In the back row, left to right, Ladrón, Phewa and Luik meet the Ukrainian dance team Veseli Hutsulyata following a three-match sweep in the first round of the UEFA Women’s Cup, Sept 08. FC Naftokhimik crashed out in the second round in October, losing three matches by a combined 3–14. (FC Naftokhimik)
Football in Ukraine has been becoming more multinational since independence in 1991, with even the women’s game showing the effects of globalization.
For those seeking to work the international women’s calendar to best advantage, Ukraine offers a seven-team competition in its Zhinocha Liha, founded in 1992. Those sampling the league in 2008 included a quartet with FC Naftokhimik of Kalush, a town of 68,000 in the Carpathian foothills: Veronica Phewa (South Africa), Rorro Hernandez (Spain), Anjuli Ladrón de Guevara (Mexico) and Aivi Luik (Australia).
Not so coincidentally, all four have ties to FC Indiana of the W-League. The side’s former general manager Anton Maksimov is Ukrainian and facilitated the players’ loan arrangements.
Luik has helped lead the Indiana midfield since 2005 and used the Ukrainian interlude to bridge the W-League season and national-team training in Australia. Simultaneous to giving women’s soccer in Ukraine international flavor, Luik demonstrated how to construct a professional career while bypassing Women’s Professional Soccer, the top flight in the United States. The latter has 140 roster positions, with two expansion clubs coming in 2010.
After Indiana’s victory in the 2008 U.S. Open Cup, Luik skipped WPS combines to help boost Naftokhimik during the team’s first European campaign. In a four-team first-round UEFA Cup group, she scored the game-winner in all three matches, leading Naftokhimik over Poland’s AZS Wroclaw (1–0), PAOK FC of Thessaloniki, Greece (1–0), and Estonia’s FC Levadia Tallinn (2–1).
Naftokhimik formed in 2004 as FC Spartak and competed in Ivano-Frankivsk oblast. They became Ukrainian champions in 2007 to earn a European slot. According to the club’s website, however, the side folded early this year for financial reasons—another sign of the devastating recession in Ukraine.
While organized women’s soccer has existed in Ukraine at least since the early 1970s, with pockets of support in population centers Kyiv, Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovs’k as well as in Zakarpattia oblast in the far southwest, sports authorities in the former Soviet Union had their suspicions. At the same time as Soviet society held gender equity in work and leisure as an ideal, women’s football represented a taboo both morally and physically. Soviet sources of the time cite “an unhealthy interest by some male spectators in women’s soccer matches.” Another source suggests that “physical stress typical of soccer may cause harm to sexual functions, varicose veins, thrombo-phlebitis” and so on.
Luik found that people in rural Ukraine, among the poorest European countries, lived a basic lifestyle. The Internet connection at the players’ lodging was a 1990s-style dial-up. “It took a half-hour to send one e-mail,” she recalls. The imports did not speak the language and since their television only received five stations—all in Ukrainian—there was little for them to do. When they wanted to travel within the country, they could not find the information they needed either on a train schedule or online. “We had to take a minibus to the train station and look up the times written in chalk on a board,” Luik explains. “It made me appreciate what I have here [in the U.S.] and how easy communication, transportation and everything is.”
On the soccer field, Luik gives Ukraine mixed ratings. Players and club officials were “over the moon” with the team’s progress to UEFA Women’s Cup second round. The domestic standard has improved to the point that the national women’s team in Ukraine has qualified for its first European championship, which begins in Finland in August. Yet most of the international players compete in Russia.
Despite the UEFA Cup wins, Luik did not find the training competitive, even with sessions twice per day. “They never worked on their fitness together. We had to do this on our own,” Luik says. “The Ukrainian style of play was much less physical and the imports had to temper their game, as a normal play in the United States would be whistled for foul play.” Even when coach Valeriy Sushko tried to surmount the language barrier by drawing on the tactics board, Luik rarely understood what he was trying to get across. They played and trained on bumpy fields with overgrown grass and poor drainage.
Yet Luik talks glowingly of what she learned by diving into a different culture. She loved the Ukrainian people and was particularly inspired by a teammate who had been orphaned as a young girl. With a goal to join Australia for the 2011 World Cup in Germany, Luik almost certainly will not return.
The same cannot be said for other U.S.-based talent looking to fill out competitive diaries. Expect several WPS players, who are cleared contractually to play anywhere from September through February, to travel overseas after the first season is complete.
FC Gold Pride forward Tiffany Weimer, for example, spent last fall in Finland and Brazil after first venturing abroad following her college career at Penn State. “I went [overseas] to play 90 minutes every weekend,” she says. “In the fall, there is nothing here except college soccer.” Even though she felt disconnected playing in Europe and South America, it helped her in the long run. Whether she returns overseas depends on how she feels at the end of the WPS season, but playing in Australia, Germany or Sweden sounds intriguing.
Additional reporting by John Turnbull.
James Riordan, Sport in Soviet Society: Development of Sport and Physical Education in Russia and the USSR (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).