illustration: Four light blue hands are tugging at a yellow soccer ball with "We" written on it in dark blue letters. In the background, fighter planes fly in the sky.
Ukraine Goes Into Extra Time

Where the European Football Championship took place in 2012, where the ideals of friendship between peoples were celebrated, today there is war. Ukraine's hopes that the sports event would bring it closer to Europe have been shattered. What remains?

It's strange to talk about Ukraine ‘before the war’. This expression suggests a certain catastrophism. What is clear is that after the war some things will never be the same again. It is also clear that war is the starkest and most significant designation that can ever be devised for us all. War changes everything – people, country, circumstances.

Even after the end of the war – a state that currently seems very uncertain and indistinct – it won’t be possible to simply carry on as if nothing has happened. Perhaps this is why we’ve started using the expression ‘before the war’ more and more often. People want to remember the time before all the deaths, before all the bloodshed, before the arrival of armed strangers in our coun try. What was life like three, four years ago? What remains?

Four years ago, Ukraine lived for football. This might sound a little crazy, but it’s true. Four years ago there were serious discussions in Ukraine about how football was the only national idea that could really unite the diverse and disparate Ukrainian people.

Football as the only national idea?

Four years ago Ukraine was getting ready for the European Football Championships. Simply being given the opportunity to host these championships was seen as proof enough that Ukraine was now considered an established and forward-looking country. Of course there were also a number of other factors at play that painted an altogether less rosy picture, and even back then there were several incidents that could have cast a shadow over the festivities and which are worth looking at in more detail.

Firstly, it should be remembered that at the time when it was preparing for the European Championships, the country was being run by President Viktor Yanukovich, a politician whose popularity among the people was already rapidly declining and whose reputation around the world was the subject of some debate.

I can still remember the countless discussions that took place among EU Europeans about the approach they should adopt towards the championships. On the one hand, it was a great opportunity to support the country in its efforts to encourage people to go down the European route. But at the same time, Ukraine was being ruled by a regime that was not particularly compatible with the idea of democracy and European integration.

Europe’s leading politicians who wanted to grace the sporting festival with their presence would have to shake Yanukovich’s hand at a time when the President had just imprisoned his main political opponent, Julia Tymoshenko. In the eyes of many Europeans – and, in all honesty, in the eyes of many Ukrainians – it was becoming more and more difficult to associate the president with the idea of civilised and equitable partnerships and relations. This mean that the ‘festival of sport’ was doomed to being politicised from the very beginning.

European Football Championship: Image Game of Ukrainian State Power?

Ukraine was not, of course, unique in this respect, as sport has always to a greater or lesser extent been subjected to the influence of big money, and hence of politics. Broadly speaking, the European Championships were meant to be seen as an ambitious major project that would help to improve the country’s image and, more importantly, that of its president. This was a highly significant moment in the history of an independent Ukraine.


It should be said that as a result of this excessive politicising of Euro 2012, even the Ukrainians themselves were divided in their attitude towards the event. Some of them were more or less determined to boycott the championships, or at least ignore them. Their argument was that the championships were simply part of the state’s attempts to improve its standing, to confer some legitimacy on itself and to clean up its corrupt image, all at the expense of football. The preparations for the European Championships therefore raised a whole series of questions in people’s minds, particularly with respect to the transparency and efficiency with which the allotted money was being spent. Many saw Euro 2012 as little more than an expensive toy that required huge subsidies.

Roof of the Kyiv Football Stadium
Kyiv Football Stadium, photo: Maksym Tymchyk via Unsplash

A reflection of society

nd when significant amounts of money are involved, people’s greed tends to grow. The reality in Ukraine was that some people were determined to use football to line their own pockets. This had the effect of dampening people’s trust and enthusiasm. It turns out that the whole idea of hosting the European Championships was fraught with awkward questions.

Hardly surprising, as sport acts as a reflection of society and can often paint a more accurate and objective picture of it than its culture. And this was particularly true of Ukraine in this instance. Of course football could not escape the traditional components of political and social life in Ukraine – the populism of the ruling regime, the corruptibility of public officials, the oligarchy that existed within the business world. And this is precisely what happened as Ukraine prepared for the most important event in its history. At this point, it is worth putting politics to one side for a moment and addressing the topic of football itself.

