Canada | Far west of the Carpathians, Ukraine unites

It makes no difference to me,
If I shall live or not in Ukraine
Or whether any one shall think
Of me ’mid foreign snow and rain.

It makes great difference to me
That evil folk and wicked men
Attack our Ukraine, once so free,
And rob and plunder it at will.
That makes great difference to me.
Taras Shevchenko (1847)

Toronto | At any given time, an uncountable number of football universes exist in parallel.

On 19 May, at the Ontario Soccer Centre, a proxy contest between teams of Ukrainian heritage occurred two days after Shakhtar Donetsk had clinched Ukraine’s official championship. Ukraine United, a side created in 2006, blending professionals from Ukraine and the former USSR, semi-pro journeymen from Canadian leagues, former U.S. collegians and several newcomers on trial, has been rising through the ranks of amateur, ethnically oriented clubs in the province, winning the Ontario Soccer League’s George Finnie Cup in Oct 07.

United wore the blue and yellow of its homeland, a representation of the sky and wheat fields of Europe’s “breadbasket.” The opponent in this friendly game, Shakhtar FC, in the custom of the coal miners’ club of eastern Ukraine, wore the bright orange shirts and black shorts said to symbolize the shift workers emerging from the antiquated coal piles (see also 28 Dec 07). While United players chatted and sent tactical information in Russian, however, Shakhtar’s second- and later-generation Ukrainians let fly with salty, North American–influenced epithets. “F—!” screamed the Shakhtar goalkeeper as one of six United goals billowed the back netting. Shakhtar lost 2–6.

The grounds surrounding the Saint Vladimir Institute on Spadina Avenue—the street that Toronto writer Matt Cohen called “the centre of the universe”—received tender loving care the week of 18 May, presumably in advance of the state visit by Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko.

A Portuguese man watching elite Toronto FC academy teams train before the United-Shakhtar match, his teeth chattering, reported the temperature as 3°C. Rumors circulated of snow in Kitchener, Ontario, to the west. During Ukraine United’s game, the only seated spectator cloaked herself in a quilt. After the one-sided contest, Victoria Day fireworks colored frigid May air as United players convoyed to a York, Ontario, establishment for chicken wings, pitchers of beer and cigarettes (enjoyed surreptitiously on an outdoor patio).

While many of the United players had dropped down several competitive levels since their elite playing days—due to the myriad personal reasons that influence migration—they moved through pre-game drills professionally. No doubt, though, some missed the infrastructure and support of previous times.

When players needed the indoor facilities to attend to injuries or just to get warm, they exchanged a bulky dressing-room key as one might acquire a key fob at a roadside petrol station. At the end of the day, Vladimir Koval, one of three player-directors, quickly took inventory of the team’s supply of footballs: “Guys, we had eight balls.” The explanation for the shortage? Throughout the pre-game warm-up, balls had soared over the goal and perimeter fencing into a moor-like landscape of tall grasses. Players had to hunt for the hidden orbs themselves; sometimes, they gave up much too early.

Reflecting on these players’ situations, it becomes evident that, while the global movement of elite footballers has been closely examined in past years, little is said about what happens to former top-level players once they retire or decide that pursuing a high-risk, itinerant soccer career is not the best idea.

The Ukrainian and Russian players (others are from Latvia, Uzbekistan, Moldova, Kazakhstan and Poland), many of whom are longtime friends, have found various ways to plug in to a long-standing network of expatriates—a legacy, in the case of Ukraine, of four waves of immigration to Canada since the late 1800s. For financing C$15,000 in equipment and league fees, the club relies on Ukrainian sponsors, previously a credit union and now an architecture studio, Stoyanovskyy Design.

They aim to enter the international division of the Canadian Soccer League, although recognizing that it would require a five-fold jump in investment. For now, the team competes in a hodgepodge of Ontario-based leagues and cup competitions, indoor and outdoor, winter and summer, and travels, most recently to Cleveland, to play in Ukrainian-themed tournaments. United won the eight-team Ukrainian independence tournament in Toronto last year.

Piecing together the journeys of Ukraine United’s organizers and key players does not yield one narrative, but an assortment of personal decisions, motivated by family or pragmatics, that typically entailed radical changes in livelihood. One former player for CSKA Kyiv, renamed Arsenal Kyiv within the past decade, simply said that he decided “to take a risk.” He has a civil engineering degree but now works as a truck driver.

Andrei Malychenkov, 40, Ukraine United’s player-coach—frustrated by the corruption infecting football and other aspects of Russian life—ventured to Canada in 1999. He did not speak English and, between work and four days of football training per week, had no time for study. He took a job making shish kebab at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market. “I started the job in the springtime and, I don’t know, maybe I just was good—made it quick. … Six months, just quiet—make shish kebab. Six months, I don’t speak with no one.”

