Is Sport Beyond Politics?

How the soft power of football works during times of war

24 June 2022

Christine Karelska

Future of Ukraine Fellow

The third story is of Tamila Khimych a midfielder of the Kryvbas FCW and Ukraine National Women’s team.

Tamila Khimych

Due to war atrocities in Ukraine, Tamila had to depart to the Spanish Football Club Espanyol FCW. Now, Tamila is in a training camp in Poland (the city of Rzeszów) as Ukraine’s National Women’s team is preparing hard for the important qualifying matches of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 against Scotland and Hungary on 24 and 28. Here is Tamila’s story. 

Tamila, since the spring of 2021, there has been a lot of information that Russian troops are gathering near our borders. All this was presented under the guise of ‘military drills.’ But then American/British intelligence began to give specific dates for the invasion, for example, 16 February, when President Zelenskyy announced a Day of Unity. Did you believe then that Russia would attack us? Did you expect a war of such scale?

To be honest, I did not believe it and did not pay attention to the conversations and news.  At that moment, I just could not believe that a war could start, a war that would take many lives, and destroy families, houses, cities and the country.

On the 24 February. How did you find out that the war had started? The day before you won a tournament in Turkey.

After the training gathering with the national team, we stayed in Antalya and waited for the football club. We were supposed to go through the second part of our preparation for the championship. I got a lot of messages and calls. At that moment I could not understand what was happening. I called my friend and asked ‘what happened,’ to which she replied: ‘haven’t you seen, the war has begun,’ I just did not understand anything and I say ‘what kind of war,’ she told me to watch the news, after talking with her, I started calling home to find out what was happening.

Could you tell me what sources of information you use to be up to date on what is happening in Ukraine?

I do not use specific channels, there are a couple of links where I can read the news etc.

How did your adaptation go in the Spanish ‘Espanyol?’ Did the players support you and Ukraine? Was it easy to emotionally switch to the game in such severe circumstances?

I will not say that my adaptation took a long time, no, I knew that I needed to get used to everything faster here since it is the end of the season and the team is fighting to get into the big leagues. There is no talk in the club about what is happening in Ukraine.

Did you meet Ukrainians in Spain? Were there rallies in support of our country? Did you take part in them?

When I arrived in Spain, I lived in a hotel for some time and there were a lot of Ukrainians there, and there are enough of them in Barcelona itself. I can not say anything about any rallies, since I have not taken part in them yet. As for me, the intranational community help us in any way they can, and for this, we only have to be grateful to them, but maybe some would like more, but we should be grateful.

Do you keep in touch with other Ukrainian players? The Women’s Football Association and the coach of the national team? Your family in Ukraine?

Yes, I communicate with girls from my team,  from the national team, and from other clubs in Ukraine. Of course, I talk with my family and discuss everything with the coaching staff.

Now the entire infrastructure of the country is suffering. Before the war, women’s football was not as developed in our country as in the EU. We do not have such stadiums, or sports bases (like Cobham in Chelsea FC). Do you believe that women’s football will be revived after the war? Or is there is a risk that football and sports will fade into the background?

Surely, we are far from such sports bases as Chelsea, Barcelona, ​​PSG, etc., but we have something to strive for and I can only say that there is some kind of movement. If only FIFA or UEFA men’s teams were not obliged to have a women’s team, then I am not sure that any of the top clubs in Ukraine would want to have a women’s team in their structure. Look at European women’s football, they love women’s football here, they go to women’s football here! I would like to believe that in our country in five years people will also love women’s football and will pay more attention to it, and develop it. But at the moment, thoughts about football in the country and about infrastructure, and the development of football are out of the question.

What is your attitude towards football players in the Russian Federation? To those who do not cover the war in Ukraine?

We are all people and everyone has their own choice, if they remain silent, then they have reasons for this, I do not want to blame or criticise them, this is their choice!

Do you believe that football is able to bring Ukraine’s victory closer and that the main thing is not to remain silent?

Yes, it does not really matter if it is football, basketball or hockey, the most important thing for us is victory, now we are one family, one team and one country!