When I describe the European Championships as the most important event in the history of independent Ukraine, I am, of course, exaggerating. But only a little. Football was alway more than just a sport in Ukraine. And it’s easy to explain why. Like every society that has achieved independence and is looking to establish its own identity, Ukrainian society was quickly and nervously trying to build the foundations that would provide it with stability and harmony following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Grass with diagonal white line
Photo: pixabay

The legacy of the country’s links to the Soviet Union included not only a huge amount of resources and the economic prospects associated with this kind of wealth, but also a whole range of significant and serious problems related to the particular nature of the country's historical development and the differences in ideological and political priorities at various levels of society.

Ukraine had in fact never been a monolithic country that was united in its needs and in its search for its own way forward. Ukrainian society was strangely united by an unusual mixture of genuine nostalgia for the Soviet Union, pro-Russian sympathies and pro-European intentions. It seems to me that these internal contradictions and conflicts suited the politicians. It is always possible to win more votes when there is an atmosphere of confrontation and division, and Ukrainian politicians have taken advantage of this fact for years, irrespective of their political orientation.

However, society itself was never going to benefit from a permanent state of confrontation. Particularly during Yanukovich’s time in office, the country was like a boat whose passengers could never agree what direction to sail in. The passage of time has shown that while the passengers were arguing, the boat was slowly and inexorably being driven onto dangerous rocks – rocks that the passengers never knew existed.

The idea of consensus

But what has all this got to do with football? During the years between the country’s declaration of independence and the Maidan revolution in Kiev in 2014, the Ukrainian people had few uniting elements. This is hardly surprising. What could unite the Russian-speaking people of the Crimea with the inhabitants of Galicia or Transcarpathia? Their history? No, this was more likely to divide them. Their language? Also a no. The church? No, not this either.

For a series of objective and subjective reasons, the culture of an independent Ukraine was never going to provide the link that would contribute to unity and understanding. Each Ukrainian region voted for its own politicians and led its own life. Every effort by the state to create a unified political, cultural and informational entity failed in most cases due to propaganda – either domestic or Russian.

And yet the idea of creating social consensus never really went away. People were always interested in any idea that might unite the Ukrainian-speaking, Greek Catholic inhabitants of Western Ukraine and the Russian-speaking mountain people of the Donbass region. The need for such an idea was ever-present and from time to time found its expression in the everyday lives of the average Ukrainian. The country had consistently demonstrated that it was capable of finding a solution to every situation by finding areas of common interest.

One of these elements in developing a new Ukrainian identity was sport. Because unlike language and religion, sport offers space for compromise and a sense of belonging, without the need to sacrifice personal principles and convictions.

The Ukrainians have always been keen to find their own place in their own country, to discover their true identities, and this quest has often been quite successful. One of these elements in developing a new Ukrainian identity was sport. Because unlike language and religion, sport offers space for compromise and a sense of belonging, without the need to sacrifice personal principles and convictions. It is possible to be a fan of the national team without having to switch from the Russian camp to the Ukrainian camp. It is possible to cheer on the Klitschko brothers without being in favour of European integration.

Indeed, it is victories by Ukrainian sportsmen and women that have, in many cases, brought about changes in the country. Posters of Andriy Shevchenko or the Klitschko brothers have adorned many Ukrainian children’s bedrooms – in the east of the country just as much as in the west. Politics had nothing to do with it. I have vivid memories of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the first and, as it happens, last time that the Ukrainian team played in the World Cup. I remember how after each victory by the Ukrainian team, people in the Russian-speaking and apparently ‘un-Ukrainian’ city of Kharkiv thronged the streets, proudly waving Ukrainian flags.

They can also win

The new generation of Ukrainians was formed not in schools and libraries but in stadiums and at rock concerts. While the state had no real national idea, football and rock stars did: that it was ‘cool’ to be Ukrainian, that Ukrainians could be successful and prosperous, that they could win, that they could be interesting. A simple idea, maybe, but a sincere one. The idols of the young Ukrainians were not politicians or civil society actors, but football strikers and rock singers. Politicians drew the short straw in this respect.

