The essay highlights the competitive inequalities under which international soccer matches are sometimes staged and the obstacles that top-flight women players face in comparison to their male counterparts. Comments about the ad hoc nature of the Ukraine side are reinforced by analyzing the roster of Ukraine’s World Cup qualifier against Norway on 27 August, a 1–4 loss: just five players from the Portland friendly helped make up the squad.
Portland, Oregon | Two days before the 10 July game between the American and Ukrainian women’s soccer teams at the University of Portland (Oregon) field, I rode my bicycle to the stadium. According to the information provided by the U.S. press officer, the visiting team would be practicing and afterward I would be able to interview the players. (The American team practiced mostly at the Nike “campus” in suburban Beaverton.)
Braving a downpour, I arrived at the training field and saw amazingly short players. From my geography lessons I knew that the Ukraine was long considered the breadbasket of Europe, and, although in the last few years the country has gone through much political upheaval, I was not aware of severe food shortages that might have stunted the players’ growth. Approaching closer I realized that the players were American girls in their mid-teens and, after talking to the university’s athletic director, found out that the Ukrainian team was still stuck in London.
From postgame interviews with coach Volodymyr Kulayev, captain Oksana Rezvin, goalie Veronika Shulha, interpreter/accompanist Sergei Kultin and also a local Ukrainian man—a government worker involved with the local youth soccer community who I put in contact with the team in order to help them as they encountered financial and logistical difficulties (and who preferred to remain anonymous, so in this article I call my source “the mole”)—I found out that the unequal conditions between the two teams (matters of ability, finances, training conditions) were exacerbated by an unlucky star under which the whole venture sailed.
The Ukrainian women arrived in London soon after the terrorist bombings of Jul 7, but their luggage never did. Since travelers are not allowed to leave the airport without their belongings, they remained at the airport for several days, forced to try and sleep in the noisy and chaotic terminal. Eventually they were allowed to leave, arriving in Portland, Oregon, the evening before the 3 o’clock Sunday game, with none of their suitcases. A national uniform was quickly improvised and shoes purchased.
According to translator Kultin, it was left up to him to scramble to find a suitable place for the weary players. At last he was able to place them at the university dorms, but they were left with little money for food. The American players by contrast stayed at one of Portland’s most elegant hotels and had a week to train, rest and enjoy more nourishing fare than airport and airline food. Sergei laid most of the blame for the disorganization on the American hosts, both the U.S. Soccer Federation and sponsors such as Nike.
“The mole,” who hails from Ukraine, offered a different version, blaming the bureaucrats back in Kyiv, officials that he labeled as “amateurs.” In our conversation and through e-mail exchanges, “the mole,” who spoke to players, the coach and officials, explained that one of the soccer-federation officials confused Portland, Maine, with Portland, Oregon; hence, instead of taking a direct flight from Moscow to Seattle, they flew by way of London, Newark and Salt Lake City. Thus, even discounting the unexpected delay in London, the journey took 36 hours. Furthermore, an official from the federation got drunk on the way to the airport and decided at the last minute not to go.
When an international game takes place, the assumption is that the players will be the best that each country has. The American team filled this bill, with a successful weave of veterans such as Aly Wagner and Kate Markgraf (née Sobrero) with several young players such as Nicole Barnhart and Lori Chalupny. In the case of the Ukrainian team this was not the case. Comparing the roster of the team that played in qualifiers for the past summer’s European Championships and in the last few years with the team that played in Portland, I discovered significant changes.
Of the seven players who scored in the run-up to the UEFA event, only two were included in the current team, Vira Dyatel and Lyudmyla Pekur. Teams go through changes, but in this case it was because many of the best players were previously engaged. Top players such as defender Olena Mazurenko and midfielder Nadiya Myshchenko stayed with their German team FC Nürnberg, and several other players were occupied with the games of the Russian league and were not released by their teams. Other players, belonging to the second-strongest team in Ukraine, Chernigov, were with their team in Italy, training and playing against local teams.
According to “the mole,” the team that played in Portland was not the national team but mostly the team from Kharkov, and “about them speaking Ukrainian—they could tell that to the Marines. Each and every one of them spoke Russian.” About a quarter of the population of the Ukraine is ethnically Russian, but I was not able to ascertain if the players were Russian in their nationality, and I was not able to contact the Marines, as they were mired in the Iraq quagmire and had more pressing tasks.
