Soccer and the Ukrainian Revolution: An unconventional match preview
Vadim Furmanov explains why the friendly between Ukraine and USMNT is about far more than soccer…
When the United States Soccer Federation announced on January 16th that USMNT was to take on Ukraine in an international friendly in Kharkiv on March 5th, not even the most prescient of political analysts could have predicted that by the time of the match nearly one hundred anti-government protesters would be killed in violent clashes in the same city that hosted the Euro 2012 final less than two years prior.
Neither could they have foretold that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych would be deposed, go missing, and turn up in Russia, desperately ranting at anyone would listen that he was still the legitimate president while his unfathomable opulence was put on display just outside the capital (A pirate ship? Really?).
Nor would they have foreseen Russia invading Crimea, on the blatantly fabricated pretext of protecting Russian citizens, putting Ukraine and Russia on the brink of all out war.
The Euromaidan protests began back in November after Yanukovych reneged on a trade agreement with the European Union in favor of closer economic ties with Russia. From a modest gathering of 2,000 people who occupied the central square of Kyiv (known as the Maidan) demanding European integration, it eventually grew into a massive protest against corruption, abuse of power, and violations of basic human rights that regularly drew crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
There were sporadic outbreaks of violence and several attempts by the police to clear out the square, but in general the movement remained peaceful. When the USSF announced the match, there was no reason to believe that the situation would deteriorate to the extent that it would not be safe to stage an international friendly in the country. After all, if soccer matches were canceled every time there was even the slightest hint of civil unrest, there would hardly be any soccer played at all.
But on the same day the friendly was announced the Ukrainian government passed a number of draconian laws that outlawed just about every form of protest, turning the protesters into criminals overnight. Yanukovich, the astute statesman that he is, apparently believed that by banning protests the protesters would pack their bags and head home. To no one’s surprise but the President’s, the protesters had no intention of leaving. What began as a peaceful protest escalated into violent riots and eventually all out urban warfare and, well, you know the rest.
Because of the harsh winters the Ukrainian Premier League is on break from early December to the beginning of March, so no matches were actually scheduled during the time of protests. But an event of such magnitude inevitably affects a country’s soccer scene, even if no soccer is actually being played.
The Hrushevskoho Street riots that broke out several days after the anti-protest laws were passed took place right outside of Dynamo Kyiv’s stadium. Massive barricades were built next to the colonnade at the entrance of the ground, which was left charred and defaced by graffiti. The iconic statue of legendary Dynamo, USSR, and Ukraine manager Valeriy Lobanovskyi was badly damaged.
But soccer’s role in the revolution is not limited to simply serving as a backdrop. Ukraine’s soccer fans did not remain silent. As soon as the protests turned violent, ultras groups from all over the country announced a truce and declared their support for Euromaidan, or at least warned their members not to join the ranks of the Titushky, the notorious government-hired thugs known for beating up protesters.
In Donetsk, a Yanukovych stronghold where few people were originally sympathetic to those whom they viewed as radicals and ultra-nationalists, ultras of Shakhtar showed up at the local Euromaidan and pledged to protect the activists from any attacks. This past Sunday, ultras of Dynamo and Shakhtar, traditionally two fierce rivals, staged a friendly in Kyiv as a sign of solidarity and mutual support for Ukrainian sovereignty.
Of course, many of these ultra groups are known for their far-right political sympathies and racist chanting, so to suggest that they are suddenly a force on the side of justice and liberty would be a distortion of the truth. Nor should the universal support of Euromaidan from ultras from all areas of the country – East and West, Ukrainian speaking and Russian speaking – be interpreted as an indication of a wider Ukrainian unity.
But the role of the ultras should not be overlooked entirely. Despite a reputation as violent thugs, Ukraine’s ultras have transcended traditional rivalries and served as protectors of the protesters, not instigators of violence. Once again, the commonly repeated adage that ‘sport and politics should not mix’ is shown to be nothing more than wishful thinking.
Back to what’s happening on the pitch. I’ll admit that I was slightly irked when I first heard that the friendly was no longer to be played in Ukraine. The match was scheduled to be held in Kharkiv, 250 miles away from the violence in the capital. In the round of 32 of the Europa League three Ukrainian teams – Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, Chornomorets Odessa, and Shakhtar Donetsk – all played their matches at their home grounds without incident.
In fact, Dnipro’s 1st leg tie against Spurs took place without the presence of any authorities, yet went off without a hitch. Fans took it upon themselves to check match tickets and provide security, and by all accounts did a much better job than the cops who are usually in charge of such tasks. Only Dynamo Kyiv’s first leg match against Valencia was moved to Cyprus, a perfectly understandable decision given the instability in the capital.
I was looking forward to the friendly as a symbolic first match of a post-revolutionary Ukraine. Looking forward to seeing the close-ups of the faces of the players during the national anthem, which contains the appropriately emotional lyrics “we’ll lay down our souls and bodies for our freedom.” To hearing the fans chanting “Slava Ukrayini, Slava Heroyam!” (Glory to Ukraine, Glory to Heroes), which has become the battle cry of the revolution. To witnessing the poignant moment of silence to those who perished at the Maidan.
Still, I understand the decision to move the match. The political situation has deteriorated to the brink of war, and in Kharkiv Euromaidan supporters have been beaten up by pro-Russia activists. The Ukrainian Premier League, which was set to resume this weekend, has been postponed indefinitely.
What I cannot even begin to understand is: why Cyprus? Fine, I get it — it can’t take place in Ukraine. But who chose Cyprus? The aforementioned Dynamo – Valencia Europa League tie also took place in Cyprus, and according to the only attendance figures I could find was witnessed by just 3,711 people. Watching the match on TV, I can safely assume that it was significantly less.
Cyprus seems to be the neutral venue of choice any time the political situation becomes too unstable. The Mediterranean island has hosted home matches of Israeli clubs Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa on numerous occasions due to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Ukraine is much farther away from Cyprus than Israel. Few, if any, fans will make the trip. And I doubt many Cypriot residents will be excited enough to show up, either.
I suggested that the match take place here in Chicago, where I’m sure Soldier Field would sell out in a matter of minutes considering our substantial and staunchly patriotic Ukrainian community. Of course, that was tongue in cheek, as the whole point of the US playing a friendly is so that so Jürgen Klinsmann can get a good final look at his European-based players in the last FIFA international friendly window before the end of the season.
But why not move it to, say, Poland, the country that successfully co-hosted Euro 2012 with Ukraine? The Polish government and people have been wholeheartedly supportive of the Ukrainian revolution, and for Western Ukrainians the match would be a road trip away. Attendance records won’t be broken, of course, but surely the atmosphere would be better than holding the match in front of a a few die-hards who will make the trip and a few thousand locals with nothing better to do.
I’m not pretending to understand the logistical and legal issues that would surface by trying to relocate the match, but common sense dictates that a better venue can be found. Instead of an intense World Cup tune up, USMNT will play a scrimmage against a group of players more worried about events in their home country than on the task at hand, with hardly any supporters to inspire them. Oh well.
Oh, and as for the soccer: Watch out for Yevhen Konoplyanka, Ukraine’s left winger and arguably the best Ukrainian player since Shevchenko. He scored this beauty against England back in 2012 and is reportedly a transfer target for Liverpool. If he’s even bothered.