‘Football is beyond politics?’ Is it really?

Of course, this is not true. And everyone has known this very well since 2014.

Do you believe that you will soon be able to play at our stadiums? Do you believe that victory will come soon?

I believe and hope that this horror will end soon and there will be peace, silence, and a peaceful sky over our heads. Surely, I would like to play home matches in my country and sing the anthem of Ukraine with my fans with pride!

Who are the heroes for you now?

A hero is every Ukrainian!

What do You want to wish Ukrainians?

I would like to wish every Ukrainian strength, patience, a peaceful sky and victory, and victory will definitely be obligatory ours, because we are Ukrainians and Ukrainians are strong and invincible people.

Olga Ovdiychuk is a star forward of the Zhytlobud-1 FCW (Kharkiv) and Ukraine Women’s National team. Now, Olga is the player of the Turkish Fomget Gençlik ve Spor FCW (Ankara). Next week Olga will share with you her story and stance on war development in Ukraine and the soft power of football. 

The second story is of Iryna Kochnieva, a professional football player of the Women’s National team of Ukraine and Kryvbas FCW in Kryvyi Rih, but was unable to make a debut due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Iryna Kochnieva

Iryna Kochnieva is a professional football player of the Kryvbas FCW in Kryvyi Rih and the Women’s National football team of Ukraine. In April, Irina joined the French Reims FCW. She started out in the Integral team in her native city of Vinnytsia. Then moved on to one of the best teams at that time — Chernihiv Legend FC. As a member of Kharkiv  Zhytlobud-1 FC Iryna won gold medals in the Ukrainian championship and played in the Champions League. Irina was looking forward to a new stage in her football career, but due to the outbreak of the invasion, she could not make her debut for a new club. Here is Iryna’s story.

Iryna, there were regular talks and warnings about the Russian invasion since last year as they were massing troops near our borders. In 2022 Western intelligence, particularly President Biden himself started to announce dates of this invasion, for instance, 16 February when President Zelenskyy announced the Day of Unity. While reading all this news, did you believe that Russia will start a full-scale war against Ukraine?

Honestly, even on 23 February, when the information about the beginning of the war on the next day was on the news, I did not believe it till the very end. I thought it will not happen, neither in Donbas nor anywhere else. I did not think till the very end that he would dare to attack our county. As I am speaking now, I have goosebumps, I still think it is a dream, we are all dreaming and, unfortunately, it has been dragging on.

On 24 February, early morning. How have you found out about the outbreak of the war? Could you share with us your feelings?

I was in Turkey when the war started and was waiting for my club. I woke up at eight in the morning as my best friend was calling me and hysterically asking me about my whereabouts as the war had started. I did not understand what was going on and asked my friend to calm down and explain. She said that Russia has attacked us. I was speechless. My friend told me that Kharkiv was the first city under shelling. That is my city, where I live, where I have my flat. Thank God, my relatives do not live there. She told me to call my parents and ask them to leave. I burst into tears, at that time I was alone. I checked the Internet to see what was going on, all I saw were explosions and murder. All my life was shattered in an instant.

What information channels do you use? As there are lots of them and it is easy to get lost in the ‘information space.’ Do you watch the All Ukrainian news marathon?

I carefully monitor Telegram chats regarding the situation in my native Kharkiv and a couple of reliable channels about the general situation in Ukraine. Every time, my morning starts with news about Ukraine. I wake up at seven in the morning. My day starts with the Ukrainian anthem then Ukrainian news. I turn on YouTube and watch the news. Before leaving my flat, I watch the news for three hours. Without it, I cannot start my morning.

How do you communicate with your relatives who are staying in Vinnitsa?

I worry so much about them. When I hear on the news that something happens in Vinnitsa, I call them immediately, as you cannot really know what is happening on the ground. I have not seen the war first hand so I do not understand how it is possible to live when something bad can happen to you and your loved ones at any time.

Do you support any charity funds?