A native of Saint Petersburg, Malychenkov had risen to the elite levels of football in the former Soviet Union. The midfielder was one of two players to win a professional contract among some 1,000 trainees at the Dynamo Saint Petersburg academy. From there, he moved to play for the club affiliated with the Kirov machine-building factory, where he was listed as a “driver” but worked, in reality, as a full-time footballer. At Metallurg Lipetsk, he began to enjoy the fruits of a more open economy, earning $1,000 per game plus bonus money; the team provided a condo along with pre-season training excursions to warmer climates.

His transition to the North York Astros of the former Canadian Professional Soccer League represented a considerable come-down in earnings, necessitating a full-time job. He still works part-time as a butcher but has gained coaching qualifications and also takes on clients as a personal trainer. Of the hybridized life he has had to construct, in which soccer fits as a hobby rather than vocation, he says:

It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter. When you play professional it’s your job first of all. Plus before that you love what you do. It’s my dream when I was a kid to play professional. My dream come true. I just give everything. Weather-wise, we play in the snow, we play in the freezing, so it doesn’t matter. You just don’t think about the weather, because you’re in a team. I never look at the soccer as money … never. I just love it.

Koval, 33, attended the academy at Karpaty L’viv in western Ukraine and at 17 signed a professional contract with second-division Hazovyk Komarne. At 19, with one brother already in Toronto, he decided to join the CPSL, eventually playing for Mississauga Eagles PSC, North York and Toronto Croatia and for other teams within the alphabet soup of Canadian and provincial leagues. His native skills, despite recent ankle surgery, rapidly show themselves against Shakhtar. The striker scores one goal, then, isolated with the Shakhtar goalkeeper, deftly flicks a right-footed chip just wide of the post. After this maneuver on the artificial surface, Koval has to be substituted with a hamstring pull.

“Things change, people can leave,” is how Koval explains a life-altering decision in 1994 to depart his native L’viv, a university city close to the border with Poland. Although he wears the no. 7 jersey—the same as Andriy Shevchenko—with his name in Cyrillic characters on the back, he is now a Canadian citizen and runs an import-export concern, purchasing construction materials from China and shipping cars to Ukraine and Russia.

Along with many other United players and a sideline retinue of hangers-on, he possesses the familiar bearing of male footballers, whatever the league standard or nationality—clad in stylish jeans and jacket, mobile phone a vital appendage. Fellow director and team captain Yuriy Hlyva, who loosely resembles Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, dresses for dinner in a trendy Che Guevara T-shirt. But whatever their identification with a new set of cultural referents, team members have retained the European custom of formalized greetings, shaking hands ritualistically on each gathering and departure. It is an affecting gesture, helping to create a strong sense of comradeship.

Ukrainian festival in Toronto, summer 1945. Some 35,000 political refugees and displaced persons arrived in Canada from Ukraine between 1945 and 1954; they settled primarily in Ontario. Toronto became the national center for Ukrainian sport. (Bud Glunz | National Film Board of Canada; Photothèque, Library and Archives Canada)

These players form part of the fourth wave of Ukrainian immigration, according to classifications by the Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Centre, and help give Canada the world’s largest population, at 1.2 million, of Ukrainian émigrés. The first wave, lured by 160-acre homesteading offers in the Prairie provinces, preceded the Russian Revolution of 1917 by some 20 years. By 1914, 180,000 had come, setting the precedent for many thousands more who would flee a tragic chronology that made Ukraine in the 20th century a ground zero for human suffering. (See Apr 29 on the connections between football and the Chernobyl nuclear accident.)

Corresponding with the visit of Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko in late May, the Canadian government became one of the world’s first to recognize the Holodomor, the famine of 1932–33, as genocide inflicted by Stalin’s policy of forced agricultural collectivization. Some sources say that 10 million died. Yushchenko began his itinerary May 26 by visiting the International Holodomor Remembrance Flame in Ottawa.

He used the trip, in part, to acknowledge the various waves of Ukrainian migrants to Canada and their influence in preserving the culture of home. “I can only pay my gratitude to these people who left our country not because of something good,” Yushchenko told the Toronto Star. “They made their families there and are very important for the entire life of Canada, [while] still keeping big hearts and great memories about the fatherland.” Beneath a Winnipeg statue of 19th-century Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Shevchenko, the president appeared as a hero to 150,000 Ukrainian Canadians in Manitoba, reports Winnipeg Free Press columnist Dan Lett. Anna Zubajy, 92, who came to Canada in 1950, made sure to kiss Yushchenko’s dioxin-scarred face three times.