I remember how Ukrainian presidents officially opened the stadiums in the run-up to the European Championships. I know what it was like in Kharkiv when Viktor Yushchenko arrived to open a stadium that had recently been refurbished by local oligarch Oleksandr Yarolslavsky. Nobody in Kharkiv had voted for Yushchenko and the president was in his last year of office. Even those who had stood and cheered on the Maidan in 2004 were disappointed in him.

It is easy to imagine what sort of reaction the president received when he entered the stadium. Every word of Yushchenko’s speech was met with a denigrating roar from the stands. It was no different for Yuchchenko's successor, Viktor Yanukovich, when he opened the stadium in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv – he chose to give his speech via video link but was still greeted with a deafening roar. This city has never liked politicians. The fans rightly viewed these presidential appearances as having less to do with a love of the game of the masses than with a desire to court cheap publicity.

Football itself, however, really did unite the people. The national team played in cities across Ukraine and attracted general support. Having said that, it is understandable that not everyone in the stadiums in Donetsk or Kharkiv was prepared to sing the national anthem. But the national team still played for everybody, irrespective of whether they knew the words or didn’t want to know them as a matter of principle. The majority of fans in the Ukrainian stadiums welcomed the European Championships as being a huge privilege and a source of great joy, irrespective of which Ukrainian club they supported. But there is one more important point.

Active growth of the Ultras

A couple of years before Euro 2012, the so called Ultra movement began an phase of active growth in Ukraine. Ukrainian clubs had always had their superfans, but organised and structured fan communities with all their various attributes and rituals, such as banners, songs, flash mobs and ideologies were a relatively new phenomenon. It is interesting to analyse all this in the context of the last two years – from the revolution in Kiev to the Russian intervention in Crimea and the Donbass region. These are events that were directly influenced by the Ultras from the Ukrainian clubs.

This does not only relate to the fans of Dynamo Kiev and Karpaty Lviv who supported the Ukrainian revolution from the very beginning, but also to the Ultras from other Ukrainian teams, from cities such as Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Odessa and Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine, who went out on the streets and played a key role in the events of the winter and spring of 2014. It is important to understand that many of the groups involved – activists and volunteers – were to some extent formed on the terraces of the football stadiums. This means that football actually played an ideological role in the conflict too, however strange this may sound.

It is important to understand that many of the groups involved – activists and volunteers – were to some extent formed on the terraces of the football stadiums. This means that football actually played an ideological role in the conflict too, however strange this may sound.

Unconditional love, passionate hatred

When we talk about fan movements, it is important to understand that in Ukraine they differ little from those in other European countries. They have the same unconditional love for their own club and an equally passionate hatred of the opposition; the same categorical rhetoric, radical messages and strict codes of conduct. And the same fan wars – though these wars never affected the national team. In principle it is normal to support the national team, and we have to remember this when talking about the 2012 European Championships. Because – at the risk of repeating myself – the European Championships represented a significant moment in the development of the national identity of millions of Ukrainians.

I will not go into detail about all the scandals and disputes that surrounded Euro 2012. It is more interesting to talk about the atmosphere that prevailed during the tournament. For the first time, the whole of Europe was focused on Ukraine – not because of some new revolution or corruption scandal, but for positive reasons. Huge numbers of tourists made their way to Ukraine. The Ukrainians wanted to project a positive image of themselves and their country. Quite simply, they wanted people to like them. And they generally succeeded.

Man with tattoos and skull rings.
Photo: Clem Onojeghuo via Unsplash

Those of us living in Kharkiv will never forget the huge numbers of Dutch people who turned up in the city. The Dutch fans were officially due to be accommodated on an island on the edge of the city, but in reality they occupied the whole city, organised marches and, on occasion, filled every bar and restaurant. it was really lively and bright – quite literally, as their orange shirts shone out in every park and on every beach. But more important than the shirts was the festive atmosphere.

