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Runaway president puts Metalist Kharkiv on the brink

The whereabouts of Metalist Kharkiv owner Sergey Kurchenko are unknown. The 28-year-old chairman of energy firm Vetek is facing an investigation over his involvement in the theft of "state property" worth 7 billion Ukrainian hryvnia (which roughly equates to $650 million) under deposed Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovich.

Aside from politics, the issue has far-reaching issues for Metalist, and the fate of the proud club and its players should be of great interest to many sporting directors around Europe. Many of its stars could become free agents in the summer, and some of them would be outstanding additions to top teams in England, Spain and Germany.

Until a few months ago, Metalist looked like one of the most interesting success stories in Eastern European football. Before 2005, the Kharkiv club were mediocre at best, winning just one cup in their history -- lifted during the Soviet era. But their fortunes changed dramatically after Aleksandr Yaroslavsky, one of the richest oligarchs in the country, bought the club. He invested hundreds of millions to build a competitive outfit and establish a youth academy, creating numerous jobs for local people. Yaroslavsky's money also helped to rebuild Metalist stadium ahead of Euro 2012. Yaroslavsky worked in perfect harmony with coach Myron Markevych, who arrived in 2005. The team gradually became a major force in Ukrainian football, just behind Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev, finishing in third place in six successive seasons between 2007 and 2012. Metalist achieved success on the international front, as well, taking part in the UEFA Cup/Europa League and reaching the quarterfinals two years ago.

The team has had a habit of scoring outrageously beautiful goals. You might remember the Van Basten-esque strike by Taison against Rosenborg, and there were many other brilliant efforts, including a 70-metre shot by Argentinian full-back Cristian Villagra, and a stupendous back-heel by Brazilian wizard Cleiton Xavier.

In December 2012, however, Yaroslavsky decided to sell the club after a long-standing feud with city mayor Gennady Kernes over stadium ownership. The businessman himself said in an interview that he was forced to leave, telling Forbes.ua: “It wasn’t an investment project. I lost money, but I put my heart into that club, and I don’t regret that.”

Kurchenko bought the club. He assured fans that the project would only grow under him, and at first he seemed to be right. Metalist took advantage of a crisis at Dynamo Kiev to finish second behind Shakhtar for the first time in their history last season, thus participating in Champions League qualifiers.

The current season started brilliantly, with Metalist leading the table and sweeping aside PAOK Thessaloniki in Europe, but then the bad news came from Lausanne that the club had lost their appeal against UEFA’s decision to expel them from the competition for a match-fixing case dating back to 2008. Then, toward the end of 2013, around the time that Ukraine's "Euromaidan" protests started, Metalist's domestic form dipped significantly. The link between the events wasn’t immediately clear, but it became more obvious when coach Markevych resigned in late February.

“The players have not been paid for three months, and the team is falling apart,” Markevych revealed. It turned out that Kurchenko had fled, and Metalist were left in total disarray, with several senior board members leaving the club. The news was unexpected, and Frank Arnesen (formerly of Tottenham, Chelsea and Hamburg) was named Metalist's new sporting director in January. The fans hit back. With the very existence of their team in danger -- it isn't unheard of in Ukraine for clubs to go bankrupt and out of business, the most recent example being Arsenal Kiev, which sadly dissolved last year -- an open letter was written to Yaroslavsky, asking him to take over the club again. But without success. Instead, Kurchenko tried to prove that he was not finished yet. At the beginning of March, a statement on the club’s official website read: “All the rumours are totally unfounded. I am doing everything to develop Metalist, and believe that we can win the league title this season. This is our main goal.”

The reality is different, and star striker Marko Devic has already been sold to Rubin Kazan for a cut price of 2.5 million euros. Salaries have reportedly been paid in cash, but nobody knows what will happen to the club, even in the short term. Under interim coach Ihor Rakhaev, Metalist played poorly in a 1-1 draw with lowly Hoverla last week, and it is difficult to expect the players, especially the foreign stars, to continue performing in current circumstances.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see most of them leave in the summer. As Metalist prepare to host Dynamo Kiev in the Cup semifinals on Wednesday, and Shakhtar in the league on Sunday, it would be wise to keep an eye on their impressive squad. The South Americans include Alejandro Gomez, who was signed from Catania in the summer, Cleiton Xavier, Sebastian Blanco, Cristian Villagra, Diego Souza, Marcio Azevedo and Marlos, while Senegalese captain Papa Gueye is a centre-back of enormous physical strength and will attract a lot of interest this summer along with his teammates.

In short, it looks like things could get worse for Metalist before they get better.