Much has been made of a potential rift between Spain's star players, but Oleg Blokhin faces a big task in calming tension between his Dinamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk contingent
When two superior clubs fight each other in the local league, and provide the backbone of the national team at the same time, people start to get worried about the atmosphere in the dressing room ahead of big tournaments.
Spanish fans know only too well that the endless routine of recent Clasico clashes have escalated the tensions between Barcelona and Real Madrid players. The reemergence of the Bayern Munich vs Borussia Dortmund rivalry is casting quite a shadow on Germany’s preparations for Euro 2012, with Jerome Boateng recently having to refute rumours of a rift within the squad.
The Ukrainian situation, though, is probably the most serious of them all.
Here, we have two teams who are in a league of their own for two long decades. Since 1993, Dinamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk have shared all the league titles between them – 13 to the capital club, seven to the ambitious outfit from the east.
Since 1997, they have always occupied the top two places, and no other team ever came close to rival the duopoly, despite the best efforts of Metalist Kharkiv, who have finished third for six consecutive seasons now. Even in the cup they almost always lift the silverware, with 16 of the last 18 trophies finding its way to either Kiev or Donetsk.
The tension between the rivals is immense, and, more often than not, the Ukrainian 'Clasico' is extremely difficult for the referees to keep under control. Massive brawls and dirty tackles are, thus, very common. In the Cup final in 2008 no less than five red cards were shown.
In the same fixture in 2011 Dinamo striker Artem Milevsky was involved in some ugly scenes with Shakhtar's Croatian captain Darijo Srna. If anyone were to list all the scandals in the clashes between these bitter rivals, you would not have the patience to read through them. It would take far too long.
|"He insulted everything I love and care for – my city, my coach, my president, my team-mates, my club … Just everything!"
- Yaroslav Rakitskiy
We will therefore jump directly to the events that occurred in the last game between the two, the all-important game of the season on April 7, which are of huge importance to understanding the current atmosphere within the Ukraine squad.
Dinamo arrived in Donetsk with a three-point lead at the top, and as both teams were losing less points than Barca and Real did in La Liga, coach Yuri Semin and his players knew that a draw would ensure the first title for Kiev since 2009. After all, Dinamo had won 21 of their 25 league games prior to this fixture, and drew the remaining four.
Shakhtar were desperate for the win, but for all the pressure in the first half they couldn't find the net. Then came one of the most amazing refereeing decisions of anywhere last season. Denys Harmash, Dinamo's 21-year-old international holding midfielder, took a knock in the Shakhtar penalty area following a corner. He fell to the ground and was taken care of by the medical staff.
According to the rules, Harmash had to leave the field before he could continue playing, but instead of choosing the shortest route, he ran across the field to the touchline. Quite astonishingly, referee Yuriy Vaks considered it to be a yellow-card offence, and, as Harmash had already been booked earlier, he was duly sent off.
Dinamo players and coaches could hardly believe their eyes. All hell broke out, as Oleksandr Aliyev raged on the bench, Oleg Gusev pleaded for common sense, Ognjen Vukojevic was close to physically attacking Vaks, Syomin almost clashed with Shakhtar veteran Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu, and play was delayed. In the end, the blow proved to be too hard for the visitors to take. They conceded two goals after the break, and Shakhtar caught them at the top of the table.
The feeling of injustice was far stronger than that of the Real Madrid players following Pepe's sending off in the Champions League semi-final Clasico at Santiago Bernabeu last season. The insult was devastating. Even Andriy Shevchenko completely lost his head, and unsportingly threw a ball into Fernandinho’s face after brutally fouling the Brazilian.
Dinamo accused Shakhtar of "stealing the game"; Donetsk stars said their rivals always "whine too much".
Most significantly, Shakhtar centre-back Yaroslav Rakitskiy, the rising star of the national team, openly accused Dinamo keeper Oleksander Shovkovski: "He cursed all of us, he shouted such obscenities I'm ashamed to repeat them. Who gave him the right to behave so? He insulted everything I love and care for – my city, my coach, my president, my team-mates, my club… Just everything! I can understand his emotions but he should apologise."
That apology never came, and the possibility of a Shakhtar-based defence playing ahead of Shovkovskiy at the Euros was worrying to say the least. "You shouldn’t ask me about it, as that matter is all about their respective clubs," said national coach Oleg Blokhin, but it most certainly wasn’t.
In the end, the specific Shovkovski issue became irrelevant, since the 37-year-old sadly injured his shoulder and thus missed the tournament, along with Spartak Moscow’s Andriy Dikan who had multiple facial bones broken in a freak collision with Aleksandr Kerzhakov of Zenit. This, ironically, enabled Andriy Pyatov of Shakhtar to reclaim his place between the posts.
Another potentially devastating affair was avoided when Dinamo sensationally lost points in Lugansk, letting Shakhtar win their third consecutive league title. Had the two rivals finished level on points, a ‘golden game' would have been played between them.
Apart from exhausting the players physically, such a match could also have deepened the conflict. On the other hand, Dinamo's feeling of losing the league in an unjust manner will now stay with them forever.
The players don't talk about it in public anymore, but tensions within the team never disappeared. There are nine Dinamo players in the squad, and six from Shakhtar, including young Bohdan Butko who played on-loan in Mariupol last season.
The fans are emotionally involved as well, and nobody knows how the Kiev crowd will accept Shakhtar's stars, especially Rakitskiy, in the opening game against Sweden, and how Donetsk followers will react to Dinamo players at the games versus France and England at Donbass Arena.
Vicente del Bosque and Joachim Low might have some headaches about the harmony inside their squads, but those are nothing compared to the problems faced by Blokhin.
Follow Michael Yokhin on