2014 has been a tumultuous year thus far for Ukraine. Protests and civil unrest early in the year forced a regime change with the previous administration being dissolved and its leadership forced to flee the country. Months after the wake of the revolution, Presidential elections were held and won by former Trade Minister (in 2012) Petro Poroshenko. The elections were not held in Ukraine’s Eastern regions and the Crimean peninsula, which was unilaterally annexed by Russia after a controversial referendum. The people of Crimea voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.
The newly elected central government in Kiev, which is widely perceived to be “pro-West,” was not well received by everyone in the country. Many people from the Eastern parts of the Ukraine, where many Russian speaking people reside, perceived the events that transpired in Kiev as an illegal coup that unseated a democratically elected government.
Many residents of the industrial city of Donetsk and other Eastern areas refused to recognize the authority of Poroshenko’s government and have formed the self-proclaimed state called Donetsk People’s Republic. This has thrown the country into civil war, with Russia and the US/EU on the background sympathizing with different sides in the conflict. There have been continuous armed encounters between separatist forces and Ukrainian military, with Donetsk being one of the hot spots. Based on U.N. estimates, thousands of people have lost their lives or been injured since the start of Kiev’s military operations in April.
The ongoing civil war has taken a heavy toll on Ukraine’s economy and has also reverberated across many aspects of its citizens’ lives. The arena of sports, especially, has received its fair share of collateral damage as a result of the unrest. The sport of basketball, a favorite among Ukraine’s people, has suffered a great deal this 2014. One such impact was when FIBA Europe decided to remove Ukraine as the host of Eurobasket 2015. The decision was reached based on the looming uncertainty of Ukraine’s political future and how it hampered the country’s ability to hold such a large sporting event.
Ukrainian professional basketball teams have dropped out of the Russian-dominated VTB United League for the 2014/15 season. Aside from the VTB league there will be no Ukrainian teams participating in any of the international tournaments such as the Euroleague, Eurocup, and EuroChallenge.
On the domestic front, BC Donetsk, Azovmash Mariupol, and SC Kryvbas have all withdrawn from the Ukrainian Superleague. BC Donetsk is virtually non-existent. Its head coach, Valeriy Plekhanov, has announced that the team only consists of coaching staff that could not find job offers elsewhere. All the players from the first team as well as junior players have all joined other teams for the upcoming season.
Only 11 teams are slated to participate in the 2014/15 championship. The remaining teams will also have only one third of last season’s import population. Not only are foreign players avoiding playing in the Ukraine because of the ongoing unrest, but teams are also in such dire financial straits that they cannot afford to pay imports their salaries. The 2014/15 regular season was originally scheduled to tip-off on October 4th, but it was moved to October 10th as some teams still had not paid their participation fees to the Superleague. The league set a minimum of $700,000 for team budgets, but the majority of the clubs are far from this requirement.
Seven of the 11 teams participating in the Ukrainian Superleague are being sponsored by 51-year-old oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, owner of the Privat-Group. He is one of Ukraine’s richest men and a staunch supporter of the newly elected government in Kiev. The multi-billionaire was appointed governor of the Eastern region of Dnipropetrovsk in March. He has spent tens of millions of dollars funding his own paramilitary militia to defend his territory from falling to separatists from neighboring provinces.
Sports and sporting events have been historically good for people’s morale and will continue to find their way to push through, despite challenging times. As for Basketball, one of the more popular sports in the Ukraine, it will continue to give people something to cheer for and provide an occasional respite from the ongoing stressful events that currently plague the country. After this national crisis has settled, expect culture and sports to rise from the ashes to lift up people’s spirits anew.
Despite all the bad news around the shrinking Superleague and the fact that it has less imports this season, perhaps this is also an opportunity for young players to get more playing time and develop their skills? Only time will tell.