Divided over football, united for freedom: in the stands of Ukraine’s arenas, the fans chant the same song.
It was meant to be the largest stadium in Eastern Europe – the symbol of a young nation, both politically and in sports – and made waves in the world when it was chosen to co-host the UEFA Euro 2012 Championship. Today, the stands of the Donbass Arena are packed with sacks of flour and cases of tinned meat, and the VIP parking lot is teeming with volunteers.
There is a war in eastern Ukraine and the stadium owner, the Shakhtar Donetsk Football Club, has fled to play elsewhere while the team’s president and owner, oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, has turned the facility into a distribution centre for humanitarian aid.
The four teams of the Donbass region – Shakhtar, Metalurh and Olimpik from Donetsk and Zorya from Luhansk, the two largest cities held by pro-Russian factions – will only play away games this season, far from the war. Two Crimean teams – Tavriya Simferopol, winner of the first-ever Ukrainian Premier League (UPL) title, and Sevastopol – have reluctantly withdrawn from the UPL to join the Russian football league. They too were annexed along with the peninsula.
The team Arsenal Kyiv went bust over a year ago and Ukraine’s economic situation leaves little hope of an imminent revival. Brazilian and Argentinian stars are fleeing, or at least trying to. The Brazilian midfielder for Metalist Kharkiv, Edmar Halowski de Lacerda, who switched nationalities to play for the Ukrainian national team, found himself drafted into the army to fight the separatists in the east. The UPL has been reduced to the 14 teams that have the logistic and financial means to compete in a championship that, similar to the country as a whole, is on the verge of bankruptcy.
The changes in the national football league reflect the political earthquake that has shaken the country in the last year. Shakhtar Donetsk, the team from the industrial pro-Russian east, nostalgic for the Soviet glory days, has moved to the Lviv Arena across the country. Its new base, Lviv, is the capital of Ukrainian nationalism, where the Russians – who moved in there in 1939 as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – are viewed as colonisers.
The move to Lviv is not merely one of convenience: Akhmetov can afford the rent on the stadium, also built for Euro 2012, whereas the local team Karpaty cannot. But the tycoon also wants to distance himself from the Russians and show his support for Ukrainian independence. And football is one of the few spheres where a political maneuver of this kind is possible.
Ukrainian football fans were one of the driving forces behind the country’s Maidan Revolution and ultras (hardcore fans) have been key figures in demonstrations elsewhere. The song “Putin Khuilo!” (literally, “Putin’s a Dickhead!”), coined by Metalist fans, has become an internet craze, a ring-tone and a protest anthem that has spilled from the stands to the streets.
The toughest clashes in the standoff between former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and the demonstrators took place at the gates of Dynamo Kyiv’s grounds. The Odessa tragedy of 2 May 2014, which ended in a fire that claimed 48 lives, began with clashes between pro-Russians and a pro-Ukrainian ultras march.
Oddly enough, the rift in the country has not been mirrored by football fans. Indeed, old rivalries have been shelved to create surprising alliances, such as the one between Metalist Kharkiv and Dnipro Dniepropetrovsk after a long history of contention.
Arsenal Kyiv fans were the only self-declared “anti-fascists”, waging ideological and physical battles against racist fans like the Dinamo Kyiv White Boys and especially the green-and-white Karpaty ultras (whose highly colourful away match antics are inspired by national symbols of which they believe they are the true guardians, but have also featured swastikas).
The anarchist militants and neo-socialist fans of Arsenal Kyiv were certainly in Maidan Square, along with the Lviv nationalists, while Metalist and Dnipro fans immediately sided with Ukraine in cities with pro-Russian majorities, like Kharkiv and Dniepropetrovsk.
This alliance has overcome linguistic, social and cultural differences and has already piqued the interest of sociologists. As non-Caucasian footballers know all too well, Ukrainian fans – like those in many Eastern European countries and beyond – are often racist (with the exception of Arsenal Kyiv). And football’s ruling body FIFA even feared racial attacks in the run up to Euro 2012.
Perhaps it is precisely the ultras’ tribalism that has led national and nationalistic sentiment to prevail in the war with Russia, even among fans of Russian origin, producing an unusual reversal of roles.
As the BBC noted in an investigation into Ukrainian hooligans, today the image of a football fan is “not a beer-bellied thug bent on destruction” but “a protector of rights and freedoms”. And Ukrainian ultras are starting to identify with this paradoxical image: anti-gay graffiti daubed on the riverbank in Kiev was covered up by football fans because homophobia is associated with Putin and thereby politically incorrect in a Ukraine that extols Europe.
This transformation could spread to other countries. In October, dozens of Belarusian and Ukrainian ultras were arrested after chanting in support of brotherhood between their countries at a match between the two national teams, topped off by a chorus of “Putin Khuilo!”
The Belarusians got away with mere fines, unusually lenient punishment under Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. The Ukrainians, arrested for being drunk and disorderly and their obscene language, were freed thanks to direct intervention by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko.
In Ukraine, football has indeed become an affair of state.