Only marginally acknowledged, according to K. W. Sokolyk, author of Their Sporting Legacy: The Participation of Canadians of Ukrainian Descent in Sport, 1891–1991, is the place of Ukrainian sporting associations in both facilitating integration into Canada and preserving distinctive cultural expression. In football, a teacher’s training school in Brandon, Manitoba, launched the first Ukrainian Canadian club in 1910. Soccer teams became affiliated with community schools (ridni shkoly) and the various Prosvita (Ukrainian for “enlightenment”) societies. The Ukraina Sports Association of Toronto fielded, at one time in the 1950s, as many as seven teams; its top XI gained promotion to the National Soccer League, what was the top level of Canadian soccer, and in 1953 became the first “ethnic” side to win the national championship. Ukraina repeated as champion in 1954 and 1955.

Ukrainians called the migrant sides nashi, meaning “ours.” In attending matches in large numbers—SA Ukraina–Toronto reports attendance of 1.1 million between 1952 and 1960—Ukrainians, according to Sokolyk, felt it “their moral duty to provide the team, in both the size of the crowd and the loudness of its cheers, with the encouragement necessary to win games.”

American author John Steinbeck, during a 1947 excursion to the USSR with photographer Robert Capa, witnesses the nature of soccer passions at a Kyiv nightclub:

At about ten o’clock a fight started, a rushing, striking, running fight, among a number of young men. But it was not about a girl. It was about soccer, which is a very serious business for the Ukrainians. The men of Kiev feel as strongly about their soccer team as do the Brooklynites about their baseball. The fight raged over the platform for a moment, and then it settled down, and everyone went to a table and had a drink and settled the problem.

Rivalries formed among ethnic teams in various Canadian cities, creating discomfort for soccer authorities regarding the extent to which such competition diluted interest in forging a viable national organization for native-born players. While Toronto might be “the most multi-cultural settlement in the history of humankind,” writes Ben Knight, contributor to the Globe & Mail‘s “On Soccer” blog, this does not mean that the various ethnicities unite behind Canada.

A sampler of team names from the recent Ontario Cup draw—Hellas Toronto, Scarborough Ulster Thistle, Oakville Wisla United, Croatia Hamilton, Niagara Club Italian Juventus—illustrates the diversity. Often the ethnic identities are in name only. Malychenkov of Ukraine United, for example, says the team is open to anyone. Yet teams such as Toronto Croatia have long held prominence on the Ontario scene; its Canadian Soccer League rivalry with the Serbian White Eagles last year prompted officials to keep rival supporters separate for two key weekend matches in October. Dragan Jankovic, a White Eagles fan, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.: “It’s nothing major, nobody kill anybody.”

Nevertheless, Ukraine United works to keep politics off the field. Says Malychenkov:

I don’t know where this comes from. These guys are very competitive. I’m competitive, too, but I’m competitive just in the sport field. I don’t think about the politics when I play against you. … I think it’s just from the pain back home or something. If somebody brings that into sport, it’s a huge mistake, huge mistake. I heard about fighting in a game and fans fighting. This is not good.

Ukrainians certainly have their disagreements: over Ukraine’s future relationship with Russia and the West, even over the language, Ukrainian or Russian, that will become the national standard. But they have come together in diaspora after facing innumerable threats, both in the motherland and abroad, to cultural survival. Writer Lisa Grekul recalls that, before Canada’s move toward multiculturalism, Ukrainian Canadians often felt the need to “pass” as Anglo. Ukrainian names were changed: “Mikhaylo” to “Mitchell,” “Harasym” to “Harrison.”

The expatriate community has not merged as a seamless whole. Witness an incident at an otherwise sedate lecture May 20 at Toronto’s St. Vladimir Institute. Before the introduction of the speaker, Taras Kuzio, a man stands to object that the lecture will not be in Ukrainian, prompting murmuring, counter-objections and the exasperated comment of one member of the audience: “God, no wonder we haven’t got a country.”

The influence of the confident figure outside the institute’s front door, the statuesque great prince Volodymyr I (“the Great,” r. 980–1015), becomes important at this point. The patron saint who gave Ukraine its alphabet and its faith—banishing thunder-god Perun to the River Dnieper in 989—keeps perpetual watch over the Spadina Avenue trolley line as a similar piece of statuary in the Ukrainian capital surveys the former Kyivan Rus’. Mikhail Bulgakov, in The White Guard, highlights Volodymyr’s presence as the Bolsheviks lay siege in 1918:

Above the bank of the Dnieper, the midnight cross of St Vladimir thrust itself above the sinful, bloodstained, snowbound earth toward the grim, black sky. From far away it looked as if the cross-piece had vanished, had merged with the upright, turning the cross into a sharp and menacing sword.

