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Ukraine's Euro 2012 mastermind pits powerful friends against rebels | Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson's Articles (Bot)
Aug 1, 2010
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Hryhoriy Surkis, once a national hero, is struggling for supporters in his homeland – but he does have backers in high places

Perhaps what's important is not how many friends you have, but where you have them. Hryhoriy Surkis, the president of the Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU), doesn't have many friends in his homeland any more, but happily he does still have them at Uefa and Fifa, and that might be enough to protect his gilded throne in the Ukrainian House of Football (as the FFU's headquarters is known). Still, that he needs protection at all is a remarkable turnaround for a man who has been in office for over a decade and who, four years ago, was hailed as a national hero after securing the rights to co-host Euro 2012 with Poland, and the consequences for that tournament could yet be dramatic.

That the dissent was serious first became certain last December, when a majority of delegates at the 12th Ordinary FFU Congress sought to include on the agenda the question of a vote of confidence in Surkis, whose presidential term does not expire until September 2012. With the Uefa executive committee member Frantisek Laurinec in attendance, the congress was abandoned as Surkis refused to admit the question of a vote of confidence. "The demand to change the approved agenda was illegal because all the changes in the agenda must be brought in not later than two months before the start of the congress," Surkis explained. In his closing address, though, he acknowledged that there was nothing to stop a majority of delegates calling an extraordinary congress in two months with a vote of confidence on the agenda.

That was on 15 December, and in the two months since, both parties have become increasingly entrenched. Surkis lobbied Fifa and Uefa. The general secretary of Uefa, Gianni Infantino, dubbed Surkis "Super Hrihoriy" for his work in getting preparation for Euro 2012 on track, while the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, was outspoken in his support. "Among the presidents of 208 member-associations of Fifa," he said, "Hryhoriy Surkis is more than my colleague. He is my friend from Ukraine. Our relationship is much deeper and definitely far exceeds the working relations between the president of Fifa and the FFU president."

The rebels, meanwhile, headed by the FFU vice-president, Serhiy Storozhenko, canvassed for support for an extraordinary congress. He was backed by Rinat Akhmetov, the owner of Shakhtar Donetsk, and by Alexander Yaroslavsky, the owner of Metalist Kharkiv, and by 14 January, more than two thirds of the FFU delegates had pledged their support. "By 14 January, I had received 38 written statements from members of the FFU members collective expressing their will to call an extraordinary congress to debate a vote of no confidence in Hrihoriy Surkis," Storozhenko said. "They did this without any political interference from governmental or other non-football structures."

The next day, 15 January, Storozhenko informed both Fifa and Uefa that the members of the FFU collective intended to call an extraordinary congress in accordance with FFU rules. Fifa responded by claiming it had found evidence of "interference by state authorities" and warning the FFU against removing Surkis before his term expires in 2012. "In this regard, we have received clear evidence that some of these members made the decision... after strong pressure was exerted on their delegates by government representatives and other persons and bodies external to the FFU," Fifa said in a letter published on the FFU website.

Fifa went on to say it would not recognise any new management. "Fifa requests that the FFU maintain its current executive committee until the end of its legitimate mandate in 2012," the letter said. "Fifa will not recognise any other leadership which emerges from a process marred by interference."

Uefa then waded in with its own warnings. "The Uefa executive committee would have to decide on the suspension of the Football Federation of Ukraine," it said in a statement. "A suspension means that Ukrainian clubs could not take part in our competitions, and it still has three clubs involved, one in the Champions League (Shakhtar Donetsk) and two in the Europa League (Dynamo Kyiv and Metalist Kharkiv). The national teams would also be suspended from official competitions, and as a concrete step, as a preventive we have decided to place the Ukrainian Under-21 team in a group of six [in Thursday's draw for qualifying for the 2013 European Under-21 Championship; there will be eight groups of five teams and two of six]."

Both Fifa and Uefa gave the FFU until Friday to resolve the situation. "We have written a letter to the FFU requesting the necessary steps are taken," said Infantino. "They will have to conform by 4 February. If nothing has changed then the emergency committee will have to meet to decide a suspension or something else." That vague "something else" is widely seen as a veiled threat to Ukraine's hosting of Euro 2012.

The warnings seem not to have made much impact so far. "Why would more than three-quarters of our members change their views – when they were acting according to the rules – just because of the Fifa and Uefa letters?" asked Storozhenko. "Fifa and Uefa can travel to Ukraine and find out what's happening for themselves. Ten members of the FFU executive committee have demanded that Surkis stop hiding and announce the date of the meeting of the executive committee at which we can consider the question of the extraordinary congress. We all have to act together. It's shameful for Surkis to look for protection at Fifa and Uefa. If he wants a dialogue he has to gather the executive committee before 4 February."

The former Dynamov Kyiv star Alexander Zavarov, whose family has been close to that of the Uefa president, Michel Platini, since their time together at Juventus in the 80s, is appalled by Surkis's actions. "The letter from Fifa appeared not as the result of official investigation but after personal complaint of Surkis," he said. "Why are Fifa and Uefa protecting interests of Surkis and failing to honour the power of other FFU members? The members of the FFU have the right to demand the president stands down."

As the president of the Ukrainian Premier League, Vitaliy Danilov, points out, even if Surkis is not removed, the extraordinary congress is probably necessary to discuss just why he is so popular, and how and why he has attempted to duck the vote of no confidence. "We are eagerly waiting for the congress to consider the petition of the 38 members of the collective," he said. "We would also like to know what sort of information was filed to Fifa headquarters and whether what was sent was based on consultation with the 28 members of the FFU's executive committee."

At the moment, the situation remains unclear. The rebels are determined to oust Surkis on Friday, accusing him of showing favouritism to Dynamo Kyiv, where his brother, Ihor, is president, of corruption, manipulating referees and of misappropriating ticket revenues from Ukraine's qualifying games for the 2010 World Cup. Surkis denies all the allegations.

"Surkis lost his credibility a long time ago," said Zavarov. "The owners of the biggest clubs in the country have risen against him and they want him to stand down. At the moment in Ukraine there is a king and labourers deprived of their rights. The letter from Fifa cited political interference, but who is this interference coming from? Who is accused? It's clear that the same owners of the biggest clubs who can ensure the construction is completed in time for Euro 2012 are not interested in a scandal that would put the hosting of finals at risk."

Surkis himself has refused to comment, with his press office putting out a terse statement: "The FFU will not comment on the Uefa letter, but as a loyal member of the organisation, will simply follow its instructions." Surkis, meanwhile, has already declared his intention to stand for another four years on the Uefa executive committee when elections are held at the Uefa congress in March 2011. After all, that is where his friends are.

Jonathan Wilson

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