Ukraina Lviv: The story of Ukrainian football in Inter-war Poland

Lviv panorama

Panorama of present-day Lviv

‘In Lwów there are no border posts between different nations.  In Lwów there is however a Romanesque church built by Armenian hands, and the Baroque church of St. George.  Here there are remnants of German and Byzantium culture crammed together like market stalls…Different cultures in the city are not separated by streets but by the cornices of buildings.  Indeed boundaries dividing the peoples of the city do not stand between noble residences and peasant huts, or between counties and districts but rather in the centre of marital beds.’

Polish reportage writer Ksawery Pruszyński, 1937

‘I’m a Polish Lwowiak.  My father worked on the rail-roads, he drove the famous armoured train through the city to defend it from Ukrainians and later from Bolsheviks and Germans…But Lwów’s strong patriotism didn’t mean opposition to diversity and it wasn’t about hate.  Throughout my youth – and this goes for football too – I spent time with German, Ukrainian, Jewish and Polish friends.  We all respected and enjoyed spending time together and – at the same time – we understood and accepted that we came from different backgrounds.’

Legendary Polish coach Kazimierz Górski, speaking in 2005

Lviv is a wonderful city.  On my frequent trips there it was difficult not to be impressed with the place.  Many a first time visitor is struck by the beauty of its lovely old town which is redolent of the most attractive of European cities.  Indeed getting lost in its warren of winding streets it is hard to imagine that the city was once a part of the Soviet Union, so much does it err from our clichés of drab, grey tower blocks and rational urban planning.  This is not your archetypal post-Soviet city.

As Ukrainians are fond of telling to all that will listen, Lviv has a long history of European ties which stretch back to medieval times.  Founded in 1256 it was initially part of the proto-Ukrainian kingdom of Kyivan Rus’ until it was brought under the control of the Polish monarchy in 1340.  For the next four hundred years Lviv was an important South-Eastern bastion of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, and its inhabitants had access to European intellectual trends including the renaissance and the enlightenment.

Nationality in the city during the Polish period was incredibly fluid, local nobility often thought of themselves as Natione Polonus, Gente Ruthenus, i.e Ruthenian (latter-day Ukrainian) nobility of the Polish nation.  Local Ruthenian nobility conversed in Polish as it was the language of power and culture, and it connected them to Europe and the West.  In addition during this time many Jews came to settle in the city as they did all over the early-modern Polish-Lithuanian state.  The countryside surrounding the city was however almost exclusively of Ruthenian Orthodox stock.

In the late 18th century the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria.  Lviv fell to Austria – thus becoming the capital of the province of Galicia.  The Austrian state allowed relative freedom of association, at least compared to the other areas of formerly Polish lands.  As the Austrian monarchy declined it further liberalised its approach to accommodate the myriad of nations within its boundaries.  In Lviv the key date was 1867 when Austria granted autonomy to its Galician province.  As a result Polish became the main official language of correspondence in Galicia, with Ruthenian Ukrainian also in use.  This was a golden age for the city, as Poles, Ukrainians and Jews could be educated and print in their own languages and set up a variety of clubs and societies.  Until the break out of the First World War the city was a hive of intellectual activity, where Polish and Ukrainian activists dreamed of future independent national states.

Football in Austrian Lviv

Organised sport also benefited from the environment of cultural freedom in late 19th century Lviv.  Indeed it was here where Polish and Ukrainian football took its first tentative steps.  In July 1894 Lviv was the host of the first ever football game played in formerly Polish lands.  The match was played between two secondary school teams from Lviv and Kraków.  Of course, the game was quite different to the sport of today, it only lasted six minutes, i.e. the time it took for the first goal to be scored.  As in many other affairs the game has been ‘claimed’ by both Poles and Ukrainians as the start of their footballing odyssey.  Poles have done so as the two sides were from Polish language secondary schools, Ukrainians as the game took place in what is now Ukraine.  Poles and Ukrainians are good at arguing over things such as this.

Football in the city blossomed after this match, although it took another nine years for the first Lviv club to be formed.  Depending on who you go by the first club in the city was either Czarni Lwów (Lwów being the Polish name for the city) or Lechia Lwów which were both established in 1903.  One year later Pogoń Lwów was formed, a club that would go on to become the city’s primary footballing force.  All of these sides were set up by the Polish inhabitants of the city so we can call them Polish clubs.  Ethnicity, it seems, played an important part in the establishment of football clubs at the time, this can be seen in 1908 when Lviv’s Jews set up Hasmonea Lwów.  Football offered a chance for different ethnic groups to express themselves in a safe environment.