In the press box, my questions about the unequal conditions did not arouse much interest. “This is how it is in the world of sports,” commented the representatives of the U.S. Soccer Federation, taking a short break from counting the goals raining on the visitors. This attitude was shared by the other media representatives. My question why the game was not postponed by a day, to allow the exhausted and jet-lagged visitors to recover—as it was a “friendly,” there were no tournament time constraints—was met by a bemused look, as if I were a visitor from the first days of association football, a time traveler from Victorian Britain.
Consenting to share the most well-known knowledge, the USSF spokesperson added that ESPN was broadcasting the game live and interference with the network’s holy schedule was an impossibility. ESPN is owned by Disney, so I could have conferred with the Magic Kingdom and tried wishing upon a star, but I said no more as the game had only been going on for about 15 minutes and I wanted to remain in the clubhouse and enjoy the beverages and sandwiches.
And after all, the situation was not a complete surprise. One of the new realities of the game in the electronic age is that games and players are subservient to the financial considerations of television networks and their corporate advertisers, as World Cup games played in South and Central America in midday heat, to accommodate the lucrative European markets, can attest.
For most of the 4,000 fans, a large proportion of which were teenage girls, and for the partisan media, the game’s highlight was the 57th-minute goal scored by Tiffeny Milbrett, who grew up in Portland and played at the University of Portland. It raised her international tally to 100, achieved through 201 games, and put her in a select group of players. This achievement was all that the game offered, since it lacked any competitive value.
For the first 20 minutes the Ukrainians were able to hold their own, but after two first-half goals came a total collapse in the second half in which they conceded five goals and were lucky not to leave having surrendered a much higher tally. Sometimes statistics lie, but not this time: the number of corner kicks was 6:0 in favor of the home team, the shots were 32:3 and shots on goal were 21:0, with the American goalie not having to stretch her limbs even once. The Ukrainians’ fatigue was manifested in their slowness approaching the ball, their constant loss of possession and in many players getting leg cramps, a sure sign of not being properly rested. The fans were probably not aware of the long, arduous journey of the Ukrainians and might not have cared.
Ukrainian soccer brings to mind at once such names as Dynamo Kyiv, “the Death Match,” Oleh Blokhin (now coach of the Ukraine men’s team) and Andriy Shevchenko. Women’s soccer in the country, whose name means “borderland,” is more of an unknown. My attempts to gain information about the Ukrainian team by contacting the Football Federation of Ukraine did not receive a reply, and an Internet search for Ukrainian women’s soccer/football brought up mostly information about mail-order brides and the sex trade, a distorted picture of the women of the Ukraine, but a sad reflection of how, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, for too many men in the West sexual exploitation of women is the only association and reality (see Kristoffer A. Garin, “A Foreign Affair: On the Great Ukrainian Bride Hunt,” Harper’s, Jun 06).
From my interviews with the coach and players I learned the team is currently ranked 19th by FIFA. The Ukraine has not produced a woman player on the level of the Brazilian Marta, the German Birgit Prinz or the American Mia Hamm, but several players play in the strong German league and several in the Russian league. The league back home is comprised of nine teams, and Arsenal Kharkov is currently the best.
I remained unclear about team ownerships and finances, but private ownership is the norm, and though, unlike the men’s team, billionaires with shady connections have not entered the field, names such as Arsenal are evidence of the new Western orientation—a name that in the past would have been unheard of. The national team has become stronger in the last few years but failed to advance to the recent European women’s championship. The team has played its American counterpart three times, with the United States winning all three.
Most of the players on the team are students, with a large number of them studying in the Institute of Physical Culture and Exercise. Both players I interviewed acknowledged that the women’s game is not tremendously popular and offered as explanation both the great popularity of the men’s team and traditional Ukrainian culture, which survived 70 years of Soviet life and which tends to view women as having their circumscribed sphere, one in which running after a ball while wearing shorts is not the norm. The great financial difficulties experienced by many Ukrainians mean that there is a shortage of adequate sports equipment and, when there is some, boys receive preference.
Despite conceding seven goals, Shulha, the young goalie, was in a fine mood after the game, readily having her picture taken with local Ukrainian immigrants and smiling when I commented that the four hours she and her teammates slept the night before, they completed easily on the pitch.
The coach, however, remained unamused.
Terms of a new bargaining arrangement agreed on 5 Jan 06 offer selected U.S. players $70,000 annual salaries and bonuses based on performances in the Olympic Games and World Cup. The agreement runs through the 2012 Summer Games in London.
About the author
Alon Raab is a native of Jerusalem who teaches at the University of California, Davis.