Hidden somewhere in Ukraine is a perfect rectangular forest of trees. If you stand in the middle, it seems like a normal, overgrown forest of pine, fir and silver birch trees, all around thirty feet tall. It is only the peculiar straight edges of the forest, just over a hundred yards long and seventy yards wide that suggest you’re standing in the middle of a football pitch.
Emerge from the forest and you’ll find yourself surrounded by an oval running track, the sort of football pitch you’d find all over eastern Europe, but here the white lane markers have faded and are overgrown with weeds. Everything is eerie and quiet, from the empty stands, to the toppled floodlights, to the abandoned concrete apartment blocks overlooking the ground.
For this was once the home ground of FC Stroitel Pripyat, a football team that played in white shirts, blue shorts and red stockings in the shadow of one of the USSR’s newest nuclear reactors, Chernobyl.
After the cataclysmic disaster of 1986, like everything else in Chernobyl, the football team, its players, coaching staff and supporters had to flee their stricken city, leaving behind their football ground to silently fall apart. This is the story of Pripyat’s forgotten football team.
In the spring of 1986, the supporters of FC Stroitel Pripyat had every reason to look forward to the upcoming season. The year before, their team had enjoyed one of their best ever seasons, finishing second in the fifth tier of the Soviet league pyramid. They’d lost only twice, scoring thirty-five goals in the process, letting in only ten.
The team was also moving into a brand new stadium. Like most of the other teams competing in the Kyiv rural district leagues, FC Pripyat had been playing in little more than a field, with a small hut used as a changing room. The new Avanhard ground was a vast improvement. It had a capacity of 11,000, a covered main stand, facilities for the press and visiting dignitaries, and floodlights for night games. It was, in short, a suitably modern ground that befitted a team that was aspiring to one day play against the giants of Soviet football, the likes of Dynamo Kyiv and Spartak Moscow.
FC Pripyat’s aspirations weren’t a surprise to their local rivals though: whilst most of the surrounding village sides were firmly lower league and rural, Pripyat was one of the Soviet Union’s proudest, model modern cities. It had been built as recently as 1970; a progressive commuter city for the brand new, neighbouring power plant. The football team was founded just several years later.
“The new stadium is as important to the people as the new reactor.” – Vasili Kizma Trofimovich, Chairman, FC Stroitel Pripyat.
Pripyat was a youthful city, with nuclear power at the forefront of modern technology. Of its 50,000 inhabitants, the average age was just twenty-six. The city was filled with nightclubs, sports centres, bars, romantic cafes overlooking lakes, and a sparkling new amusement park, complete with an oversized Ferris wheel.
Several hundred yards from the amusement park, down Sportyna Street, was the Avanhard ground. “This advancement of football infrastructure is a great gift to the people of Pripyat,” proclaimed the team’s founder and chairman, Vasili Kizma Trofimovich, “an ornament for the authority as well as the people of the ‘Nuclear City’”.
Compared to their rivals in the Kyiv oblast, village teams made up of railway workers, coal miners and industrial labourers, FC Pripyat were the glamour club. They had the most money, the best facilities and now the largest ground. It wasn’t past Trofimovich to sign ringers for the team and put them on the power plant’s payroll. ‘Stroitel’ means ‘builder’ in Ukrainian, but throughout the league, FC Pripyat were known less kindly as the ‘snowdrops’, named for the highly skilled players who would suddenly appear in the winter, in time for the spring season.
In Anatolia Shepel, FC Pripyat also had arguably the best coach in the division. White haired and wily, Shepel had been persuaded to drop down the league pyramid to join FC Pripyat in 1981, bringing with him a CV that showed he’d played for some of the USSR’s greatest teams, Dynamo Kyiv and Dynamo Moscow, winning two Soviet Supreme League medals and a Soviet Cup. Under Shepel’s experienced hand, FC Pripyat swiftly became the Kyiv regional champion three times in a row.
In the spring of 1986, with the new season just weeks away, no wonder the fans and players of FC Pripyat were optimistic.
The official opening of the Avanhard was set for May 1st, 1986. The importance of the date wouldn’t have been lost on anyone, for the first day of May was International Worker’s Day, one of the most significant holidays in the Soviet calendar. There was a fixture to be played before the first league game of the season though, a grudge match against bitter rivals FC Mashinostroitel in the Kyiv Regional Cup a week before, on April 26th, 1986.
Earlier that morning, a routine safety test at Reactor Number 4 suddenly failed, triggering a spiralling set of events that would unleash the cataclysmic nuclear disaster. At first, the Soviet authorities tried to hush up the extent of the disaster, not evacuating the citizens of Pripyat for several days. It was only when unusually high levels of radiation were detected as far away as Sweden, that the explosion was announced officially.
They did however, do something about the football match set to be played that afternoon. A helicopter was sent to FC Mashinostroitel. It landed on their training pitch, two officials in white hazmat suits coming up to the players and telling them, “Lads, go home, you’re not going to Pripyat today.”
FC Stroitel Pripyat would eventually move to a town called Slavutych, rapidly built in 1986 to provide homes for the families evacuated from Pripyat, but there was no heart left for the football team, and the renamed FC Stroitel Slavutych lasted only one season, before folding up in 1988.
Today, the Avanhard stands silent and empty. It was supposed to be one of the jewels of the modern Soviet nuclear city, but the disaster meant that no-one would ever play there again.