It was not long before the city’s Ukrainian population decided to set up their own club.  The Ukrainian pioneer of the beautiful game in Galicia was John Boberskyi – a teacher at the First Academic secondary school in Lviv.  In 1906 he set up an Ukrainian Sports Circle at the school and invited a Czech coach to give pupils training with a football.  After this Boberskyi traversed Galicia to spread the football message to fellow Ukrainians.  Boberskyi for example convinced Ukrainians in the city of Stanislawów (today’s Ivano-Frankivsk) to take up the game.  Finally in 1911 the Ukrainian Sports Circle became an officially registered Sports Club – which had alongside football, hockey, boxing, gymnastics and chess sections.   Ukraina Lviv had been formed.

From the very beginning Ukraina Lviv’s existence was considered a provocation by many Poles.  As the First World War approached a growing number of the city’s ethnic Ukrainians were calling for an independent Ukrainian state.  When Ukraina strode onto the pitch they wore yellow and blue colours; symbols of the Ukrainian independence movement.  But Ukrainians in Galicia had a major problem.  They sought to have their capital in Lviv – a situation the Polish majority population of the city would never be prepared to accept.

Lviv (Lwów) in Inter-war Poland (1921-39)

The First World War was a disaster for ethnic relations in the city.  Both Poles and Ukrainians clashed over Lviv as Europe’s empires creaked and swayed.  While Ukrainians made up a majority of all the rural districts of Eastern Galicia, Poles were the majority in the city of Lviv.  For Poles Lviv had been crucial in their national awakening in the nineteenth century and it was considered a politically and culturally Polish city.  Ukrainians on the other hand needed the city if they were to take control of the region.

On the night of 31 October 1918 Ukrainians took the initiative and seized key buildings in Lviv, proclaiming a West Ukrainian republic.  Incensed by what they considered as Ukrainian cheek, Poles counter-attacked the next morning.  The city was aflame as both sides fought for control.  Unfortunately for the Ukrainian side Poland already had a fully formed army which turned out to be the decisive factor in the conflict.  Polish local forces took the city on 21 November 1918 and Polish general Józef Haller’s arrival in the region five months later ended the Polish-Ukrainian war.  Lviv (now named Lwów) was subsequently annexed to the nascent Polish state.

Inter-war Poland

Map of inter-war Poland – Lviv is marked on the map as Lvov

Ukrainian national groups in the Lwów region were incensed by defeat at the hands of Poland and refused to accept life as a ‘national minority’ in the new Polish state.  As a result of the Riga peace treaty in 1921, five million Ethnic Ukrainians lived in inter-war Poland, approximately 15% of the country’s population.  However in Poland’s south-easterly provinces Ukrainians constituted an overwhelming majority.   Ukrainians on the whole lived in the countryside, with cities being the preserve of Poles and Jews.

The Polish state’s initial post-war moves did nothing to placate its ethnic Ukrainian population.  Indeed they declared that Ukrainians would have to be ‘nationally assimilated’ i.e. become Poles.  One particular abhorrent reform for Ukrainians was the introduction of bilingual schooling in formerly Ukrainian schools.  The most extreme elements of Ukrainian society considered Polish presence in the city and its region to be an occupation.  These groups believed that outright war against the Polish government was the only acceptable policy.

To distance moderate Ukrainians from the Polish state the newly established Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) attacked moderate Ukrainian and Polish figures.  By doing so the OUN sought to provoke Polish repression which would further antagonise Polish-Ukrainian relations.  The OUN, although it never became a mass movement, gradually gained followers amongst Ukrainians who felt excluded by the Polish state.  Their ideology may have been too extreme for the majority but at least it provided an alternative for Ukrainians who felt they had been denied a political voice.

Football in Lwów 1921-39

As soon as the Polish-Ukrainian conflict had died down football got back under way in Lwów.  Indeed the 1920s were a golden era for football in the city – at this time the region was famed for its footballing strength.  Pogoń Lwów, the club of the city’s Polish establishment, led the way – between 1922-6 they won the Polish title four times.  Although the 1930s saw a drop in form they remained in the Polish first division (the top-tier) until the breakout of the Second World War.  Their stand-out player was the remarkable Wacław Kuchar who, along with scoring an incredible 1065 goals for the club, was also Polish champion in speed-skating, ice hockey and a number of track and field events.