Despite all this, there was still the occasional unnecessary, but fortunately not too obvious, political gaffe. Before the game between Portugal and the Netherlands, Cristiano Ronaldo led out a young boy in a football shirt. It later emerged that the boy was the son of the local governor. A total coincidence, nothing personal. Then there was the somewhat uninspiring performance by the Ukrainian team, which failed to make it out of the group stage. People generally understood that this celebration of football would cost the country a great deal of money. But once the celebrations were over and the fans had all gone home, we were left with new stadiums and the same old oligarchs. Only two years were to pass before the war started.

The Dutch fans were officially due to be accommodated on an island on the edge of the city, but in reality they occupied the whole city, organised marches and, on occasion, filled every bar and restaurant. it was really lively and bright – quite literally, as their orange shirts shone out in every park and on every beach.

Political caprice and social apathy

And what came after the European Championships? Political caprice and social apathy, a strengthening of the Yanukovich regime and the feeling that nothing was going to change – the power of the Party of Regions appeared to be strong and stable. Nobody felt safe. Even the above-mentioned Kharkiv oligarch Yarolslavsky found himself being forced to sell his football club to Yanukovich's men. The party was over, it was back to reality. Hosting the championships had provided us with new stadiums and airports, but these useful but only local changes were all we had to show for it. Ukraine dropped off the radar again – and the country’s rulers showed no signs that they wanted to get back on it.

Pile of banknotes.
Photo: Mufid Majnun via Unsplash

There were also no signals from Ukrainian society. People continued to go to football matches and the fans carried on supporting their teams as they had before. The national team got on with trying to qualify for the World Cup. In the autumn of 2013 the Ukraine team made it to the play-offs and were due to play France. The first match was played in Ukraine and the national team pulled off a sensational 2:0 win. President Yanukovich was at the game, and was so happy when Ukraine scored that he stayed firmly in his seat – unleashing a wave of irony and sarcasm, but that was as far as it went. In the return match, France won 3:0 and so qualified for the World Cup. And the revolution began in Ukraine.

A country that is totally under the influence of oligarchs and corruption was never really going to be changed by a football tournament, especially when the competition itself was financed by the same oligarchs. 

Today, the events of two years ago seem somewhat strange and impetuous. Who cares about corruption scandals and the arrogance of the Ukrainian oligarchs when people are dying on a daily basis? Who cares about football when we are being subjected to artillery fire and land mines? The problems we had back then now seem laughable and naive. But what conclusions can we draw when we try to analyse and evaluate what happened? Could the European Championships have changed the country? Of course not. Football, especially Ukrainian football, is part and parcel of the economic and social life of the country, just like any other business.

A country that is totally under the influence of oligarchs and corruption was never really going to be changed by a football tournament, especially when the competition itself was financed by the same oligarchs. Talking to people from the Schengen Area were hardly going to change the basic attitudes of the Ukrainian people. The 2012 European Championships were simply a one-off event that hardly anyone thinks about now they are faced with the stark reality of war.

Honestly, we have much bigger concerns these days than football. What is modern football anyway? An expensive toy bought by rich people on a whim. The rich are prepared to finance things that generate no real profit just for the sake of fun and status.

In today’s Ukraine, the situation of football reflects the situation of the country as a whole: Shakhtar Donetsk, the club owned by oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, abandoned the occupied city and the players now train in Lviv. The Donbass Arena, the pride of Akhmetov and the whole region, now stands empty. Occasionally photos turn up on the internet showing armed separatists posing for photos against the background of the deserted stadium. But the stadium remains untouched – just like most of Akhmetov’s operations – and there are still a great many questions about the role played by Ukraine’s most powerful oligarch in this war.

Traitors and heroes

The president of FC Metalist Kharkiv, the Yanukovich man who forced Kharkiv oligarch Yarolslavsky to sell the club, fled Ukraine along with Yanukovich. Proper financing of the Kharkiv club stopped immediately, the top foreign players left, and the club ended up languishing in the lower reaches of the league table.

Such understanding will be born of a very bloody and brutal confrontation, as a consequence of a battle against a perfidious enemy, for whom fair play simply doesn’t exist.

The situation in the Ukrainian league was also difficult – the teams from the Donbass region (of which there are several) had to leave the occupied zone. The total number of teams in the league has dwindled, but this has attracted little attention, despite the fact that the Ukrainian team has qualified for the European Championships to be held in France this summer. Many Ultras got involved in the war. Many footballers are helping the military. Individual positions have to be judged first and foremost in the context of the war and the battle of ideologies.

