Shakhtar and Dynamo Kiev rivalry could hurt Ukraine at Euro 2016
Few expected the big Ukrainian Clasico between Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev to make huge headlines Sunday. After all, it was a rather meaningless fixture, given the fact that Dynamo had secured their second championship title in a row before the game.
The two giants dominate the league (only twice in the last 19 seasons have they failed to finish first or second together) and Shakhtar's failure to stop their rivals from defending the crown would have been a major blow for the club. However, the fallout from the clash Sunday could also have a serious impact on the national team about to start their final preparations for Euro 2016.
Shakhtar, who won 3-0 in Kiev back in October, wanted to prove the point against the big rivals on their "home" ground in Lviv, and did so emphatically by the very same margin. But the scoreline mattered little as both teams were involved in a brawl that could have repercussions in the summer.
After former Arsenal striker Eduardo da Silva scored the third goal, Shakhtar midfielder Taras Stepanenko approached the visiting fans and kissed the badge on his shirt in front of them. Dynamo players considered that as an unacceptable provocation, and all hell broke loose. Quite a few Kiev stars tried to attack Stepanenko before Andriy Yarmolenko kicked him to the ground with an astonishing challenge that could easily have caused a serious injury.
Shakhar players defended Stepanenko and attacked Yarmolenko, with Oleksandr Kucher the most active aggressor, even though he spent the game on the bench. In the end, more than 30 players and officials were involved in a mass brawl. The referee sent off Yarmolenko and Kucher, and Stepanenko was given his marching orders with a second yellow for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Tension between Yarmolenko and Stepanenko is nothing new. Three years ago, the Dynamo Kiev superstar almost broke Stepanenko's leg. The Shakhar midfielder forgave him as time went by, and after October's match the duo even exchanged shirts after the final whistle. Incredibly, though, Yarmolenko -- disappointed with the defeat -- threw the shirt to the ground as he went to thank his fans for support.
Such behaviour was widely condemned, but Yarmolenko never apologised. "He explained his actions, but didn't say he was sorry," Shakhar general director Sergey Palkin said.
Clashes when Shakhtar play Dynamo are nothing new either. Brawls have become pretty frequent when the two clubs meet. There was pushing and shoving in January 2012, for example, when Shakhtar captain Darijo Srna seemingly tried to bite Dynamo defender Goran Popov on the neck.
Later that year, the bizarre sending off of Denis Garmash, who entered the field without permission after medical treatment, prompted both benches -- including coaches -- to attack each other.
The 2014 Ukrainian Cup final also ended in a squabble during injury time after a vicious foul by Kucher. Eventually, Yarmolenko and Shakhtar defender Yaroslav Rakitskiy were singled out and sent off, even though most of the players could have been punished.
The history between the two sides is desperately poor, but it is nothing compared to the events on Sunday as the harmony within the national team is at stake.
"I want to tell the whole country that my friendship with Yarmolenko is over," Stepanenko revealed after the game. "I forgave him for throwing my shirt, because I didn't want to escalate the conflict, but this time he could have intentionally broken my knee.
"I will do my utmost for the [national] team on the pitch, but I don't have to talk to him off it. He just doesn't learn any lessons."
Yarmolenko's repeated misbehaviour could be a significant warning sign for his potential suitors. Liverpool have been touted as his potential destination in the summer, but Jurgen Klopp should certainly take a closer look at the winger's attitude (and his past history) before taking what could be an expensive gamble on a player who signed a new contract recently despite maintaining his desire to quit the club.
The fallout from the game has continued. Not only have the Dynamo players refused to apologise for their part in the melee, but 41-year-old goalkeeper Oleksandr Shovkovskiy issued a bizarre warning to the Shakhtar man: "Stepanenko should think about his personal security. He lives in Kiev now, and I think that [Dynamo] fans might not forgive him for such behaviour"
Shakhtar players have had to live in Kiev for the last two years, following the war in Donetsk, but the situation between the clubs has now reached its all-time nadir. After their public falling-out, how Ukraine's national team deals with the two players just a few weeks before the start of Euro 2016 remains to be seen.
National coach Mykhaylo Fomenko is hardly the man to bring them together. When asked about the actions he will take regarding Yarmolenko and Stepanenko, he meekly replied: "You better ask the players. I hope they will be wise enough not to bring the conflict into the national team, and they are the only ones who can solve the problem."
Given the latest comments, that is the last thing the players are about to do. Almost all of the Ukraine first team is based on Shakhtar and Dynamo players, and the recent problems will likely turn the dressing room into a very unpleasant place. Therefore, Germany, Poland and Northern Ireland can be rather optimistic ahead of their group games against Ukraine this summer. If Yarmolenko, Stepanenko and their teammates exit the tournament early, it will be easy to understand the reasons why.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin