Most squad announcements for Euro 2016 came in fairly regular fashion, with a press release or a media conference delivered by the coach. Ukraine’s was different. Mykhaylo Fomenko, Ukraine’s head coach, revealed his preliminary squad in the usual manner but then Andriy Yarmolenko and Taras Stepnaneko stepped forward.
Yarmolenko, Dynamo Kyiv’s star man, and Stepanenko, the engine at the heart of Shakhtar’s midfield, used the press conference to apologise to each-other. Their dispute, one which threatens to divide the Ukraine team, came after Shakhtar’s 3-0 win over Dynamo ended in violence in May. Yarmolenko was the chief protagonist, taking Stepankenko’s badge-kissing celebration as a war cry, then proceeding to launch at the Shakhtar midfielder, aiming a forceful kick at his knee. Stepanenko sunk to the ground and a mass brawl took over from the football.
The end result was a red card for Yarmolenko, a red card for unused Shakhtar substitute Oleksandr Kucher and a second yellow for Stepanenko. All three players, and many more involved in the brawl, found themselves thrust together in Fomenko’s Ukraine squad, forced to forget the Dynamo-Shakhtar animosity and work towards shared Ukrainian goals.
The two clubs dominate Ukrainian football and their players dominate the national side, but this was not an isolated incident. They have history. Yarmolenko and Stepanenko had squabbled after swapping shirts, with the Dynamo player leaving the Shakhtar player’s shirt on the floor, before going off to celebrate. That incident passed without much fall-out, as both players agreed to put it behind them. But Yarmolenko was also sent off in the 2014 Ukrainian Cup Final between the two sides, as an injury-time tackle on Kucher provoked another mass brawl. The Ukrainian Clasico very rarely passes without incident.
Ukraine’s problems are reminiscent of the divides that plagued Spain. The Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid surpasses even the levels of opprobrium found in Ukraine. The divide between Blaugrana and Blancos players also threaten the unity of the national team, before Iker Casillas and Xavi worked together to focus the squad’s minds on Euro 2008 success. Those discussions famously laid the foundation for a gilded age of Spanish football, and Yarmolenko and Stepanenko’s joint apology was designed to assuage doubts about the squad’s togetherness.
“I want peace and friendship to prevail inside our team,” Yarmolenko told the media, while Stepanenko pointed towards the necessity of reconciliation. “We have discussed this situation and I hope this won't happen again as we are likely to play side-by-side in the Ukraine team for many years,” The Shakhtar midfielder said. "This dispute should be considered settled.”
Despite the public desire to wrap up the tensions with a ‘nothing to see here’ approach, there are still doubts in Ukraine about the relationship between Dynamo’s players and Shakhtar’s players. The matter may rest on whether the disputes between Dynamo and Shakhtar come from each set of players having such a strong desire to win, or from more personal animosities between certain players.
If fierce competitiveness is the source of conflict, with both sides willing to do everything to win, Fomenko may be able to harness that energy and direct it towards the shared goals of the Ukrainian national side. But if personal feuds render certain players unable to work together, no amount of stage-managed press conferences will help Ukraine’s chances at Euro 2016.