Can Soccer Hold Ukraine Together?
As crisis looms in deeply divided Ukraine, sports appear to be the nation's sole unifier.
Despite security concerns that threatened to cancel play, the national soccer team has reaffirmed its commitment to "indivisibility," agreeing to participate in an exhibition match against the U.S. tomorrow night in Cyprus. The relocation of the match from Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, to Larnaca had initially angered Ukrainian soccer officials defiant in their resolve not to be forced out of their own country.
"If we together with people experience the same thing that our whole country does, what kind of football can we even talk about?" Football Federation of Ukraine president Anatoliy Konkov said Monday night. "When we can't play on our territory ... why should we go to Cyprus and play football there? We want to play in our country, our home. We play for the people."
Konkov reconsidered his decision Tuesday, and soccer fans might have John Kerry to thank, with the FFU head stating that his team would play the U.S. "as they represent the country that stood up to defend our national interests and territorial integrity of Ukraine." Kerry is in Kiev and has pledged $1 billion in aid to Ukraine while condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin's military aggression in Crimea.
Konkov touted the move as an important show of unity "to raise the patriotic spirit of the Ukrainian people," a theme that has continuously surfaced in recent days. After the Ukrainian Premier League suspended play amid the turmoil, supporters of rival clubs Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk took to the pitch on Monday in a match overseen by professional referees; spectators and players alike sang the national anthem.
The political unrest is also taking a toll on the only Ukrainian team in the Kontinental Hockey League, Donbass Donetsk. The club reached the playoffs in only its second season in Russia's KHL, but fears of violence could prevent it from competing on home ice. Donetsk, a Russian-speaking city in eastern Ukraine, is the site of one of the conflict's boldest pro-Moscow demonstrations, as Russian supporters chanting "Putin, come!" occupied the regional government building Monday after lawmakers refused to officially break from Kiev.
Recent issues surrounding high-profile sporting events lend credence to those concerned with the potential for rioting at a playoff game in Donetsk. Last June, the Confederations Cup held in Brazil was mired with violent protests, with demonstrators and police clashing over huge cuts to public services and political corruption. And the last three Aprils have seen thousands of Bahraini protesters take to the streets to attempt to disrupt the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Sakhir. Officials were forced to cancel the race in 2011 when the mass riots began.
Still, sports have long been used to promote national unity in times of civil conflict, perhaps most notably by Nelson Mandela in 1995, who invoked South Africa's national rugby team to ease the transition to a post-apartheid democracy by providing common ground among his highly racially divided people. Recently, the escalating crisis in Venezuela has mirrored that in Ukraine, with Major League Baseball players coming together to express support for their home country regardless of their affiliation with the government or opposition.
"I want a better country," San Francisco Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval said. "I don't care about the [politics]. I care about my country being free. No more violence."
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