Eastern Europe’s UEFA Cup love affair still burning
What have the UEFA Cup and the Eurovision song contest got in common?
A) Some people don’t take them as seriously as they could.
B) They give lesser known participants the chance to appear on prime-time TV.
C) East European countries have started to dominate them
And the answer, I’m starting to think, is C … because of A and B.
This year will be the third year in the past six that an ex-Soviet team plays in the UEFA Cup final after victories by Russian sides Zenit St Petersburg last year and CSKA Moscow in 2005.
Watching Shakhtar Donetsk’s dramatic victory over fellow Ukrainian team Dynamo Kiev, I wondered why eastern European teams were enjoying such a love affair with a competition others have lost their passion for.
Then it struck me — it’s not the competition itself, it’s the winning. Winning anything … even the things no one else takes every seriously.
In a similar trend to Europe’s second-tier club competition, seven of the last 10 winners or runners-up in the continent’s bottom-rung singing competition have been east European.
While others plonked some Z-list no-hopers on the stage, Russia brought out Olympic figure skating champion Yevgeny Plushchenko to perform during their song and duly won last year’s edition.
While English sides like Aston Villa sent several reserve players on to the pitch, Russian and Ukrainian teams showcased their strongest sides, usually featuring several expensive Brazilian or African imports.
They really want to win it.
Before their defeat in the semi-final second leg Ukrainian league leaders Dynamo Kiev had a survey on their website asking fans which competition should be the club’s top priority.
When I last looked, 87 percent of more than 10, respondents had plumped for the UEFA Cup.
I can’t imagine if the same question was asked of Manchester City or Tottenham Hotspur fans, the result would be the same — surely they would vote for the Premier League.
During several years spent in Moscow, I used to notice that when a Russian team or person won anything it was the government who was among the most excited — perhaps a throwback to Soviet times where sporting victories were a useful way of showing the country in a good light to the rest of the world.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has got in on the act this year.
“I am convinced that on May 20 in Istanbul in the UEFA Cup final Ukrainian club football will once again confirm its might, tactical talent and irrepressible striving for victory,” local media quoted him as saying.
Were it not for Dynamo drawing Metalist Kharkiv in the last-16, Ukrainian teams might have grabbed three of the last four places, as English ones did in the Champions League.
They have certainly not had an easy ride in the competition, having overcome teams like Valencia, Tottenham Hotspur, Sampdoria and Olympique Marseille.
But the question in my mind is are these ex-Soviet teams actually better than the rest or are they just winning because no one else can be bothered?
They certainly have much to gain with victory — foreign players may be even more tempted to join their leagues if they win European trophies, if they weren’t already convinced by the very attractive salaries the clubs’ wealthy owners can offer.
FOOTBALL PHOTO: Players of Shakhtar Donetsk react against Dynamo Kiev during their UEFA Cup semi-final in Donetsk, May 7, 2009. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
EUROVISION: Svetlana Loboda of Ukraine performs during rehearsals for the Eurovision Song Contest in Moscow May 6, 2009. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin