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.