Crimean football in limbo after Russia's land grab
In the heyday of his favourite Crimea club Tavriya Simferopol, supporter Gennady Malakhov went all over Ukraine, watched home games at a packed stadium and even saw the team compete in the Champions League in the early 1990s.
But annexation of the peninsula by Moscow in 2014 has "destroyed, broken, and buried our club," said the 42-year-old railroad worker.
Dressed in a scarf and sweater in the club's red and green colours, Malakhov was one of just barely 250 attending a recent game held at Simferopol's 20,000-seat Lokomotiv stadium.
Since 2014, "nobody needs us," he told AFP standing on the terraces under overcast skies as a couple dozen other fans waved a flag and chanted in support. "The club have practically ceased to exist."
Nine months after Crimea's takeover by Russia in March 2014, UEFA declared the region a "special zone" and banned local clubs from participating in Russia's national tournaments until further notice.
Tavriya Simferopol was re-established by the Football Federation of Ukraine in 2016 and is playing in the third tier this season.
Meanwhile, Simferopol's club, supported by Malakhov, launched under a new name TSK-Tavriya.
Two football clubs with the same name, Tavriya, -- one in mainland Ukraine, another in Crimea -- embody the problems of football in the Russian-occupied peninsula.
The club now plays in a new Crimean Premier League established by the new Russian authorities which also includes six amateur teams and one other club that previously played in the Ukrainian top flight, FC Sevastopol.
Although Europe's football authorities gave the green light for a Crimean championship, it distanced itself from its organisation and refused to finance it, while corporate sponsors are scared away by Western sanctions imposed on the peninsula following its Moscow annexation.
Crimean clubs are now effectively cut off from the world, with no prospect of playing teams from Russia or mainland Ukraine.
"Many of the top players have to deliver pizzas in the evenings" to make ends meet, Aleksandr Krasilnikov, the vice president of the Crimean Football Union, told Ukrainian online sports magazine, Tribuna.
"Professional football in Crimea is on the brink of disappearance."
- Rival federations ?
The Ukrainian side Tavriya Simferopol, who are based in the small town of Beryslav near Crimea, retained the club's original name and logo.
"It must have been very painful to the disappearance of the club" that won Ukraine's first ever national championship in 1992, their manager Oleksiy Krucher told AFP.
Dozens of fans living in Crimea regularly come to Beryslav to attend the team's games, he said. "They support the team but they do not want to be photographed. They risk detention at the Crimean border."
The two Tavriyas' reconciliation seems impossible in the foreseeable future.
Last September, Ukraine established its own Crimean Football Federation for Crimea's exiled football clubs, though it's not clear whether it includes any other club besides the Beryslav-based Tavriya.
Russia is resolute in its efforts to procure the international legitimacy for Crimea's Moscow-controlled football federation.
"Everyone will win, including the peninsula's residents, if the international community as a whole, including the European football community, recognise that Crimea is part of Russia," said TSK-Tavria's president Sergey Borodkin.
The club's coach Andrey Dobrianski said that the future of the team would depend on "how relations with UEFA evolve" and the general political situation around Crimea.
"We are in a rather stressful state of uncertainty."
© 2017 AFP