In the end, they opted for Christmas Orange

Kiev, Ukraine | Perhaps the stirrings in Ukraine—which today holds a presidential election to replace the voided result of Nov 21—are best captured in the lines of Andriy Bondar‘s “Roman Alphabet.” The poem, tellingly, is composed in Roman rather than Cyrillic characters.

one of my friends thinks
that if we switch to the roman alphabet
our people will steal less
and immediately
our messy byzantinisms
our obnoxious sovietisms our endless ugro-finnisms
(sorry ugrics, sorry finns)
will disappear and something will snap in our heads
—and “voila!” we are part of europe

One realizes that more is being contested in this election than a choice between two men. The issues involve orientation (East vs. West), language (Ukrainian vs. Russian) and other fundamental aspects of identity. Debate continues over whether the name of the capital should be rendered in the Roman-style “Kiev” or the Ukrainian “Kyiv” or “Kyyiv.” Naturally, football has been part of the upheavals. Shakhtar Donetsk of eastern Ukraine, a top side that regularly appears in European competitions, earlier this month faced the quandary of whether their first-choice kit would send the wrong political message (Dominic O’Reilly, “Orange Revolution Won’t Distract Ukrainians from Their Goal,” Scotland Sunday Herald, Dec 5). Orange, the Donetsk color, has been adopted by the so-called revolutionaries backing Viktor Yushchenko, while the industrial region encompassing Donetsk strongly supports the departing Leonid Kuchma and designated successor Viktor Yanukovich. Donetsk had played in white in an earlier Champions League fixture against AC Milan, but facing Barcelona on Dec 7 they selected orange, winning 2–0.

The lads from Shakhtar Donetsk accept some huzzahs: “And for you, Shakhtar, the medal of my love / Will always shine on [the] pitch where you are” (full anthem available here). (AP)

Complicating issues is that only a minority of players for Donetsk and for rivals Dynamo Kiev are Ukrainian (5 of 24 on Donetsk, and 12 of 25 for Kiev)—and most of these are not regulars. In fact, as Franklin Foer writes in his recent book, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, Ukraine has been especially adept at trolling the world market for footballers, showing fondness for Nigerians—with mixed results (see chap. 6, “How Soccer Explains the Black Carpathians,” 141–66). Foer profiles Edward Anyamkyegh of Karpaty Lviv; Julius Aghahowa, also from Nigeria, plays striker for Shakhtar. Neither seems at home. Says journalist Oleg Racz about Aghahowa:

[Donetsk] is not Kiev or Lviv, which are pretty cosmopolitan now, but a town with coal mine slag heaps and Soviet urban sprawl everywhere. When he first came he couldn’t speak the language, couldn’t settle. …

Both Shakhtar (Rinat Akhmetov) and Kiev (Hryhoriy Surkis) are owned by government backers and are part of the old way of doing business. Simon Kuper, who chronicles in Football against the Enemy (chap. 6, “Rulers of the Ukraine,” 52–65) the shady dealings at Dynamo, writes recently in a more optimistic vein that changes in the Dec 26 election could mean more transparency for Ukrainian sport (“Establishment Club in Fear of Ukraine’s Protesters,” Financial Times, Dec 18). He notes that some Ukrainian athletes, particularly boxer Vitali Klitschko, have broken the linkage between sportsmen and sportswomen and the old Soviet apparatus (on Klitschko, see Peter Wilson, “Boxers in the Orange Corner,” The Australian, Dec 24). European player of the year Andriy Shevchenko of AC Milan, it is true, had appeared on government channel 1+1 backing Yanukovich. But he was greeted at the San Siro in the Champions League match against Donetsk with signs reading, “Shevchenko, your political choice made your country cry.”

Propaganda and Soviet sport have long been partners. One of football’s most notorious myths is that of the “Match of Death” in 1942 between German occupiers and Dynamo players. The latter, allegedly informed at the interval that they would be shot if victorious, nevertheless prevailed 5–3 and, according to the Soviet-era legend, were summarily executed. The facts, exposed over time by local historians and by novelist Anatoli Kuznetsov in Babi Yar, and published in definitive form in Andy Dougan‘s Dynamo: Defending the Honour of Kiev (Fourth Estate, 2001), tell a different tale. Dynamo footballers played several matches as a team named “Start,” regularly defeating opponents when not working at a Kiev bakery. In the so-called Death Match, they did beat a German side, but there were no reprisals. James Riordan (“The Match of Death: Kiev, 9 August 1942,” Soccer & Society [spring 2003]: 87–93) writes: “[A]mid the carnage and dreadful inhumanity of war, bitter foes played football. They played fairly and with respect for each other. They shook hands and then went off to resume the war” (90).

Dynamo Kyiv, 1942

Tragically, the Dynamo players who did survive the war were treated as pariahs for having played against and allegedly cooperated with the German occupiers. Some, however—certainly the Jewish goalkeeper, Abram Gorinstein—were killed at Babi Yar, among some 45,000 murdered at the ravine outside Kiev. And Ukrainians as a whole bore the brunt of losses in the European conflict, suffering between 12 million and 15 million fatalities. As historian Vladimir Mayevsky remarks in the DVD collection History of Soccer: The Beautiful Game, “People died, and let the land be soft for them.”

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (2)

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  1. [...] especially given its ability in recent years to afford players from abroad. See our report of 26 Dec 04. [...]

  2. I am a film producer and want to develop this heroic story of Dynamo’s fate into an authentic film shot in Kiev.

    I’m now in Kiev seeking investors for this great story!

    I too am of Ukrainian roots myself as well an actor hailing from Toronto, Canada.

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