Pogoń Lwów 1926

Pogoń Lwów’s Polish championship winning side of 1926

Several other sides from Lwów graced the Polish top division in the inter-war period.  Czarni Lwów played at the top-level until 1933 before dropping to the Lwów A-Klasa (regional second tier) and Hasmonea Lwów (two seasons), and Lechia Lwów (one season) also had short stays at the top.  All this meant a high-level of rivalry and competition in the city over football.

Despite the football hubbub in Lviv, ethnic tensions were never far away.  In the summer of 1930 the OUN called for a national sabotage campaign against the ‘occupation’ policies of the Polish state in the Lviv region.  As part of this campaign Polish real estate was burned and looted across the South-Eastern provinces of Poland.  The OUN’s aim had been to get a reaction from the Polish state.  They were certainly successful with this ploy as Polish police and military in September 1930 ‘pacified’ the region – aggressively searching Ukrainian properties and at times beating up Ukrainian inhabitants.

Football was also a target at this time.  On the night of 18 September 1930 Czarni Lwów’s main wooden stand was burned down by Ukrainian nationalists.  This forced them to play matches elsewhere until their stand was finally rebuilt in August 1931.  The event was clearly seen as symbolically important by the Polish FA.  In October 1930 the FA levied a small tax on all Polish top league tickets sold to fund the rebuilding of the stand.  The Polish footballing community thus stood firmly against acts of nationalist violence.

Czarni's burnt-down stadium

The debris after Czarni Lwów’s stadium was burnt down in 1930

Ukrainian football in Lwów

After 1921 Ukrainian football re-emerged from the ashes of war.  But things were not the same.  Many sportsmen had fought on the other side of the barricades from Poles during the Polish-Ukrainian war and there was a strong reluctance to take part in the Polish football system.  To patriotic Ukrainians playing against Polish football sides meant an acceptance of Polish state control and was tantamount to collaboration.  Despite this Ukrainian clubs re-established themselves across Eastern Galicia, including Ukraina Lviv itself in 1921.  Ukrainian clubs however refused to play against Polish sides until the middle of the 1920s.  The breakthrough in this impasse came in September 1925 when Ukraina played their first friendly against a side recognised by the Polish FA, Hasmonea Lwów.  Ukraina had thus taken the first important step towards the normalisation of relations on the football field between Poles and Ukrainians.

Several years later in 1928 Ukraina went further by deciding to join the newly formed Lwów A klasa.  Their entrance initiated a chain reaction amongst Ukrainian clubs in the greater Lviv region – by the mid-1930s a good number began to take part in the Polish football system.  Indeed it seems that the presence of these sides was an important symbolic step for the Ukrainian community in Poland.  In 1929 the Lwów based Ukrainian newspaper Dilo was flabbergasted that Ukraina could not find a Ukrainian side to play against when they travelled to the nearby city of Stanisławów.  As a result Stanisławów’s Ukrainians set up a side Prolom (Breakthrough) in 1929 which subsequently entered the Polish system.  Apart from Ukraina and Prolom other sides such as Skala Stryj and Sian Przymyśl decided to take part in the Polish system.

Ukraina Lwów - 1937

Ukraina Lwów lining up on a cold day in 1937

Ukraina were however the flagship Ukrainian side in inter-war Poland.  Although they were never promoted to the first division, they played in the highest level of Lwów regional football from 1928-1940.  The end of the 1930s was their strongest period as they finished runners-up every year between 1937-9.  Let’s take a closer look at one of those seasons.

Ukraina Lwów in 1937-8

It is August 1937 and storm clouds hang over Europe with Hitler in power in Nazi Germany and the Great Terror in the Soviet Union in the middle of its gory machinations.  Lwów’s A Klasa is about to get started, the division is made up of 14 teams, including one Jewish side, Hasmonea, and one Ukrainian side Ukraina.  As part of preparations for the new season Ukraina took on touring Hungarian side Bocskai.  Ukraina unfortunately went down 4-3 in this match after trailing 3-1 at half-time.  Przegląd Sportowy (PS) commented favourably on their performance despite defeat:

‘Ukraina gave off a good impression during the match. They’re an ambitious team which fights hard on the pitch.’

