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.

From Polish television, a UEFA video promoting the Euro 2012 logo.

Yushchenko, rival Yulia Tymoshenko and other political and sporting elites attended the unveiling of the Euro 2012 logo Dec 14. Was it right, the English-language Kyiv Post asked, for the logo, featuring cartoon-like tulips daubed with colors of Ukraine and co-host Poland, to be on view at Mykhailivska Square? At night, glow from the jolly structure clashed with the baroque exterior of St. Michael’s monastery, demolished by Soviet authorities in the 1930s and then reconstructed after Ukraine’s independence. The stunning cerulean edifice sits atop Dnieper River bluffs where one thousand years ago monks sought refuge from religious opponents. Depending on the angle of the photograph, the gilded spires of St. Michael’s of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Kiev Patriarchate seemed to emerge from the football blooming on top.

Unlike the late Russian Orthodox patriarch Alexei II, obliged during a national address to mention a Russian quarterfinal victory at Euro 08, Ukrainian church leaders, to our knowledge, have not spoken about the potential of the 2012 European tournament. Svyatogorsk Lavra, however, a monastery near Donetsk in the east, is undergoing renovations with hopes of becoming a 2012 base. This may be good news to organizers. According to director of a citizens’ group monitoring Euro preparations, Donetsk intends to compensate for lack of hotel rooms by housing 16,000 visitors in tents. In Poland, the Roman Catholic Church plans to recruit volunteers and to use catechetical classes to help address anti-Semitism in football. A church representative tells Agence France-Presse, “It is the vocation of the church to accompany man everywhere, including sport, the physical dimension of which must have a spiritual dimension also.”

With the Africa Cup of Nations beginning Jan 10 in Angola, the World Cup in South Africa and Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine, world football and confederations have turned to hosts emerging from colonialism and repression. Clearly, each case differs. In Ukraine, one senses a nation, like most nations, sorting through its history and trying to overcome a conspiracy of silence over hidden shame.

Map of Nadworna, Ukraine, 1939

Map of Nadworna, Ukraine, 1939, shows religious institutions, cemeteries and access to the River Bishchitza, next to which football was played.

Last year we alluded to interwar Jewish teams from Nadworna, part of a network of shtetls in Galicia in western Ukraine (18 Jun 09). The nationalist Ukrainian stronghold that changed hands among Poland, Habsburg Empire, Austria, Ukrainians, Nazis and Soviet Union contained hundreds of Jewish sporting societies energized in many cases by Zionist passion. “In the interwar period,” says Vladimir Levin, researcher in the Galicia and Bukovina Project at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, “almost every town in Galicia had a Jewish sport club, [the] majority with football teams.”

Jewish memorial books, called Yizkor, preserve extraordinary tales of sides negotiating their outsider status. Ha-koach of Nadworna played regular Sunday matches against local teams—“branches of the Goyim”—and nearby towns. Israel Grauer recalls fights, one starting after injury to the Ha-koach goalkeeper, that “continued for a few days after the game … moved to the streets of the city and even to the city center.”

Football insinuated itself into everyday life. Ha-koach Nadworna raised money with costume parties at Purim. Other Yizkor chroniclers have no trouble re-creating lineups, in 2-3-5 formation, from big games. Gaining legitimacy from sport administrators and acquiring space to train presented familiar obstacles. Natanel Farber in the memory book for Podvolochisk, Ukraine, writes that the local Maccabi side would “play soccer in the field between the ‘Temple’ and the new park. … The grass was low and the ground smooth. The field had just one drawback: it was on an incline. The team which played on the higher side during the first half would always win.”

Most stunning is a 5,000-word remembrance from Leopold Held concerning sporting culture in Borislav (Boryslaw), southwest of L’viv. Within a privately published manuscript, A Tysmienica nadal plynie (The Tysmienica Still Flows), named for the river that gurgled with crude after oil was discovered in the 19th century, Held compiles a unique football history. The story congeals around a field on which boys threw bricks, stones and bottles at each other until teenagers took to kicking around a rag-ball (shmacianka):

A shmacianka was usually made of a long sock, stuffed with old shmatas [rags], and formed into a ball with a thread and a rope. It was a very popular game. The kids divided into teams and scored goals. The goal line was defined by two large stones placed seven and a half steps away from each other, the steps measured by the tallest player.

Ha-koach of Khorostkiv, Ukraine

Ha-koach of Khorostkiv, Ukraine. Undated photo.