The national team’s striker Yevhen Seleznyov, for example, who recently moved from Dnipro to a Russian club, was immediately declared to be a traitor. Meanwhile, the national team’s goalkeeper, Denys Boyko, who when speaking regularly switches from Russian into Ukrainian, became an instant hero. Regardless of who you are – professional footballer or football fan – war dictates its own rules and codes of conduct. It can’t be any other way. It will be different after the war.


View through a net of a football goal.
Photo: Travis Jones via Unsplash

But what should we expect ‘after the war’, in the more or less distant future? Ukrainian football is hardly going to blossom; the country’s economy is in a terrible state; and, judging by the policies of the Ukrainian government, we should not expect to see many changes. What we can assume is that football will do what it can to survive.

It seems unlikely that football will have the same effect on people that it had before the war. Many Ukrainians now see things very differently as a result of the war. This is particularly the case with patriotism. In the past, singing the national anthem in a stadium made a statement (or was simply posturing), it was a provocation, a declaration. For many citizens today, the words of the national anthem have become much more than just the lyrics of a song.

As for the Ukrainian national flag, this will no longer be seen as the sole preserve of football fans, especially after it was ripped down from government buildings and peppered with gunfire at the front. Now we view many things differently – perhaps we see them in a more serious and responsible light. Football as a national idea, as a basis for creating mutual understanding, has become superfluous. Such understanding will be born of a very bloody and brutal confrontation, as a consequence of a battle against a perfidious enemy, for whom fair play simply doesn’t exist.


A country with strengths and weaknesses

Today we can simply say that of course Ukraine was not ready for war. It had not prepared for it. It did not need it. And yet when we look back at the development of the country over the last 25 years, we can see that the Ukraine that was built during this period by Ukrainian politicians was wrong for everyone. It was wrong for those who were nostalgic for the Soviet Union, and also for those who saw Europe as the only hope for the country’s future.

I think I am right in saying that the decaying and corruption-ridden political and economic system of post-Soviet Ukraine was actually to nobody’s liking. This was the basic reason behind the revolution. It is ridiculous to assume that people would allow themselves to be beaten with police batons simply because they wanted to support the EU Association Agreement.

People went to the Maidan because they no longer wanted to live in what was then ‘pre-war’ Ukraine, because they wanted change. And while there have been few changes in the last two years, we can assume that there is still a long way to go, that Ukraine’s future has not yet been decided and that it is therefore too soon for us all to start relaxing. Whatever happens, we must not stand still.

In this respect, Euro 2012 feels like an after-image of the past, an emblem of a country that no longer exists. A country with all its strengths and weaknesses. We can look back to the past and only see the strengths. Or we can keep these strengths in mind but also try to analyse the weaknesses in order to find ways of overcoming them. It is clear that the country will never be the same again. What it will be like, is down to us. And of course football will be different too. We can only hope that it will be fair. Like everything else in our country.

About the author
Portrait of Serhij Zhadan
Serhij Zhadan
Poet and author

Serhij Zhadan is the most popular Ukrainian poet and author of his generation. He graduated with a dissertation on Ukrainian Futurism and is one of the main proponents of the alternative cultural scene in Kharkiv. He has published numerous volumes of poetry since 1995, and has also been writing prose since 2003. In spring 2012 an anthology compiled by Zhadan entitled Totalniy Futbol. Eine polnisch-ukrainische Fußballreise (Total Football. A Polish-Ukrainian Journey) was published by Suhrkamp Verlag. This English article is based on a German translation of the original Russian text by Pavel Lokshin, n-ost.

A selection of books:

  • The Orphanage. A Novel (The Margellos World Republic of Letters). Yale University Press, New Haven 2021
  • A new orthography. Poems. Lost Horse Press, Sandpoint, Idaho 2020
  • What We Live For, What We Die For. Poems. Yale University Press, New Haven 2019
  • Mesopotamia. A Novel. Yale University Press, New Haven 2018
  • Voroshilovgrad. Deep Velum, Dallas 2016