The football gods giveth, and the football gods taketh away. No team understands this quite as well as FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, whose meteoric rise to attention during the 2014-15 Europa League has quickly been forgotten by an even faster fall.
The club, which had never won a domestic title in Ukraine (let alone a European trophy) had pushed defending Europa League champions Sevilla to the limit in the final, losing an intense 3-2 affair in Warsaw. Though they lost the match, they won the respect of many fans around the world for their effort. Back home, they helped give Ukrainians something to cheer about during a time when the country, which was fighting pro-Russian insurgents in the eastern region, needed a distraction.
Today, the squad is a shadow of the one that made that run. Of the eleven that started against Sevilla, only four players remain: defenders Douglas, Yevhen Cherebyachko, and Artem Fedetskyi, and captain Ruslan Rotan.
The war and instability in Ukraine made Dnipro’s run even more unlikely; though they had returned to their home city of Dnipropetrovsk (a city of around one million on the Dniepr River about 250 km west of Donetsk) for the Ukrainian Premier League fixtures, UEFA still saw the city as too risky for European ventures due to the ongoing conflict and thus moved Dnipro’s home fixtures to Kyiv, 500 kilometers to the northwest. The fighting also made it harder to keep non-Ukrainian players, such as the Brazilian maestro Giuliano, who the team sold to Grêmio for €5M three years after buying him from Internacional for €11M, giving the Dnipropetrovsk club a €6M loss.
The “Warriors of Light” dropped to the Europa League after being bounced by København in the Champions League qualifiers, where they’d entered the tournament after finishing second in the 2013-14 Ukrainian Premier League, six points behind champions Shakhtar Donetsk.
They were drawn in a Europa League group that featured Inter Milan, Saint-Étienne, and Azerbaijani side Qarabağ, and on the last day of the group stage, the football gods smiled on Dnipro. Dnipro needed a victory over Saint-Étienne at their European “home” in Kyiv and for Inter – who had already qualified for the knockouts – to take points off Qarabağ in Baku. Dnipro got their win on a 66th-minute goal by Fedetskyi, and fans turned their attention to the match in Azerbaijan, which was still scoreless entering stoppage time.
At the death, it appeared as though Qarabağ had squeaked through on a goal by Richard Almeida. However, the football gods took mercy on Dnipro, as the goal was wrongly called back for offside, sending Dnipro through at Qarabağ’s expense. Over the Ukrainian winter break, Ivan Strinić left for Napoli on a free transfer, a sign of things to come.
In the knockout stages, Dnipro took on a few giants of European football, and every time they came in as underdogs. However, they beat them all, defeating Olympiakos, Ajax, Club Brugge, and Napoli to make the final while winning the hearts of their nation and the greater footballing world. After the second leg against Napoli, the fans, which were a combination of fans who made the trip from Dnipropetrovsk and Kyiv fans who were getting behind their compatriots, stormed the pitch; this resulted in the team having to play its next two European home games behind closed doors, despite being in a different stadium.
That summer, the delicate web that had been built to put Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in Europe began unraveling. Nikola Kalinić bolted for Fiorentina, and Jaba Kankava went to Reims for a paltry €1.5M. Rumors circulated that owner Ihor Kolomoyskyi was no longer interested in running the club. Manager Myron Markevych tried to resign, but Kolomoyskyi rejected the resignation.
But all of this paled in comparison to the loss of homegrown star Yevhen Konoplyanka. The winger, a three-time Ukranian Player of the Year and member of the Europa League Team of the Year, bolted for Sevilla on a free transfer. Dnipro got nothing for a star player valued at around €20M by Transfermarkt at the time of the move.
Things got worse for Dnipro, on and off the field. After their third-place finish in the Premier League, they were drawn in the Europa League with Saint-Étienne, Lazio, and Rosenborg, and after a two-match stadium ban following the pitch invasion against Napoli, the team crashed out at the groups. It wasn’t much better domestically, either: none of the team’s signings were really contributing, and though they sat fourth in the Premier League, it was a far cry from the team that finished second in 2014. Markevych did not hold back on his criticism of the club he reluctantly still worked for, either; at a press conference after a 2-1 defeat to Dynamo Kyiv early in the season, the coach criticized the club for lack of ambition. “How can I lead a team if the players say they want to leave? They openly declare, either raise wages or release us. With whom do I keep working? Should I also leave?”
Over the winter, things kept getting worse. The team wasn’t paying wages, and of course players left. The team lost Valery Fedorchuk and Sergey Fedorchuk for nothing. Denys Boyko, the goalkeeper who had been instrumental in their run to the final, went to Beşiktaş for €3.3M (a loss of about €700K, as Dnipro had bought him from Dynamo Kyiv for roughly €4M). Yevhen Seleznyov was allowed to leave for Kuban Krasnodar on a free in exchange for forgiving the club of debt.
On March 31, 2016, Dnipro found themselves banned from Europe for three years thanks to debts owed to Markevych’s predecessor, Juande Ramos. It was yet another reason for players to force moves. Léo Matos and promising youngster Yevhen Shakhov both left for PAOK in Greece on frees, while Dmytro Chyrgrynskyi also headed to Greece for nothing, joining AEK Athens. Portuguese winger Bruno Gama headed back to Iberia, joining La Liga’s Deportivo La Coruña. Though centerback Douglas has yet to leave the club, he will likely be next. The only signings Dnipro has been able to bring in the last year-and-a-half have been frees and loans (none of whom have been able to replicate the success of the departed), and rumors of liquidation have been brought up in the Ukrainian press.
Markevych resigned a second time on June 30, and this time it was accepted; he is rumored to be going after the vacant post at Shakhtar Donetsk, and claims he hasn’t been paid in three months. Eleven more players, including Ukrainian national team players Roman Bezus and Roman Zozulya, have left the club.
In May 2015, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk were the envy of Ukrainian football, a team that won the hearts of fans at home and abroad, and a team that looked ready to overthrow the Shakhtar/Dynamo duopoly atop the Ukranian Premier League. Fast-forward a year, and the team is a ghost of its former self, barred from Europe, in financial ruin, and with whispers of bankruptcy bugging them at every turn.