The field became a stadium. Rag-balls after World War I became cows’ bladders, then a leather ball that presaged the first sport club. Held lists the club’s first team: Chayim Aberbach, Marian Bauer, Lipa Buchwalter, Ulek Dienstag, Blum Eisenstein, Munio Hauser, Hebik Heimberg, Srulek Littman, Józek Luks, Hertz Schaller, Hertz Schmer, Munio Seidman, Adolf Wagner, and Kuba Weitz.

We could write whole chapters about each of them, four physicians, four engineers, and other highly qualified professionals. The surviving members of our generation of old-towners who survived the war and in their sixth and seventh decade know and remember these names and know who is who or who was who.

The club was renamed Ha-koach, relocated to a green field owned by Jewish oil men who vacillated over allowing football on the Sabbath, who then relented, and developed an administrative apparatus on the way to the top level of Polish football. Originally, the team included Gentiles, but Held later recounts players intentionally losing a match to a team from L’viv in order to avoid anti-Semitic recriminations. Despite a 3–2 victory, L’viv supporters smash windows of the Borislav bus. “This is what happens when nationalism enters into sports,” Held concludes.

In narratives from a time when football was young, Held and others demonstrate how the sport both defined and separated peoples. And despite the pluralist language of Ukraine’s modern constitution, anti-Semitism lingers in a nation with the world’s fifth-largest Jewish population. A 2006 report states that Nazi and anti-Semitic symbolism remain in evidence weekly in Ukraine’s football stadiums.

But, while many Jews might disagree, the stereotype of the Ukrainian as “natural anti-Semite” does not hold. Throughout the literature one finds gestures of accommodation and tolerance among Jews, Ukrainians and other ethnic groups. Writer Ivan Franko could in fin de siècle Galicia raise parallels between Ukrainian and Israelite searches for a homeland. His series of stories about Borislav peasants and oil workers served as a strikers’ textbook that Franko hoped might sow seeds for interethnic socialism in his homeland.

Measures to remember manifold plights that made Ukraine and neighboring Belarus ground zero for 20th-century suffering continue to gain momentum. “It must be remembered,” said architect Volodymyr Zhuravel on his monument that since Sept 09 commemorates the 33,771 victims at Babi Yar, the bloodiest killing field in a holocaust by bullets. Almost forgotten among human losses in World War II, 250,000 items disappeared from Ukrainian museums along with 50 million books.

Will football and Ukraine’s faith community grasp their potential to help shape post-Communist life and to fill in historical gaps?

The metaphor of iconography offers instruction. Restoration experts over the past hundred years noticed that icons dulled by time possess brilliant colors underneath. In a 1916 essay on Russian iconography, Eugene Trubetskoi writes: “The darkened faces of saints in our old churches were due to our indifference and neglect, and partly to lack of skill: we did not know how to take care of our treasures.”


Alon Raab provided translation from Hebrew.


  • Friedrich Christian Delius, The Sunday I Became World Champion, trans. Scott Williams, in Three Contemporary German Novellas, ed. A. Leslie Wilson, The German Library 88 (New York: Continuum, 2001).
  • Alison Fleig Frank, Oil Empire: Visions of Prosperity in Austrian Galicia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).
  • Israel Grauer, “Ha-koah’ be-nadvorna” (Ha-koach in Nadvorna), in Nadworna: Sefer edut ve-zikaron (translated as Nadworna, Stanislav District: Memorial and Records), ed. Israel Carmi (Tel Aviv: Hotsa’at ha-irgunim shel yotse Nadvurnah be-Yisra’el uve-Artsot ha-berit, 1975) (in Hebrew).
  • Leopold Held, A Tysmienica nadal plynie (The Tysmienica Still Flows), various translators (Poland: n.p., after 1978).
  • John Moroz Smith, “The Icon and the Tracts: A Restrained Renaissance of Religious Liberty in Ukraine,” Brigham Young University Law Review (2001): 815–55.
  • Roman Solchanyk, “Ukrainian-Jewish Relations: An Interview with Oleksandr Burakovs’kyi,” in Ukraine: From Chernobyl’ to Sovereignty. A Collection of Interviews, ed. Roman Solchanyk (New York: St. Martin’s, 1992), 160–69.
  • Eugene N. Trubetskoi, Icons: Theology in Color, trans. Gertrude Vakar (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973).

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. Thank you very much for this. I try my hardest to avoid bigotry of any kind, and I appreciate what you have written about my homeland.

  2. NormalMan says:

    Lwów was build by Polish people. In Lwów to 1939 lived 150000 people and 110000 was Polish. It was Polish city to 1945 when Stalin gave city to ukrainians to jar Poles and Ukrainians.

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