Making Lviv Football History
Karpaty Lviv will face three top European sides this autumn as the club makes its Europa League group stage debut. Karpaty coach Oleh Kononov spoke to Lviv Today about the historic campaign ahead
In the space of the past few football seasons Oleh Kononov has become arguably Lviv’s most popular ever Belarusian import. He is loved and respected by many Leopolitans for having coached the city’s famously underachieving local football club Karpaty into the higher reaches of the Ukrainian Premier League before leading them this summer into the group stages of the Europa League for the first time ever. This is uncharted territory for a club which despite enjoying a huge fan base and almost total regional dominance throughout West Ukraine, had not participated in European competition for a decade until this year’s campaign. So far this season’s Europa League adventure has lived up to its billing; after seeing off Icelandic and Georgian opposition in the first two qualifying rounds, Karpaty bested Turkish giants Galatasaray in a thrilling play-off which involved one of the most dramatic finales which this fledgling second-tier UEFA competition has yet witnessed.
Artem Fedetskiy’s 94th minute equalizer at home to the Turkish glamour club in late August generated arguably the biggest roar in the history of Lviv’s Ukraina Stadium home ground and paved the way for what promises to be an historic autumn of top European football action which will be literally unprecedented in the city’s history.
This European success stands in stark contrast to the club’s domestic fortunes, which have recently seen Karpaty thrust into the centre of a match-rigging scandal which resulted in the Ukrainian Football Federation ruling to dock the club nine premier league points. The scandal, which focuses on allegations surrounding a UPL match between Karpaty and Metalist Kharkiv in 2008, has so far failed to overshadow excitement surrounding the club’s Europa Cup heroics. Lviv’s football fraternity now eagerly awaits an autumn of international football nights to remember which promises to provide an entrée to the excitement of Euro 2012 itself. The footballing gods have been relatively cruel to Karpaty, placing them in the same group as heavyweight European contenders Sevilla FC, Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain. This will be a baptism of fire for Karpaty squad, which remains relatively untested at this level. While the team and its supporters may regret the fact that they have been placed in arguably the toughest group of this year’s Europa League they will no doubt take consolation from the fact that we are now scheduled to enjoy three world-class football events this autumn in Lviv in what will be a valuable learning experience as the city prepares for Euro 2012.
The man charged with managing Lviv’s Europa league campaign is Oleh Kononov, a former Soviet-era journeyman who eventually finished what was an unremarkable playing career in the post-independence Belarusian domestic league. Kononov has some European experience to call on from his time at his first coaching post in charge of Moldovan club Sheriff-Tiraspol, which he helped lead to Moldova’s domestic league title in successive years before joining Lviv in June 2008. Kononov has so far confounded those critics who pointed to his lack of a European pedigree, guiding Lviv to a series of impressive Europa Cup performances, most notably the away tie in Istanbul where the ground work was laid for eventual qualification with a hugely impressive 2-2 draw. Kononov’s Karpaty are a pleasing side to watch; they generally work to a 4-3-3 formation that offers width and encourages old-fashioned barnstorming wing play. Despite having recently added a couple of Brazilian talents to his first team squad, Kononov has largely kept faith with an emerging generation of young Ukrainian players at the club. The Karpaty lviv squad is one of the most predominantly Ukrainian in the domestic top flight, a fact which is particularly popular among the club’s famously patriotic supporters. As Karpaty prepared for their autumn Europa League campaign, coach Oleh Kononov took time out to speak with Lviv Today about his side’s chances of overcoming their big-name group stage opponents and pay his respects to the club’s passionate and patriotic supporters.
The two recent Europa League matches against Galatasaray are among the greatest in Karpaty’s entire history — were you able to take a step back and appreciate the historic importance of the occasion?
I can say for sure, without any doubt, that those two ties against the Istanbul club had huge meaning to both the team and our supporters. I would even say that it is difficult to say how symbolically important those games proved, and how they have impacted on the psychology of the supporters. We’re seeing a changing mentality and a positivity emerging which is good for not just Lviv but for all West Ukraine. We hope that as a result of our success the local authorities will now get fully behind the team and provide us with the support we need. Our Euro League success is not just down to luck or circumstance – it is the product of the dedicated work of an entire team of people ranging from the players themselves throughout the entire club administration. In contrast to some of Ukraine’s so-called mega-clubs, at Karpaty we pride ourselves on our strong spirit of club loyalty and commitment to the game.
