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Ukraine's Euro dream goes back to British sailors

When the final of the European Championship kicks off in Kiev on July 1, it will be the high point in the history of Ukrainian football, more than a century after it was introduced to the country.

sports Updated: May 09, 2012 09:20 IST

When the final of the European Championship kicks off in Kiev on July 1, it will be the high point in the history of Ukrainian football, more than a century after it was introduced to the country by a group of British sailors.

The sailors established the first football side in the southern port city of Odessa where they worked. Locals looking on learned the game, paving the way for a string of famous teams now known the world over.

The capital's Dynamo Kiev -- whose players were involved in the notorious "Death Match against Nazi forces in the 1940s -- and Shakhtar Donetsk from the eastern industrial belt are among Ukraine's strongest calling cards.

But today's teams have also seen borders shift and empires die, with the Russian, Habsburg and Soviet empires as well as Poland all ruling part or all of modern Ukraine in the last century.

Team OBAK (Odessa's British Athletics Club), founded in 1878, consisted only of British citizens and used any suitable ground in the city for practices and playing.

In 1884 the first football pitch was constructed in Odessa, where the matches were held on a regular basis and quickly became popular among locals.

Almost at the same time, football appeared in the Habsburg Empire's Galicia region -- much of which is now western Ukraine -- where it became popular among the largely Polish-speaking members of local gymnastics society Sokol.

The match between the teams of Sokol Lviv and the visiting side from Krakow, played on July 14, 1894, was later recognised by Ukraine's Football Federation as the country's first ever football match.

Underlining the region's complex history -- and a less obvious link between the Euro 2012 co-hosts -- the game is also remembered as the first in Poland.

The sudden-death match, won 1-0 by the hosts, lasted just six minutes in front of 3,000 spectators in Lviv.

After World War I and the Bolshevik revolution that established the Soviet Union, football teams were organised in Ukraine's biggest cities like Kiev, Odessa, Dnepropetrovsk and Kharkiv.

Kharkiv teams dominated Ukraine's football in the 1920s but it was Dynamo Kiev who represented Ukraine in the first Soviet championship in 1936, finishing second in the the new league.

Meanwhile, in the west of today's Ukraine -- at the time part of independent Poland -- football was catching on.

Pogon Lviv won the Polish championship four times in the 1920s. But they and Lviv's other Polish clubs were wound up when the city and its surrounding region became Soviet territory after the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact.

The Nazis turned against the Soviets in 1941, and western Ukraine had its own league until 1944, when the Red Army drove out the Germans.

It was Dynamo Kiev players who in 1942 played the notorious "Death Match" against an elite team from the occupying Nazi forces, beating them and then having much of the team arrested by the Gestapo.

At the end of World War II, with Lviv and other western lands again made part of the USSR, the Soviet league restarted with Dynamo Kiev again the only representative of Ukraine in the country's elite division.

Viktor Maslov's Dynamo Kiev won their first national title in 1966, following up with victories in 1967 and 1968. Zorya from Ukraine's regional centre Lugansk then won in 1972.

In the dog days of Soviet Russia, Ukraine held their own against Moscow teams, with Dynamo Kiev also clinching success in European competitions, winning the Cup Winners' Cup in 1975 and 1986.

Dnepropetrovsk also won the Soviet League twice. Shakhtar Donetsk failed to win a single Soviet title but won five cup titles and a reputation as tough opponents.

At the 1988 European championships the Soviet team -- formed almost exclusively of Dynamo Kiev players -- reached the final.

Football in independent Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union was dominated by Dynamo Kiev, who won nine consecutive titles before Shakhtar Donetsk interrupted their impressive run in 2002.

Since then that rivalry has been at the heart of Ukrainian football. Shakhtar, boosted by the investment of its owner the local magnate Rinat Akhmetov, won the last edition of UEFA Cup in 2009.

The national side enters the 2012 European championships' with former Soviet star striker Oleg Blokhin at the helm to write another chapter in Ukrainian football history.