Ahead of 2012, Ukraine reclaims iconographic and football treasures

Cesc Fàbregas, football icon

Cesc Fàbregas, football icon (© 2007 Keri Tope)

Friedrich Christian Delius in his 1994 novella, The Sunday I Became World Champion, imagines a pastor’s son listening to Herbert Zimmermann‘s radio call of the 1954 World Cup final. Self-conscious about speech impediments accentuated by the repressive piety in his home, the boy dreams of something new in the open play of local side FC Wehrda 1922. As it did for Ukrainian Yury Olesha a half-century before, football to this lad brings a new culture. One momentous Sunday, the boy listens to the radio in his father’s study: suddenly, German soccer gods fashion miraculous passing combinations and crucifixes do not drop from the walls.

For those of us who have installed soccer gods alongside, or even above, icons of faith, what do these gods tell us? I wonder about this as Zinédine Zidane stares back from the bedroom dresser each morning. The Berber features, hooded brow, smirking self-deference and loosely knotted tie take on saintly glow from capiz-shell backing—a mother-of-pearl effect that my wife conjured in a brilliant soccer-themed triptych a few Christmases ago.

Zidane in trinitarian formation with Thierry Henry and Cesc Fàbregas represents the unknowable. No matter how close I bring my face to his North African hues and elliptical halo, the distance remains. This is the function of modern football iconography in daily press, blog, video game and replica shirt—to enhance separation between mortals and the soccer gods. Placing footballers in devotional setting emphasizes, with comic effect, a gulf that can never be bridged (see 25 Dec 06).

The contrast with religious imagery becomes clear when studying Ukraine, a Slavic nation with a thousand-year-old iconographic tradition and growing profile in world football. With UEFA’s confirmation last month of Kyiv, Donetsk, Kharkiv and L’viv as Euro 2012 host cities, those interested in intersections between football and faith, elite sport and memory have a fascinating case study.

Ukraine has experienced religious resurgence dating back to shortly before independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Its passion for football in the past century has filled some of the psychic space that religion, due to war, occupation and attendant cultural repression, struggled to claim. The first regional soccer exhibition occurred in 1894 in L’viv, the western university city that was also Ukraine’s artistic center during the high period for religious art starting in the 14th century.

Rebuilding Ukrainian identity has become part of the national project. Religious icons, featuring doleful faces and almond-shaped eyes of saints and angelic host, their gestures laden with liturgical import, have reemerged from church attics and bell towers. Icons also decorate buses (marshrutkiy). Current president Viktor Yushchenko, facing almost certain ouster in the first round of presidential elections Jan 17, maintains an extensive collection, exhibited two years ago at the Ukrainian Museum in New York. As with memories of football, Ukraine continues to cherish icons’ significance. “They are fundamental components of their historical context,” Yushchenko says, “as well as the spiritual expression of the interplay of various cultures.” These were folk arts, saints personified as everyday people who pointed to the unseen. They were important in conveying stories of faith to the unlettered.

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