What are your thoughts on your three Europa League opponents (Paris St. Germain, Borussia Dortmund and two-time UEFA Cup winners Sevilla FC?.
In my opinion they are all tough opponents but this makes them more interesting. These ties will provide us with a wonderful opportunity to test our skills and measure the scope of our possibilities. We will be facing top European opposition – all our opponents are household names of European football, although we do not intend to dwell on history during the coming Europa League campaign. Some people have tried to argue that in qualifying for the group stages of this year’s Europa League, Karpaty have already achieved the impossible. It has been suggested that we cannot realistically hope to go any further. This assumes that we have reached this stage of the competition by chance, but in reality modern football requires that sides constantly prove their skills. We are now facing three excellent sides, two of whom we must leapfrog. While I can say that we have got plenty of respect for our opponents, I can confirm that we are not afraid of them. At the end of the day, we are capable of providing an upset as we proved against Galatasaray and this is why we all love football so much — because you can never predict the result in advance.
How much of a cloud is the match-fixing scandal and points deduction issue casting over Karpaty’s Premier League season and do you hold out hope for a compromise resolution?
I am happy to say that we have created such a atmosphere within the club that those of us involved in team affairs are able to get on with our jobs without worrying about the whole fuss. As Karpaty trainer I am obliged to focus on doing my best to ensure that the team will win each upcoming game. My attention remains firmly focused on the daily issues of our 2010-11 Premier League campaign. The Ukrainian manager’s position has become vacant recently in the wake of the Metalist-Karpaty match-fixing scandal, but Ukrainian football currently lacks credible candidates to fill the post.
Which international trainers could you theoretically see succeeding in the role of Ukrainian national team coach?
Any foreign trainer would necessarily need to be a strategic appointment with a mandate to lay the groundwork for the further development of the sport throughout Ukraine. It would need to be someone capable of explaining his ideas and implementing an efficient programme that would lead to concrete achievements. The identity of a foreign trainer is not crucial here – more important is the nature of the role which they would be given in developing Ukrainian football.
The Ukrainian league is currently ranked seventh in Europe — how does the standard and style of play compare with the domestic league competition?
The Ukrainian Premier League is well positioned in the current European rankings but despite this prestige I have found that in previous seasons there has been a lack of genuinely interesting matches. The league is evenly matched in terms of skill levels, but perhaps that has also led to cynical and defensive tactics which have not always proved spectator-friendly. In defence of the Ukrainian Premier League, I think we are seeing similar trends towards negative football in most top European leagues. The grandees of the domestic game — Dynamo Kyiv, Shakhtar Donetsk, Metalist Kharkiv and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk — all bring a touch of much needed glamour to the UPL. Needless to say, my players don’t require any additional motivation when facing these millionaire sides in their palatial stadiums. If it weren’t for the experience of such games, it is doubtful we’d have had the wherewithal to knock out Galatasaray.
Karpaty Lviv attracts fanatical supporters and is often seen as in part a projection of Lviv’s credentials as the cradle of modern Ukrainian patriotism. As a Belarusian and adopted Leopolitan, what is your understanding of the club’s role in local identity?
I would give patriotic plaudits to Karpaty’s supporters first and foremost for having taught the rest of the country’s football fans to chant ‘Slava Ukraini!’ (Glory to Ukraine!) during matches. Lviv has traditionally been known as a cultured and sophisticated football city where the lack of a successful local side did not prevent it producing some of the best players and footballing minds in the history of Ukrainian football. Today’s fans are very passionate — they can rightfully claim part of the applause for the role they play in all our successes and victories. We have fans of all ages and backgrounds, but unfortunately we still see some extremist elements attracting negative publicity. In reality, a lot of the club’s more extreme fans are just young people full of unspent energy which they need to release. Lviv football fans are very sharp and knowledgeable. There is no way you can hope to deceive them — if the team is playing poorly, the reaction will be suitably harsh. As we all know, there has never been a team which wins every single match, so sometimes the criticism we receive from our fans can seem a little harsh. Real fans should support the club in good times and bad, whether they win or lose. In general I believe that the team and the supporters need to be in a mutually supportive relationship where they act as positive influences on each other. This sense of good natured fair play is not just something that suits football – it is a good approach to life in general. A good example of this ethos was the behaviour of Galatasaray head coach Frank Rijkaard, who despite being understandably upset by the result of the second leg in Lviv, nevertheless came and offered me his congratulations. It was a gesture which many in the crowd noted and appreciated. I also make a point of encouraging the players to acknowledge and thank the fans after each match for their continued support and understanding.