June in Russia: magic mushrooms, dress codes and everyone’s favourite laundry8 min read
The comedian Jerry Seinfeld once joked that when you think about it, what sports fans are actually cheering for is really just their favourite laundry. The players we root for are different every year, stadiums steeped in glorious history are unsentimentally bulldozed and replaced with faceless corporate arenas. Then there are the coaches, who once inspired awe, and dare I say it, love, from supporters, but become targets of undying hatred the minute they dare accept a job at a rival club.
As I eagerly awaited the 2020 European Football Championships, which finally got underway a year late due to the coronavirus pandemic, I still believed there was more to football fandom than just ‘wanting my favourite clothes to beat someone else’s favourite clothes’. Then, just days before their opening game against the Netherlands in Amsterdam, the Ukrainian FA released a rather underwhelming video to launch the team’s new kit for the tournament. It changed everything.
One of the first to react to the video was Russian MP and president of the country’s curling federation Dmitry Svishchev. Svishchev was outraged by the “totally inappropriate” design of the new Ukrainian jersey. He wasn’t alone. Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry also expressed her anger at the shirt on Facebook, for creating the “illusion of the impossible”. Though Zakharova didn’t go as far as Svishchev, who suggested the “designers must have been taking magic mushrooms,” she was adamant that their “desperate artistic action” was a form of “deception” which would only provide false hope to the Ukrainian team.
After all, how could Andriy Shevchenko’s squad possibly play on Europe’s biggest stage this summer in a shirt, which not only contains the slogans ‘Glory to Ukraine’ and ‘Glory to the Heroes’, but also an outline of a map suggesting that Crimea belonged to them and not Russia? It was only a matter of time before someone at the Russian Football Association fired off a strongly worded letter to European football’s governing body UEFA, imploring them to sort things out.
Dedicated Followers of Fashion
Meanwhile, back in Kyiv, as word spread of Russia’s latest attack, things quickly began to escalate. Never one to submit to Moscow’s will, former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko knew the time for dialogue was over. “When the aggressor country tried to remove our slogan,” he said, as he combined the bright yellow football jersey with a fetching black jacket during a speech at Kyiv’s International Forum, “there was no way we could come here in a shirt and tie. We had to break the dress code.”
His successor and current president Volodymr Zelensky was quick to follow suit. After a recent scandal in which Zelensky was accused of wearing a traditional Russian outfit on Ukraine’s national costume day, he was in no mood to get stitched up again this time. “It’s definitely special and knows how to shock”, beamed the president, as he posed proudly with his custom-made number 95 shirt, pointing out that it “contains symbols uniting Ukrainians from Luhansk to Uzhhorod, from Chernihiv to Sevastopol.”
For Kyiv Mayor and former boxing world champion Vitaliy Klitschko, the gloves were also off. Opting for a figure-hugging blue away top over the classic yellow home strip, Klitschko was convinced the new look would give Ukraine “the spirit and will to win!” Whether his assertion that the shirt “…will bring Ukraine victory, in the widest sense,” comes true in the long run, only time will tell.
Populist leaders jumping on the football bandwagon to boost their own popularity is certainly nothing new. Nor is it unheard of for issues of broader geopolitical significance to creep into pre-match discussions during major international tournaments. So, when I first read the details about how the Ukraine – Russia dispute had captured the headlines at Euro 2020, I found myself in the unusual position of partially agreeing with Vladimir Putin. “It’s not news,” Putin said in an interview on state news channel ‘Russia 24’ when asked his opinion about the must-have football shirt of the summer.
A keen sportsman himself, though one who usually prefers to wear no shirt at all, the Russian President must have been aware that ‘Glory to Ukraine’ first appeared on Ukraine’s football kit in 2018, and has been a consistent feature ever since.
When the slogan was first introduced, Maria Zakharova was too busy protesting against its adoption as the official greeting of the Ukrainian army to concern herself with such trivial matters as international football. Instead, it was Russian lawmaker Igor Lebedev who led those initial complaints. It’s “strange,” said Lebedev, after his demands to outlaw ‘Glory to Ukraine’ were ignored by UEFA. Lebedev was right to be surprised. After all, Russia does have considerable influence at UEFA, due to a long term deal with state-owned energy giants Gazprom, which benefits considerably from seeing its name displayed at all the world’s biggest football matches in return for millions of dollars in sponsorship money. On this occasion, however, Gazprom opted not to add more fuel to the fire.