This historical presence and the team-building of an expatriate klatch on a nearly frozen, fake-grass field thousands of miles distant may seem unconnected. But the motivations are similar: keep Ukraine united.

After the 19 May friendly, Ukraine United journeyed into one of the Ukrainian and Russian population centers in York. Arsène Wenger would not have approved of the training-table fare at the St. Louis Bar and Grill.


Lisa Grekul, “Ukrainian Canadians: A Study in Assimilation,” chap. 1 in Leaving Shadows: Literature in English by Canada’s Ukrainians (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2005), 3–10; Taras Kuzio, Ukraine: State and Nation Building (London: Routledge, 1998); Oleksandr Lytvynenko and Yuriy Yakimenko, “Russian-Speaking Citizens of Ukraine: ‘Imaginary Society’ as It Is,” Zerkalo nedeli, 17–23 May 2008; Anna Reid, Borderland: A Journey through the History of Ukraine (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1997); K. W. Sokolyk, “The Role of Ukrainian Sports Teams, Clubs, and Leagues, 1924–52,” Journal of Ukrainian Studies 16 (summer–winter 1991): 131–46; Roman Solchanyk, “Little Russianism and the Ukrainian-Russian Relationship: An Interview with Mykola Ryabchuk,” in Ukraine: From Chernobyl’ to Sovereignty. A Collection of Interviews, ed. Roman Solchanyk (New York: St. Martin’s, 1992), 19–30; John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal (1947; New York: Penguin, 1999); I. Tesla et al., “Ukrainians Abroad: In Canada,” in Ukraine: A Concise Encyclopaedia, ed. Volodymyr Kubijovyc (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), 2:1151–93.


  • Richard Whittall on his website A More Splendid Life: The Chronicles of One Fan’s Escape to the Beautiful Game has done important research into Toronto soccer history, compiling arcana and images from newspaper microfilm to flesh out this pan-ethnic tale.

    He adds context to mention above of the Toronto Ukrainians’ successes in the 1950s. The year 1951, with football as leading agent, marked a “beginning of the city’s long experiment with multiculturalism,” he writes (Jul 7). The experiment, however, featured ethnic tensions and on-field fisticuffs. Two British sides in 1951 sat out the playoffs in the National Soccer League Western Division rather than face the potential conflicts, Whittall surmises.

    “Toronto Ukrainians,” Whittall says, “were one of Toronto’s fledgling ‘Displaced Persons’ or DP sides. … The moniker indicates how these recent arrivals, most of whom had fled from countries ravaged by war, were viewed by older English Canadians—[as] outsiders.” Only an emergency late-season intervention prevented the DP sides from forming a league of their own.

  • That football remains on the political agenda in Ukraine has been clear in efforts this year to prove to UEFA its ability to co-host, with Poland, the 2012 European Championships. Squabbles over the country’s readiness have become part of the ongoing war of words between Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. In a letter to Tymoshenko, Yushchenko set a Jun 18 deadline, according to Reuters, to “resolve issues including preparation of legislation, cooperation with Polish officials, road upgrades and improved conditions for investors.” Organizers must also settle on a plan for upgrading the Olympic stadium in Kyiv.

    Football, too, has entered the ongoing dialogue with Russia. While defending, on Jun 4, Ukraine’s moves toward NATO membership, Tymoshenko felt it appropriate to mention “unifying achievements,” namely, Zenit St. Petersburg’s UEFA Cup triumph in May. The side was captained by a Ukrainian, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (5)

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  1. Taras says:

    Thank you for yet another interesting article!

    I, for one, didn’t know that Steinbeck had visited Ukraine.

    Did you know that, after the Orange Revolution, FC Shakhtar Donetsk briefly stopped wearing their orange uniform? Having lost a few matches, they started wearing orange again.

  2. Thank you, John, for a wonderful description of our team and, of course, for a brief highlight of myself and our coach Andrey Malychenkov. Loved the article, didn’t expect so many details and was truly surprised and honoured. We welcome you again in Toronto.

  3. Len Bilous says:

    Enjoy it. It’s an awesome article!

  4. Novica P says:

    Good article. Played soccer against some of their players. Hard workers on the field and overall nice guys.

  5. This is a great great piece, and a great site. I would only correct you in the most minor of ways—technically the Toronto Ukrainians won first in 1952, although with the large asterisk that the two league-leading sides did not show up to play.

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