European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

17 June 2024

Ukraine: A Life in Football

The history of Ukrainian football starts with the establishment of the Odesa British Athletic Club in 1878 by British workers of the Indo-European Telegraph Company. For a number of years, the club functioned as exclusively British. According to the archival documents, the first Odessites – Piotrovskii and Kryzhnovskii, and later a well-known aviator and athlete Sergei Utochkin – joined the club only in 1899. Artem Frankov, a Ukrainian sports journalist, believes that amateur footballers in Odesa actively played outside the official OBAC structure, but the participation of Ukrainians had not been recorded. The first big match, however, was reported in the local press (Odesskii Vestnik).

Lviv became the official birthplace of Ukrainian football. In 1892, with active support from Archduke Franz Ferdinand, it became an integral part of annual fairs aiming to demonstrate achievements in economic and social life. On 17 July 1894, Gazeta Lwowska, in an article about the fair, tried to explain this gymnastic activity as a game where players bounce a ball with their feet.

Screenshot of the 161 issue of Gazeta Lwowska published in 1894, attempting to explain the intricacies of football

Screenshot of an article on football in Gazeta Lwowska (Image from

The article focuses on the ‘Sokol’ rally, or demonstration of sports competencies by members of a newly formed athletic society. Vasyl’ Nahirnyi, a Ukrainian Galician architect and public figure, was its founder and head, while another educator, publisher, and promoter of sports in Galicia, Volodymyr Lavrivs’kyi, published the first rules of the game in Ukrainian.

It was probably at that time that the term ‘kopanyi m’iach’ started being used to name this game. Abbreviated as ‘kopanka’ (the stress is on the first syllable) – a kicked ball – the term existed in Galicia until the end of the Second World War but never spread to other Ukrainian lands and did not enter the Ukrainian literary language. In a scholarly article on Ukrainian national football terminology of the late 19th and early 20th century, Iryna Protsyk of the National University ‘Kyiv-Mohyla Academy’ comes to the conclusion that “Despite the fact that Ukrainian system of football terminology during the investigated period was in the process of formation, there was certain domination of national football terminology over foreign terms: 75 per cent football names themselves, 23 per cent – loanwords from different languages and 2 per cent hybrid special names.”  

Diagram of a football pitch from Volodymyr Lavrivs’kyi's ‘Kopana’

Page from Volodymyr Lavrivs’kyi's Kopana

School students started playing football in Uzhhorod (Zakarpattia) in 1893, and the first official match took place on 15 August 1901. The game attracted an audience of 1,000 spectators – a significant part of the town’s population of 14,000 people. The local team lost 0 : 3 to one of the strongest Hungarian teams, the Buda Athletic Club.  

Historians think that Czech workers from the machine factory Grether and Kryvanek in Kyiv introduced local workers to football. The first games were recorded on a football pitch opposite the factory in 1900, at present – a site of the National Cinema Studio of feature films named after Oleksandr Dovzhenko.

It is not surprising that football remains popular in today’s Ukraine. Not only is it widely played, but it also is the subject of academic research. The Geographical Faculty of the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv offers a course in the History and Geography of Football.

Even if one is not big on football, it is impossible not to have heard about Valeriy Lobanovskyi (1939-2002), Oleh Blokhin (b. 1952), Ihor Bielanov (b. 1960) and Andriy Shevchenko (b. 1976). All three prominent Ukrainian footballers, at various points trained by Lobanovs’kyi, were honoured with the Ballon d'Or (the Golden Ball), the most prestigious and valuable individual award in football.

Front cover of A. Frankov  ‘Futbol po-ukrainski’ with colour photographs of players

Cover of Futbol po-ukrainski by A. Frankov (Kharkiv, 2006) YF.2008.a.10294

In preparing this blog, I have been searching the catalogue for footballers’ memoirs. Unfortunately, our holdings in this area are not strong, and it would be good if we could cover these gaps retrospectively.

Cover of ‘My Life, My Football’ with a colour photograph of Andriy Shevchenko

Cover of My Life, My Football by Andriy Shevchenko and Alessandro Alciato translated from Italian by Mark Palmer (Glasgow, 2023). Awaiting legal deposit copy

Having said that, I have made an interesting discovery. For the Euro 2012 Championship, Ukrainian writers published a collection Pys'mennyky pro futbol, with contributions from Serhiy Zhadan, Yurii Andrukhovych, Yuriy Vynnychuk and Artem Chekh, among others.  

Cover of ‘Pys'mennyky pro futbol’ with a numbered list of Ukrainian writers

Cover of Pys'mennyky pro futbol (Kharkiv, 2011) YF.2012.a.9453

Artem Chekh joined the Ukrainian army at the beginning of the war in 2015. When the full-scale invasion began, he went back to the front line. Several weeks ago, we learned that Serhiy Zhadan also joined ZSU.  

Stories of Ukrainian footballers after a year of war were published in the Guardian in February 2023: ‘The military call and I deliver’: voices from Ukraine's football after a year of war. A list of names of coaches, players and referees who are still fighting and those who have tragically lost their lives in this war can be found here.  

Despite the ongoing war, the Ukrainian national football team is taking part in Euro-2024. They will play Romania on Monday 17, Slovakia on Friday 21, and Belgium on Wednesday the 26. We wish them only beautiful goals and the best of luck!  

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator, East European Collections

Further reading:

Volodymyr Banias, Lopta : futbolʹni istoriï, zhyttiepysy,  statystyka. (Kyiv, 2017). YF.2023.a.2955 

Dynamo (Kyïv) : 1927-2007  [ed. Mykola Neseniuk]. (Kyiv, 2008). LF.31.b.5023  

Andy Dougan, Dynamo: defending the honour of Kiev. (London, 2001). M01/22988

Oleksandr Kabanets, Piramida : futbolʹni turniry Ukraïny 1910-1940-kh rokiv. (Kyiv, 2022). YF.2023.a.687 

Kalendar’ Sokol na rok 1895. (Lvov, 1894) ( )  

Ivan Iaremenko, 100 futbolistiv Lʹvova : persony lʹvivsʹkoho futbolu. (L’viv, 2021). YF.2013.a.23444 

Denys Mandziuk, Kopanyi m'iach : korotka istoriia ukraïnsʹkoho futbolu v Halychyni : 1909-1944. (L’viv, 2016). YF.2017.a.23960 

Iryna Protsyk, ‘“Kopanyi m’iach uchyt’ boronyty i zdobuvaty”: tematychna klasyfikatsiia ukrains’koi terminoleksyky kintsia XIX – pochatku XX stolittia.’ Visnik Natsional’noho universytetu “L’vivs’ka politekhnika.” Problemy ukrains’koi terminolohii. 2016. N 842. Pp.151-157. ( ) 

Valentin Sherbachev, Lobanovskii. (Kyiv, 1998). YA.2000.a.1865