the town of Poltava in central Germany. ‘Ukraine, who started playing three years ago.

“The main reaction is the surprise that there is such a thing in Ukraine,” says Meluhnov.

One of the biggest challenges for Ukrainian players is getting the right equipment. A full set of protective gear, including delivery to Ukraine, can cost up to $ 500 (US), says Dale Heffron, another US citizen who left Florida to retire in Ukraine, in part to train football, and who now helps lead the Wolves of Vinnytsia. “It’s a lot of money for most Ukrainians,” Heffron notes.

To finance their passion, players and coaches search the Internet for cheaper, often second-hand equipment, usually from other European players. Ukrainian teams usually pay out of pocket or enlist sponsors, such as local businesses, to provide the resources needed to reach the line of scrimmage.

In Heffron’s case, he met the sponsor of Vinnytsia Wolves, a Ukrainian solar power company called Kness, while he was teaching English to company employees. Heffron’s three-week course puts him in front of the Kness CEO. A friendship and a sponsorship were born.

All Ukrainian football championships and matches are self-funded by the managers or players of the clubs, which only deepens their commitment to the sport and their teams, said Zorin, a Kyiv Patriot player.

Despite the physical and financial dedication of Ukrainian footballers, Williams concedes that the cost, in money and in bodily risk, is considerable. This is especially true for the many players who work as professional coaches and in other physical jobs, and who depend on their good health for a living and to support their families.

“Some can afford it, some can’t,” says Williams. “It’s hard to justify playing, maybe hurting yourself, and then having to go back to work on Monday morning.”

American football is also growing among Ukrainian women, who play a pared-down form of the game that fans of the sport call flag football. Five women’s teams, each associated with a local men’s team, are currently playing.

“A friend of mine brought me over to practice,” says Kateryna Teteruk, 25, who has played soccer for seven years with the Vinnytsia Wolves’ counterpart women’s team. “After that I couldn’t quit football for another day.”

During the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, Teteruk and his teammates stayed in shape while eagerly awaiting the chance to replay games in person. “We trained all winter,” mostly in the gym and other cross-training exercises, she says.

The men’s game between Vinnytsia Wolves and Lviv Lions ended 7-6 with Wolves winning. Although it was a low scoring game by football standards, perhaps the most important victory was to take back the pitch. The Ukrainian scene is back, and it’s a state of affairs that an American football fan, in Ukraine or elsewhere, can encourage.

About Betty J. Snyder

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