Ukraina did not have a good start to the season, indeed it took until the end of September before they won their first match – a 3-0 drubbing of Pogoń Stryj.  After this result Ukraina went on a good run, losing very few matches until the winter break which came in mid-November 1937.  Special interest surrounded Lwów derbies in which Ukraina were involved.  These included two high-scoring draws with Czarni and Hasmonea in October.  The game against Czarni was particularly exciting.  It ended 2-2 and took place in front of a large crowd of 4,000 spectators.  PS commented:

‘The match was fiercely fought. In general Czarni were the better team, however they were terrible in front of their opponent’s goal. Just after the break Ukraina were winning 2-0 but they let in two goals just before full-time.’ 

Ukraina went into the winter-break in third place behind Polonia Przemyśl and their city rivals Czarni.

Just like today inter-war Polish football had an extensive winter break and, when play recommenced in April 1938, PS considered Ukraina as one of the title favourites in the Lwów A klasa.  They stated:

‘The big question mark is Ukraina. Due to their fighting qualities we expect they’ll be a third contender for the title.’ 

To illustrate how highly regarded Ukraina were as a team, we can look at a friendly between first division side Pogoń and a Lwów XI in April 1938.  Ukraina had an incredible four players involved – the largest contingent of any side in the Lwów area.

Ukraina went on to have a good second half of the season, including a 4-1 thrashing of title favourites Polonia Przemyśl in May.  Despite this they could not catch Czarni Lwów who ran away with the 1938 Lwów A Klasa title.

Aleksandr Skotsen and the President’s cup

The undoubted star of the Ukraina side of the late 1930s was Aleksandr Skotsen.  Skotsen was born on 28 July 1918 and as a child loved to play football in summer and ice hockey in winter.  From an early age he stood out in terms of physical ability and, as a son of patriotic Ukrainians, Aleksandr spent a good amount of time in the local branch of the Prosvita Ukrainian cultural organisation.  At the age of 15 he learnt that Prosvita were forming a football team named ‘Tryzub‘ (Trident) and he jumped at the chance to sign up.  Several years later Skotsen, now playing as a striker for Tryzub, took part in a summer youth tournament.  There, with Ukraina scouts looking on, he scored a hat-trick in the final against Skala Stryj.  Ukraina saw Skotsen’s potential and signed him up.


Aleksandr Skotsen

Skotsen went on to become a star for Ukraina, scoring a host of goals for the team.  A mark of how good he was came in the summer of 1938.  Each year between 1936-9 the Polish president Ignacy Mościcki organised a ‘President’s Cup.’  This was a knock-out tournament played between teams representing different Polish provinces.  Lwów’s side was made up almost exclusively of Pogoń players but two Ukraina players were called up, Skotsen and his team-mate Vladimir Bohurat.  The two only appeared in one match but what a match it was! In July 1938 Lwów hammered a team from Śląsk 7-1 with Skotsen and Bohurat setting up a number of goals.

In his memoirs ‘З футболом у світ’ (My football world) Skotsen recalled the ethnic tension in Lwów’s President’s cup squad in 1938.  One day after training the side went along to a local Café to drink tea.  Here Skotsen was surrounded by a host of well-educated, haughty Polish players.  Almost all of them played for Pogoń, almost all of them had good jobs or generous university grants.  Skotsen felt uncomfortable in such company but still decided to stick up for himself and his national community:

‘I kept trying to say that the Polish sporting community in Lwów was hostile towards Ukrainians, that we were on the receiving end of bad decisions because of our nationality.  They responded to my questions with muttered remarks, silence and at times ironic smiles.’

Later on that afternoon Pogoń club president Slipecki joined the players in the Café.  In his memoirs Skotsen explains how many of Slipecki’s relatives were actually ethnic Ukrainians who supported the Ukraina club – despite the fact that Slipecki himself was an officer in the Polish army.  Slipecki had visited the Café for one reason and one reason alone – to recruit Skotsen to play for Pogoń.  As the players left for home Slipecki requested that Skotsen stay behind for a chat.  Skotsen recalled what followed:

‘In short, Mr. Skotsen,’ – he said – ‘We need you.  Come play for Pogoń, we will provide you with good conditions. We’ll help you through secondary school, you’ll get a good government job, you’ll get on in life and you’ll get to play for us in the first division. Come on, join Pogoń, think of your career.’