I support reliable charity funds financially and have donated to the Women Battalion organisation. At the beginning of the war, I donated to the Armed Forces of Ukraine and try to donate on a regular basis. 

Have you taken part in rallies to support Ukraine in your current place of residence, Reims?

Unfortunately, in Reims, I did not see any rally in support of Ukraine or Ukrainian people like in other French cities. In fact, I do not meet other Ukrainians here. In this city I did not see as strong support as in other cities where you can see our flags. For example, football player Tetyana Romanenko in Marseille is doing a lot covering the war. There is no such thing in Reims yet. 

How do you see the future of women’s football in post-war Ukraine?

I think everything will be in the background. First and foremost I want our country, and our economy to rise. Then it will be the turn for sports and our normal lives. But now our country is being destroyed. It is not clear when it will all end. You think about sports last. I believe in the long run everything will go back to normal. Female football will not be at the same level as the male one but, I am 100 per cent sure it will exist.

How do you feel about Ukrainian players in Russian clubs amid the invasion? 

It is difficult to talk about the Russian people generally. Before Feb 24 despite the situation in Luhansk and Donetsk, I did not have any ill will towards them, now I understand that I hate them. I hate their country. I cannot help it. I have never had such feelings before in my life, such emotions, such anger towards people. I do not even want to talk about them.

What is your opinion on football sanctions imposed by FIFA/UEFA on Russia? Recently, the President of UEFA Aleksander Čeferin said that ‘Russian athletes should not suffer.’ There are rumours about Russia joining the Asian Football Confederation? What do you think about it?

For what we are suffering? For what is our nation suffering? We have not done anything bad to anyone. Each Ukrainian is suffering: each football player, each athlete, each person, each child, everyone. For what? We did not deserved it. But we are being punished now. I think these sanctions are right. I fully support them. I wish all sanctions would be ramped up against them. They have to understand what has happened, what their country has done with our country. If they finish the war now and sanctions are lifted, I am against it. They will not even have time to learn. It should not be like that. If you punish them — you punish them then you have to push for as long as it takes for them to understand. If they do not — why do they have to participate anywhere? Let them participate in their own country far away from us. I don’t know who plays [in the Asian Football Confederation] but let them play far away from us.

Do you believe in Ukraine’s long-awaited Victory and that peace will come soon?

I do not know how it will be. I know that I really want it. I am looking forward to peace in Ukraine and am praying for it every day. I strongly believe in it as the Ukrainian people are more united than ever and everybody is doing their best for this victory. I believe everyone will come back home soon. I have never wanted so strongly to come back home in my life as I do now. Today, I watched an interview with President Zelenskyy and he said the right words — ask any person, who is abroad now, whether he or she wants to go back or stay abroad? Everyone will answer that he wants to go home. And this is victory. Victory will be ours!

Who are your heroes in this war?

Each person is a hero in this war: people who have suffered, people who have lost someone and they find the power to keep fighting for our country, those who die for our country, children who draw drawings for our soldiers and send coins to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Ukrainian people are the real heroes and Ukraine is a country of heroes.

Do you believe in the concept of ‘football soft power?’ Can it help us bring Ukrainian Victory closer?

I believe that every small detail that points to what is happening in Ukraine now can impact the outcome of the war. Every word and every statement can have an impact. I am not sure that it will be football. But one must speak out and show what is happening in Ukraine.

Photo: Iryna Kochnieva’s Personal Archive

Iryna’s team Kryvbas FC organise charity matches in the EU to support Ukraine and raise funds. But now it is more complicated to do it as its female players are scattered all over the EU. Despite all challenges, Iryna’s club Kryvbas continues to fight not only on the football front but on the diplomatic one as well. On 14 May the coach of the club Olena Stetsenko and football player Lyubov Mozha had a meeting with the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. During the meeting, they talked about the first day of the war when the Kryvbas team planned to go to training camps in Turkey. They also spoke about today’s situation in Ukraine, due to the war started by the Russian occupiers. The tragedy of Mariupol, Azovstal and the need for the military help from Germany to Ukraine were on the top of the agenda. 

