Europa League final: Dnipro aims to make Ukraine smile

CNN  — 

It’s a bit of a tongue twister of a team name but this Ukrainian football club is proving even tougher to master for its opponents.

So it might be a good idea to practice saying Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk because this is a club which is close to pulling off one of the stories of the European football season.

On Wednesday, Ukraine’s third largest club Dnipro will attempt to write the concluding chapter in its fairytale run by winning the Europa League final against Sevilla in Warsaw.

For a team which has never before reached a major European competition final, it’s a story which has coincided with one of the most difficult periods in Ukraine’s political history.

The ongoing conflict with Russia has caused much misery and hardship for those living in the affected areas – but Dnipro’s attempt to bring some joy, however temporary, is one that is being welcomed.

“It’s something which is good for the people of Ukraine,” Oleg Luzhny, the former Ukraine international, told CNN. “It’s something which is very happy and nice which is important.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of my friends who support Dnipro and they’re all going to Warsaw for the game. It will be difficult against Sevilla, they’re a great side but it’s a one off game.”

Ukrainian teams have enjoyed success in Europe over the past 20 years, most notably Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk.

Kiev, inspired by the legendary Andriy Shevchenko, reached the Champions League semifinals in 1999 before losing 4-3 on aggregate to Germany’s Bayern Munich, while Shakhtar won the Europa League in 2009.

Dynamo also won the old European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1975 and 1986 – meaning that on all three occasions a team from Ukraine has reached a UEFA final it has gone on to win.

But Dnipro is often overlooked, despite its domestic success.

“You don’t hear much about Dnipro because it hasn’t played in the Champions League,” Manuel Veth, editor of Futbolgrad, told CNN.

“It is owned by Ihor Kolomoyskyy, who is very wealthy, and they have a budget which would be the equivalent of a mid-size club in Spain or Germany.

“That perhaps makes the story slightly less sensational because with a budget of that size, why shouldn’t it be competing well in Europe?”

According to Forbes, Kolomoyskyy is worth $1.43 billion, making him the third richest man in Ukraine.

If Dynamo, Shakhtar and Dnipro are relatively wealthy, other Urkainian clubs haven’t been so fortunate, with the conflict with Russia and the annexation of Crimea playing havoc with the national league and clubs suffering financially.

“It has been very difficult for the clubs in Ukraine,” Oleksandr Tkach, editor in chief of Ukrainian national website, told CNN.

“For most clubs it has been a very difficult financial year because they and their owners were used to high salaries which allowed them to attract foreign players – not always top class players but well paid.

“When the currency went down and problems with their businesses started, it had a negative effect and there are now five or six clubs that are now on the verge of bankruptcy due to severe financial problems.

“That’s the huge issue – how many will survive the summer and how many will still be there next season?”

Before the Russian annexation of Crimea, two clubs in that region, FC Sebastopol and SC Tavriya Simferopol, both played in Ukraine’s top division.

Discussions are currently taking place for the creation of a Crimean league which would allow football to continue in the region.

Other clubs, such as Shakhtar, based in Donetsk, have been forced to play its games over 1,200km away in Lviv, because of security fears.

The disruption, according to Tkach, has led to open discussions on the viability of the national league.

“Some teams have problems with finance and it’s not a secret,” he added. “They have debts and some players haven’t been paid for a year and it’s a problem.

“It’s an issue which will be discussed and perhaps some of the clubs won’t start next season.”

While the future of football in Ukraine remains under discussion, for now Dnipro is only focusing on Wednesday’s final.

It will start the contest as underdog against Sevilla – just as it did against the might of Italy’s Napoli, which it defeated in the semifinal in one of the shocks of the season.

That Dnipro reached the final is even more remarkable given the team only just sneaked out of the group stage.

For Dnipro goalkeeper Denis Boyko it’s an opportunity to make history not just for his club, but for a country which has endured a tumultuous year.

“It would definitely be a very happy moment for our club and for the whole of Ukraine,” Boyko told the competition’s official website. “It would be an amazingly emotional moment – it is hard even to imagine it.

“I would need to feel it to be able to talk about it. Every match, every victory, every stage of the competition has been of historic importance to our club.

“So we feel absolutely positive and focused. We feel great and very happy to be in the final.”

Andalusian club Sevilla is aiming to become the first to win the competition, formerly the UEFA Cup, four times.

Last season it defeated Benfica on penalties after a goalless draw, while it also triumphed in 2006 and 2007.

It finished fifth in Spain’s La Liga and thrashed Italian side Fiorentina 5-0 on aggregate in its semifinal tie.

“They’re the favorites,” Dnipro captain Ruslan Rotan told the competition’s official website.

“They’re the holders, they’re a very good Spanish team with fast players and fast attacks – everything that modern football demands.

“But I think what will matter more is motivation. Whoever is more resilient will win.”

Rotan joined the club at the age of 14 and has progressed through the ranks to establish himself as one of the team’s top players.

“The club is everything to me – it’s in my heart,” he added.

“I just can’t imagine myself without this club. I remember when we had an old training base and everything was falling apart.

“The club has come a long way since – there is a modern training base, so all that we have to focus on is playing football, and you can see the results today.

“I am delighted for the club and proud, because Dnipro have already won trophies at domestic level.

“We have always been very competitive and now we are in the final of this prestigious tournament. We really want this trophy in our club museum.”

History will be made whatever the outcome on Wednesday with Sevilla aiming to break the record and Dnipro hoping for immortality.

Sevilla has lost just once in its past 21 matches – but Dnipro will not be cowed.

“Dnipro have improved every year over the past three or four seasons,” added Luzhny, an unused substitute when Arsenal lost in the 2000 UEFA Cup final to Galatasary.

“Every year they’re getting better and better and they’ve three or four very good players.

“It’s the first time in their history that they’ve made it to the final and everyone in Ukraine is happy for them.

“It’s one game – anything could happen.”