In strife-torn Ukraine, soccer is more than just a game

Soccer offers an escape from political troubles for fans as the Dynamo Kiev play Vorskla in Kiev.
Soccer offers an escape from political troubles for fans as the Dynamo Kiev play Vorskla in Kiev. McClatchy Washington Bureau/MCT

Sergey Sapsay showed up early at Olympic Stadium Sunday to hang a banner honoring the owner of the soccer club he supports, Oleg Babaev.

Babaev, also the mayor of a small town near his club of Vorskla Poltava was murdered this weekend, not long after a would-be assassin used a shoulder mounted rocket to try to kill the mayor of Lviv, in western Ukraine.

Newspaper and television reports note that the official suspicion is that the murder and attempted murder were moves by Russian-backed forces in this country to destabilize the center and west of a nation in which the east is at war and the south has been peeled away.

“There is no soccer without politics in this country,” Sapsay noted just before his team took on Dynamo Kiev to open the new Ukrainian soccer season. “It would be nice to escape the reality of our lives these days, but that’s not possible, not even for 90 minutes.”

This is a country at war. The recent downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet by a missile over territory in eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russian separatists underscored how the strife has had global security fallout. All 298 people aboard were killed.

Still, the temptation is to say, it’s just soccer. But the reality is that two teams from Crimea are gone. Five teams from eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region are officially homeless. And the rest of the nation senses the coming year is more about survival than success.

In fact, Ukraine’s nation’s shaky hold on normalcy _ as bitter clashes between the government and pro-Russian separatists continue _ might perhaps best be seen in its professional soccer league, which right now seems to be more about doubt than hope.

“Even in normal times, fans use soccer games to escape for a while from the harsh reality of their daily lives,” said former Ukrainian national team assistant coach Vadym Anatolyovich Yevtushenko, 56. “Right now, Ukrainians need this escape. I’m not sure they will get it. Success might be as simple as finishing this season intact.”

The top Ukrainian league, ranked as the seventh best in Europe, is not new to problems. In recent years, as the Ukrainian economy slumped (something many in in the west of the nation blamed on official corruption and an over-reliance on economic ties to Russia) teams struggled. That struggle escalated with the political instability that began in November.

That’s when a group of Ukrainians began protesting against a decision by the previous president, Viktor Yanukovych, not to sign an agreement for closer economic ties to the European Union. Those protests continued to grow. Media reports noted that they were strengthened by so-called soccer “Ultras,” the most die-hard of Ukrainian soccer fans. Russia portrayed some as fascist nationalists.

In February, after trying to break up the protests by ordering attacks, which killed as many as 100 demonstrators, Yanukovych fled the country and his government collapsed.

In the following days, as a new government was formed, Russia sent troops into the streets of Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula on the southern edge of Ukraine. In March, after a vote that is now widely criticized for overstating Crimean support for seceding from Ukraine, Russia annexed the region.

In April, separatists in the industrial Donbas section along the Russian border took over government buildings and began advocating secession as well. That led to the fight that continues today, with much of the international community, including the United States, stating that the pro-Russian separatists were funded and supported by Russia.

But as all of this unfolded, Ukraine’s soccer league tried to finish a season. Some games couldn’t be played. Many others were in empty stadiums for security reasons. That season began with a 16-team league. This one begins with 14. One team, in a very insecure economy, went broke, and while another was promoted to replace that vacancy, two other teams, based in Crimea, now play in Russian leagues.

Last year’s champions, the New York Yankees of Ukrainian soccer, Shakhtar Donetsk, and the owners of what is considered far and away the best stadium in the country, are one of five top teams based in Donbas. And those teams begin this season essentially homeless.

They are located in areas rife with fighting and shelling between Ukrainian security forces and Russian-armed and -backed pro-Russia separatists. Indeed, they are not far from where Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot out of the sky earlier this month. So the league has decided that the Donbas region teams will play their “home games” on the road.

Even then, there are still worries.

At the end of last season in May, games in Odessa, along the Black Sea coast, were played behind closed doors for fears that they might lead to violent clashes. Despite that, football fans were said to be among the leaders of a pro-Ukrainian protest that clashed with a pro-separatist counter protest, and ended with more than 40 deaths.

Last week, six of the top international players for Shakhtar, including the Brazilian national team player known as Fred, refused to return to the region for safety reasons. The team warned the players “would suffer” if they didn’t honor their contracts, and promised they’d be safe, but the city is the center of a civil war.

And even here and in the more stable west, the future is so unsure that owners are reluctant to invest in their teams.

The fans remain passionate. In fact, Ultras _ those die-hard fans _ now meet before matches, but instead of preening and slugging it out for supremacy, they chant pro-Ukrainian slogans. And they sing “that” song, the now-famous Ukrainian soccer chant that describes Russian President Vladimir Putin as a male sexual organ.

Dynamo Kiev fan Leonid Kulinich, 38, and a long-time follower of the league, notes that soccer means more to Ukrainians now perhaps than in years past.

“Soccer unites us today,” he said, not long after his team had scored to go ahead 1-0 against Vorskla on Sunday. “Sure, there are different clubs we support, but beyond the game, we’re all really rooting for our nation these days.”

Yevtushenko, who, before coaching the Ukrainian national team, played in the 1986 World Cup with the Soviet Union, says that the hope remains for fans that they can grab 90 minutes of happiness on the weekends.

“The season is a symbol,” he said. “Every fan knows their team is starting over from scratch, just as we are as a nation. The level of play may not be the highest for a while, but we hope to get better with time.”

Roberto Morales, a transplanted Ukrainian, is now a television soccer commentator here. From a pure soccer standpoint, he said that last season could have been better. And he notes that many of the nation’s soccer fan clubs played important roles in the pro-European movement. But as for what’s next?

“It’s tough to predict what comes now,” he said. “The ball is round; it can roll anywhere. That’s soccer in a normal world. This is soccer in a time of war.”