Stay tuned next week for the third story that has been interrupted by the brutal invasion of Russia. Tamila Khimych is a professional football player of the Kryvbas FCW and Ukraine National Women’s team, but had to leave for the Spanish Deportivo FCW due to the outbreak of the unlawful war. Tamila will share with you her story.

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The first story is of a Ukrainian professional female football player of Georgian origin and one of the key players of Ukraine Women’s National football team, Kharkiv Zhytlobud-2 FC and Romanian Heniu FC  – Natiia Pantsulaia.

Natiia Pantsulaia

Natiia Pantsulaia is a Ukrainian professional football player of Georgian origin and one of the key players of the Ukrainian Women’s National football team. Before the outbreak of the Russian invasion, Natiia used to play for the Zhytlobud-2 FCW and live in Kharkiv, the city, which continues to be under constant shelling since the first hours of the war.

Natiia was forced to leave the country together with other Ukrainian players. Now she lives in Romania and plays for the Heniu Prundu Bargaului FCW. Here is Natiia’s story.

There were regular talks and warnings about the Russian invasion since last year as they were massing troops near the borders. In 2022 Western intelligence, particularly President Biden himself, started to announce the dates of this invasion. While reading all this news, did you believe that Russia will start a full-scale war against Ukraine?

I belonged to the group of people that perceived such a possibility in a sceptical way. If we talk about the first date of the possible invasion 16 February, I did not believe it. I understood that they were going to do something, but not a full-scale war. I thought that if they attacked us, it would probably be Kharkiv or Donetsk, but, honestly, I have never imagined that they would attack Kyiv. It came as a great shock. After 16 February, when a new date of possible invasion was announced, my friends and I were in the national team. We talked about it every day. We understood that something was going on. It was really nerve-wracking as our families were in Ukraine. We felt that something was going to happen. But no one believed that they would for to Kyiv.

Right before that fateful day for all Ukrainians, the Women’s National team won an International Tournament in Turkey and you were getting ready to depart for Kyiv. How did you find out that the war had started?

On 24 February we were on a train on our way to Kharkiv. Relatives, acquaintances, and friends started to call us and ask ‘Where are you? How are you doing?’ We wanted to get to Kharkiv as fast as possible to understand what was happening. Surely, it was a shock. We encountered war in Kharkiv. I live in the district of Kharkiv called Shishkivka, nearby there is another district called Zhuki, and everything started there.

I arrived home and started to pack, with each minute I heard the sounds of explosions nearer and nearer. They were colossal. We did not have much time. Collectively we had three cars, we collected everyone from the team so no one was left behind. Once we were all in — we drove. It was scary because the conditions on the road were terrifying.

Natiia Pantsulaia with her cat Whisky

I know you have a cat whose name is Whisky. Due to war atrocities, people were forced to leave their pets behind. Now the situation is still critical as animals continue to die due to a lack of food, water and proper veterinary care. How is your cat during the long trip?

He was very calm. I drove not only with him but with another cat and a dog. My pet did great during the 26-hour drive. He did not cause any trouble. He was sitting quietly and calmly. 

Could you tell me what sources of information you use to be up to date on what is happening in Ukraine?

Since the invasion, I have been watching all available news. But three weeks ago I understood that I had to control this. There is an ocean of information. There were lots of nights when I fell asleep at four in the morning and had to be at the training at nine. So, I deleted almost all my news channels and left only a few. I watch official channels as they broadcast reliable news about my country. I am subscribed to the official account of the Women’s Battalion. I have left a minimal amount of channels to have clear information so as not to disseminate my attention.

You help some charity funds financially and create video content. Could you tell me something in regards to the Women’s Battalion organisation?

They are working hard, connecting with people and finding out about their needs. They collect funds and deliver all necessary goods. They know exactly what they are doing.

Do you communicate with other football players and coaching staff of your national team, the Ukrainian Association of Football in such challenging times?

Not every day. Everyone is busy. We have lots of chats — the national team, the club, our friends. We always keep in touch. Moreover, our coaching staff is always in touch with all of us. They always ask us what we need, how we are feeling, and control our football activity. They always write to us if we need anything and we can ask for their help at any time.