UEFA did later acknowledge the importance of context when it comes to evaluating the meanings of slogans and symbols. Hence the warning given to Croatian centre-back Domogoj Vida for shouting ‘Slava Ukraini’ in a viral video to celebrate his winning goal against Russia in the quarterfinals of the 2018 World Cup. Vida, who had spent the previous five years playing for Dynamo Kyiv, did eventually apologise to the Russian people. For the video, not for the goal.
Fast-forward three years, and Domogoj Vida is not the only foreigner living in Kyiv prepared to mix football with politics. No sooner had the new shirts gone on sale than an unprecedented race began amongst foreign embassy staff in the Ukrainian capital to be pictured on social media wearing them.
America came first, as the US Embassy in Ukraine tweeted a photo of their team in the garden all wearing the new tops, captioned: “Don’t know who will win, but the Ukrainian team will look great!” Hot on their heels was the UK, whose own Kyiv embassy posted a copycat image. Their employees just “couldn’t help sporting the new Ukrainian National Team’s uniform”. Even the ambassador of the Netherlands was in love with the new outfit, though of course, he pointed out that orange would be the only colour for him when the two teams faced each other on match day.
But while they may stand little chance of winning any trophies on the football field, in the pre-tournament Russia-baiting contest on Twitter, it was definitely Canada that deserved to take home first prize. Not content with introducing the kit as a ‘new dress code’ that even Petro Poroshenko would have gladly complied with, the Canadian Embassy in Ukraine demonstrated the kind of eye for detail in their tweets that makes all the difference when it comes to the noble art of online trolling.
Presumably taking a dig at Russia’s clampdown on so-called ‘Gay Propaganda’ one shot showed embassy workers discussing a book about ‘Human Rights of LGBTQ Women in Ukraine’. Another took followers of @CanEmbUkraine behind the scenes at an all-staff meeting, where an employee’s laptop displayed a map clarifying for those who were still unsure of the boundaries between ‘RUSSIA’ and ‘NOT RUSSIA’.
Dress Down Friday
But while everyone in Kyiv was enjoying a few laughs on a Friday afternoon, in Moscow no one saw the funny side. Maria Zakharova’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs wasted little time in launching a vicious counterattack. In a tweet posted on June 11, the MFA Russia compared the US Embassy photo to the 1938 English football team greeting Göring, Goebbels and Hess at the Olympic Stadium with a Nazi salute in Berlin.
Joking aside, it is true that in the 1930s ‘Slava Ukraini’ and its response ‘Heroyam Slava’ was the favoured rallying cry of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), who collaborated with the Nazis for the supposed ‘greater good’ of achieving Ukrainian independence. Growing reverence in Ukrainian society for OUN and UP leaders like Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, the latter of whom recently had a football stadium named after him in Ternopil, are genuine cause for concern. Because while the slogan has taken on an entirely different significance for a new generation of Ukrainians since Euromaidan, nuanced discussions about these challenging aspects of the country’s history are still difficult to divorce from the emotions such topics invariably invoke.
The Russian MFA’s claim on Twitter that ‘Slava Ukraini’ is a Ukrainian version of ‘Heil Hitler’, was a rather predictable attempt to continue promoting a polarising view of events, which reduces a genuinely complex issue to accusations that post-Maidan Ukraine is ‘run by fascists’. Yet it also highlights how Moscow uses divisive issues like this one to justify Russia’s foreign policy actions to domestic audiences, and ensuring emotions win out over cold, considered analysis.
As I write this, Euro 2020 is barely a week old, and it’s already clear that Russia and Ukraine airing their dirty laundry in public won’t be the only time politics and football collide during the tournament. While Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán posed for selfies at the brand new national stadium in Budapest as a sign of Hungary’s return to greatness, the country’s parliament passed a law banning discussions of homosexuality and gender change in schools. Then there are the debates about whether players should or shouldn’t take the knee in protest against systemic racism. However well the region’s teams end up doing on the field, if you really want to get a glimpse of the latest political narratives in Central and Eastern Europe this summer, surely the best place to start looking is at Euro 2020.