Crisis is a game-changer for football club
THE fans of FC Tavriya Simferopol are used to stressful times: their football team is languishing at the bottom of the Ukrainian Premier League, and for most of this season the question has been where their next win might come from. But as the Russian army has rolled into Crimea in recent weeks and the peninsula has been swallowed up by Russia, they now have an even more pressing concern: which league will the team play in?
The team is halfway through the Ukrainian season, and yesterday played an away game at Chernomorets Odessa. But with other sides now unable to visit the club for home games and the club's oligarch backer having been arrested and bailed in Vienna, it is unclear just how tenable it is for the team to finish the season, let alone start next season in the Ukrainian league.
The uncertain fate of Tavriya is symbolic of that of Crimea itself.
Across the peninsula in the past few days it has been all change as Ukrainian military bases have been seized, Ukrainian-language signs have been torn down from government buildings and the former Russian consulate has begun the en masse "passportisation" of the region.
The logical outcome would be for a similar process to occur with the football team, but the fans are split over what they want to happen.
Server, a 42-year-old Crimean Tatar whose son plays for one of Tavriya's youth teams, travelled to Odessa to watch the game yesterday, and do a little business. He runs a construction company and needs to put the windows into a house he has completed – but since the troubles started deliveries from the rest of Ukraine have halted, so he would have to drive to Odessa and pick up the glass himself.
"I'll go, and stay for the match. I go to every home match and as many away matches as I can, though obviously if we're playing in Russia those away journeys are going to be impossible."
Server did not vote in the referendum and, like most Crimean Tatars, wanted Crimea to remain part of Ukraine: "What was the point of voting if it was all already decided? Of course, I'm worried about what will happen now, about what it will be like with Russia. But I'll still go to every game."
Among the many pro-Russian fans of the team there is great excitement at the prospect of moving to the Russian league, but among the hardcore "ultra" fan groups, mainly Ukrainian nationalists, there is dismay.
Oleg, 23, was born in Simferopol and has not missed a Tavriya game for six years. But two weeks ago he left Simferopol for Kiev and he is not sure he will ever return. "Most ultras are nationalists. We are Ukrainian and we are for a united Ukraine," he said.
When the Maidan protest movement started in Kiev, ultras from Tavriya attended a meeting with hardcore fans from other Ukrainian clubs and agreed there should be a truce.
"It was obvious that fighting the authorities was more important than fighting each other," he said by telephone from Kiev.
The club declined requests for interviews, but three foreign players from the club said that there is a tense atmosphere inside the training ground. "Nobody knows which league we will play in, when we will be able to play our games at home again," said one.
The Crimean authorities have announced that all financing from Ukraine for the club will be stopped. The plane that the team used to get to games has been grounded, which meant that for the match against Dynamo Kiev last weekend they had to take a 13-hour train trip and then travel to Odessa on a long, bumpy bus ride.
"It's going to kill us," said one of the foreign players. "It's a good club, but it's in a difficult situation. If offers come in for me, of course I will leave." "I understand the foreign players, of course," said Vitaly Grenyov, a 43-year-old fan who runs a Tavriya supporters club. "They came to a foreign country and suddenly there are armoured personnel carriers on the street. But I think there will be good times ahead for the club. The whole world is going to look at what Putin does with Crimea."