Where Cossacks held sway, women’s football adds international spice

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.

Aivi Luik and Vitaly Sushko Sushko, right, sporting director at FC Naftokhimik, honors Luik’s three UEFA Cup game-winners at a ceremony in Kalush. (FC Naftokhimik)

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.

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