DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine (Reuters) - Eastern Ukrainian club Dnipro are unexpectedly poised for possible European soccer glory, lifting the gloom in their war-weary country, at least for a while.
With fighting raging on the doorstep of its hometown of Dnipropetrovsk, the club had to travel 500 km (310 miles) to play their Europa League home matches in the capital, Kiev, away from their fans and often at near-empty stadiums.
That sapped morale early on, they say.
But despite the odds, they have fought their way to the Europa League final on Wednesday against Spain’s Sevilla, and when they run onto the pitch in Warsaw they say they will have their compatriots on the front line in mind.
“These are hard times for our state and for us too. We are hoping our sporting achievement will inspire our heroes who are defending our country from the enemy,” Dnipro defender Artem Fedetsky told Reuters.
“We know the whole of Ukraine will be with us at the stadium. We will be playing for them,” head coach Myron Markevich said.
An industrial city of just under one million, Dnipropetrovsk has avoided being sucked into the war against Russian-backed rebels, a conflict which has killed more than 6,200 people in just over a year.
It has seen an influx of refugees and is home to an important medical center for treating military wounded, and has come to be regarded as a bulwark against the separatist threat affecting neighboring big cities such as Donetsk.
Many attribute this to Ihor Kolomoisky, FC Dnipro’s billionaire owner and president, who bankrolled formation of a pro-government militia to stop early signs of separatist sympathies taking root.
He later fell foul of the pro-Western authorities and was dumped as regional governor, though his Privat banking group still holds FC Dnipro.
The main boulevard of Dnipropetrovsk, where acacias throw off a heady scent in the evening, is still called Prospekt Karl Marx — but probably not for much longer as a national program for dropping Soviet name tags takes hold.
As in many Ukrainian cities, a monument to Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin was taken down in the center last year.
The team had to fly back and forth to Kiev for qualifying matches after a ruling by soccer’s organizing body UEFA that the Dnipro Arena stadium was too dangerous.
“We had to play all our home matches in Kiev and the stands were practically empty and without the Eurocup feel that there should be,” said Fedetsky, 30. “But we gritted our teeth, fought on and eventually people got interested. At the game with Napoli there was a full stadium.”
The war has added an edge to the support Dnipropetrovsk has shown for the team.
“I have friends and friends of friends who are fighting. They have been drafted into the army or are in volunteer battalions. We and our fanatical fans help them as best as we can,” Fedetsky said.
“The world should know about our country and know that, despite the war, life goes on and that the entertainment of soccer is not foreign to us,” said Oleksander Moiseyenko, a 49-year-old shopkeeper in the city.
Dnipro’s success on the pitch has been the result of waiting for errors from their opponents and moving quickly to punish them. Their outstanding player is Yevhen Konoplyanka, 25, who expertly laid on the winning second goal to clinch a 2-1 win over Napoli in the semi-final.
Soccer pundits say it is unlikely that Dnipro will triumph against Sevilla, who captured the Europa League trophy last year against Portugal’s Benfica and have won 10 of their 14 Europa League matches this season.
By contrast, Dnipro’s record en route to the final has been seven victories and four defeats, with five matches drawn.
No matter what happens in Warsaw, the club will celebrate triumph over adversity.
“We (have) understood that, since things are not easy for our country just now, we should strive to do better in European Cup matches so that people can see in Europe and elsewhere that, though things are difficult for us now, soccer is still alive in Ukraine,” Markevich said.
Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall