Saturday, 24 October 2020

The Forgotten Team of Chernobyl: The Football Club Put to an End by the World's Worst Nuclear Disaster


9 May 1986 was supposed to be the beginning of a new era for FC Stroitel Pripyat but the club never lived to see it. That day in early summer the club were supposed to play FC Shakhtar Oleksandriya in a Ukrainian league match, what was the fourth tier of Soviet football, and it would be their first ever match in their brand new stadium. But unfortunately, the match never took place and the new stadium lay empty in fact so did the whole town. Nearby events that took place just under two weeks earlier shook the world and brought an end to life in this treelined town of Pripyat. But whereas people still well remember the now more than 30 years empty town that was home to the workers of the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant very few remember its football club.

Considered the worst nuclear disaster in the history of the world, events on 26 April 1986 left large parts of Ukraine and Belarus uninhabitable due to high radiation levels. This was caused by events at the VI Lenin Memorial Nuclear Power Plant, otherwise known as Chernobyl, during which reactor number four was completely destroyed. This affected the now infamous nearby town of Pripyat which was evacuated just days after the incident and has remained all but empty ever since. The excellent Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham gives a blow by blow account of the event, the aftermath, and the lives of those involved. I could rave on all day about his brilliant book but of course one of thing he does not tell us is the story of FC Stroitel Pripyat.

Formed in the mid 1970s, according to Belarusian football blog A Ya Vse Chashche Zamechayu initially most of Stroitel's line up came from the nearby village of Chistogalovk although others claim the club originally consisted of construction workers working in the local Chernobyl nuclear plant and this would explain the club's name because Stroitel translates into English as 'builder'. Regardless of the club's beginnings, however, and more on that shortly, it does seem that for much of its existence the club's playing squad consisted of workers from the nuclear plant along with the odd player brought in from Kiev. 

Playing in the fourth tier, in 1981, 1982, 1983, and 1985 Stroitel were champions of the Kiev region qualifying for the Ukrainian championship that completed the season and for which the winners were granted a place in the third tier Soviet Second League that sat below the First league and the Top League. In 1985 the club ended the season just four points behind top position and what would have been a promotion in what was the clubs most successful season of all whilst in contrast in 1982, however, they had finished bottom of the eight team Ukrainian championship and in all other years not mentioned did not qualify for it. Playing in the lower echelons of Soviet football the club naturally was not a team of big name stars but one name of note was Anatoly Shepel a former Soviet International who had two League titles and one cup triumph to his name as a player with Dynamo Kyiv. Shepel never actually played for Stroitel on the pitch but for a short while did take up the role as manager of the club during this period of success in the eighties.

It was Vasili Kizima Trofimovich, a man heavily involved in the building of Chernobyl's nuclear plant and the creation of the town of Pripyat, who was the man behind the formation of the town's football club. “We have people in four shifts and nowhere for them to go and rest," he explained. "Let them go and watch football and drink beer." The rest, as they say, was history as many did take up his offer of watching football with home crowds averaging at 2,000 for much of the club's existence. Considering construction of the town did not begin until 1970 and at its height it had a population of barely 50,000 such support was actually fairly impressive. 

With only the most basic of stadiums, however, it was eventually decided that a new one would be needed for the club and so one was constructed. The new Avanhard Stadion was built complete with an athletics track and a 5,000 seat grandstand. It was a stadium the town could be proud of or at least they would have been if the whole area had not have been evacuated shortly before it was due to open.

The week before the grand opening of Pripyat's new stadium, Stroitel were to play in a Kiev regional cup semi-final against a team called Mashinostroitel Borodyanka. However, as the story goes, in their final training session before the match the Borodyanka players were interrupted by an army helicopter which landed on the pitch. Out of helicopter came two military officials who told them that the following day's match was postponed. In the early hours of that day, the now infamous incident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant had happened. 

We all know what happened next for the town of Pripyat, contaminated with radiation leaking from the nuclear plant's destroyed reactor, it would be evacuated with its residents never to return and its shiny new football stadium would lay empty never to be used. But as for the football, well Borodyanka actually went on to win the cup that year and FC Stroitel Pripyat would eventually return as FC Stroitel Slavutych with Slavutych being the name of a new town created for many of the displaced residents of Pripyat to reside. This new side, however, would be dissolved after only a few seasons. Their hearts were not in it. 

The end of FC Stroitel started on that day in April 1986 and their story is one rarely told. In the midst of such a horrifying disaster, one that shook the whole world, the story of the local football club, just one of many subplots to a far bigger tale, was never deemed overly important. But for many of those who lived in Pripyat, FC Stroitel had probably been a significant part of a former life that they would soon come to mourn.

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