As Donetsk and Luhansk held controversial referendums to gain independence from the rest of Ukraine today, their football teams squared off in the Ukrainian Premier League title match. If separatists get their way and the two oblasts become part of Russia, it would likely be the final time each team played in the Ukrainian Premier League.
While violence and political unrest shook their home in eastern Ukraine, the two teams battled it out on a neutral field in an empty stadium in central Ukraine. FC Shakhtar Donetsk, one of the best football team in Ukraine the last 10 years beat out FC Zorya Luhansk 3–1 for its fifth straight Ukrainian Premiere League title.
The game was just one of a number of football matches that had to be moved out of the turbulent east and Crimea. Ukraine has 16 teams in its Premier League, over half of which are located in the east or Crimea. With football hooligans at the center of unrest in cities like Odessa, the Premier League knows that getting a stadium full of 40,000 screaming fans, particularly ones from east and west, would be a disaster waiting to happen.
So the Football Federation of Ukraine picked neutral stadiums, all literally in the middle of Ukraine, and barred crowds -- which is probably a good idea considering a Shakhtar ritual includes pyrotechnics:
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When asked if playing to an empty stadium affected the players, Shakhtar defender Vyacheslav Shevchuk said it brought down the mood.
“Certainly it is,” Shevchuk said. “We're playing for our fans. It’s a pity that that the situation is like that. That’s why we, and me in particular, are not in a very good mood. Since we are concerned for the developments in the country. We want peace to settle ASAP and people to live happily.”
Shahktar may have the title, but what really matters is the Ukrainian Cup Final, which will be played Thursday. The two best teams in the country from the two cities that symbolize the east-west crisis most -- Donetsk and Kiev -- will compete for the top spot in Ukrainian football.
Shahktar Donetsk will square off with Dynamo Kiev in Poltava, i central Ukraine, in the latest match of a long and hard-fought rivalry. They're the two best teams in Ukraine and have dominated football in the country since the turn of the 21st century, each taking home 12 of the last 14 Cup championships.
In those 14 years, they've met six times for the championship. They've split those six games down the middle and have nine Cup trophies a piece total. Dynamo hasn’t won since 2006 and Shakhtar has bested them recently, but this game carries far more symbolic weight for the teams. The players plan to leave politics off the pitch, but it's hard to ignore how the match parallels the Kiev-Donetsk divide.
It's as if the Celtics and Lakers were playing in the NBA championship, except the east coasters overthrew the President and California just voted to leave the Union. And everyone has a gun.