When I sat there in stubborn silence he had another go, telling me about the great future I would have if joined Pogoń.  Finally he asked me once more:
– ‘Well, what do you think then?’
– ‘Sir’ – I started – ‘I’m Ukrainian, I can’t…’

I wanted to continue but he interrupted me nervously :
– ‘Well who cares if you are Ukrainian?’ – And then he proceeded to speak to me in fluent Ukrainian. – ‘Mr. Skotsen, we have lots of Ukrainians at Pogoń; Bereza, Vanchytskyy, Pomiha, Lemishko.’
– ‘Sir.  I’m sorry but my place is at Ukraina.’ – I replied.

The Major said his goodbyes and left the Café.’

Skotsen never did go to Pogoń.  He stayed at Ukraina until the outbreak of the war in 1939.  After the Soviet invasion of Eastern Poland in September 1939 Ukraina and other football sides in Lviv ceased to exist.  Initially in 1940 NKVD officers brought Skotsen to Kyiv to play for Dynamo before he made his way back to Lviv in 1941 after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.  Here he played once more for a reformed Ukraina side until 1944 when he fled to the West in fear of returning Soviet troops.  Skotsen eventually made it to DP camps in Austria and Germany before having two successful seasons with French first division side OGC Nice between 1948-50.  Skotsen left Europe behind for good in 1950 when he emigrated to Canada.

Lviv’s colourful ethnic mosaic was ended by the Second World War as first the holocaust brought an end to Jewish life in the city and then new borders and population displacement emptied the city of its Polish population.  According to the last census the Lviv Oblast is now 95% ethnically Ukrainian.  Ukraina Lviv’s story tells of a time when things were more diverse and a hell of a lot more complicated.  And I think we all agree complicated is more interesting.

This article draws on Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus: 1569-1999 and Aleksandr Skotsen, ‘З футболом у світ’ and articles in Przegląd Sportowy and Ilustrowany Kuryer Codzienny.

14 thoughts on “Ukraina Lviv: The story of Ukrainian football in Inter-war Poland

  1. Great, insightful piece. I’m wondering if, like some institutions from the prewar borderlands, football clubs were also in part transferred to the new areas of postwar Poland? Is Pogon Szczecin, for example, related in anyway to its Lwow namesake?

    • Glad to see a picture of my late dad Nestor Kraus on Lviv Ukraina, 3rd from the left. Wish I could also see Lviv Czarni. Jarema N. Kraus.

  2. A fascinating piece that reminded me of Robert Edelman’s book about Spartak, which essentially also traces the history of football in Moscow.

    As someone of Polish descent — there’s a town with my family’s name on it near the Belarus border, and a street with that name in Warsaw — I was hoping for some U.S. source to tell stories about Polish football during Euro 2012, but no such luck. This is a vital piece of the overall story.

    I looked up Skotsen, and I see him turning up as Aleksandr Skocen, and playing for Toronto Ukrainians and Toronto Tryzub, living on until 2003.

    • Hi Mike. Your comment is much appreciated. My overall aim is to write a book about Polish football history at some point. So these pieces are just part of the process of collecting material. Indeed I transliterated Skotsen in this way, but it could just as well be Skocen or the Polish Skoceń. I actually found that citation on the web in Ukrainian. I’d like to pick up the real book someday.

  3. This topic falls within a slightly broader topic that I explored while in graduate school at the University of Michigan: the relations (social, religious, marital, and plural identity) between Poles and Ukrainians (adding Jews too if you care to recognize the complex nature of culture in interwar L’viv). I was hoping to more deeply examine how ‘mixed marriages’ between Poles and Ukrainians might have directly conflicted with political and social constructs envisioned by nationalists who sought a more singular identity for ‘the nation’. Further, if the marriage is the product of basic, natural sexual attraction, while adherence towards/subscription of nationalist rhetoric is a conscious, thought-involved action, than would this represent an existential conflict of natural impulse (say a Pole and Ukrainian who are sexually attracted towards one another) vs culturally-driven expectation (reactionary rhetoric telling the Pole that the Ukrainian is ‘lesser’, ‘the Other’, or ‘unworthy’.

  4. This is amazing. My grandfather (Roman Cymbala) was on the Ukraina Lvov team with Skotsen. We have a copy of his memoirs book with an inscription from Skotsen to my grandfather in 1986 while Skotsen was living in Toronto. Thank you for explaining this aspect of Ukrainian history so nicely.

  5. Pingback: Pogoń Lwów, La Renaissance d’une tradition footballistique - Footballski

  6. Great article. I’ve always been fascinated by interwar Central European football especially the role minorities played. Lviv is high on my list of places to visit.

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