All our football clubs suffer from this unlawful invasion, especially Mariupol FCW. It is the epicentre of war crimes in our country. Do you know anything about our football players’ fate there?

The situation is very tragic. We still do not know what happened to some players. We are looking, but cannot find them. But those who managed to escape recounted awful things. Honestly, I do not know how to live with those experiences.

Have your family, friends stayed in Ukraine?

My sister had to leave the country with a little son as the family did not want him to know what the siren sound means, and what does it mean to get up five times a night and run to a shelter. The family wants him to sleep peacefully. But all my relatives and most of my friends, particularly the men, stayed in Ukraine.

How is your adaptation going in a new country and a new team? Do your new teammates support you and Ukraine?

I am hugely grateful to them. I never had a connection to Romania before, I say it frankly and honestly, but, now, I can say that they are great people. In my experience, they do their best to make us feel comfortable. There was even a situation when we told them, please that is enough kindness. Treat us like you would your own players. You can point out our mistakes, shout at us, scold us. They help us a lot even without asking. Just a couple of days ago, I discussed with my teammates, Iryna Sanina and Veronika Andrukhiv, about our experiences. We did not expect to be so well treated.

[Answering the question of whether it is difficult to switch emotionally during the matches, knowing what kind of war atrocities Russia is committing in Ukraine, Natiia could not hide her emotions and tears. The most difficult is to go to the pitch with the Ukrainian flag over the shoulders.]

Do you meet Ukrainians in Romania? The country turned into a powerful humanitarian hub and still helps our people, who are fleeing from war.

I meet lots of Ukrainian people in my city of Bistrița, Ukrainian buses that arrive in Romania, and there are churches, where Ukrainian people gather. It is not unusual to meet Ukrainians somewhere. Even if you do not know the person you greet him or her like you have known them forever. Ukrainians are everywhere. It is simple to get help anywhere, it is as if you were in Ukraine.

What do you think about the post-war prospects of female football in Ukraine? Will it get investments or will it stay in the background?

Over the course of many years, I saw Ukrainian football grow, and the conditions got better. It took time, you needed to get people interested. The problem does not lie in the fact that people do not love women’s football, people just do not know that it exists. We have got a huge problem with advertising. How is someone supposed to find out about it when no one writes about it? I am sure that women’s football will receive investments. If it is developing in Europe and we plan to be there, there will be investments. Moreover, lots of our players who play abroad, play in the first team. They do not sit on the bench.

What is your position on football players from Ukraine who still play in Russian clubs and do not speak out on what is happening in Ukraine?

Some people say that my position is the radical one, but I do not agree with this. The traitor is also who went to play in Russia before the most recent invasion, as the war is going on since 2014. The year is not important when someone goes to the country-aggressor to play football: as ‘sport is beyond politics,’ how should one understand it? It is like being a half-patriot. I do not understand it.

I know who I am, I am Ukrainian, I know what Russia is, and I know a bit of history. I will never set foot there. No matter how much I am paid, no matter what they give me. I will never go there. I do not understand girls who went there earlier and I will never justify them. I see some of them trying to justify themselves…  I have no sympathy. Hundreds of people died, and this helped you to realise something? No, it does not work like that. We are all conscious people. For someone, something bad must happen to understand that he or she is a patriot. I am not Ukrainian, I came to Ukraine when I was just one and a half years old. But this country brought me up, so I think I am a patriot of this country. I do not even support those who came back now.

What is your opinion on FIFA/UEFA sanctions? As their reaction was rather slow to impose any sanctions. Do you think football sanctions must stay, for instance, for five or ten years after this war? 

I am sure that they must stay till the very end unless the thoughts of the Russian people change and they plead guilty. If it is just to have another bullet point, categorically no. Sanctions must stay. If they say they suffer, it is just from the lack of brains. We all understand what sanctions are, quality of life changes, and iPhones will become more expensive. But I am talking about life.

What can be more important than the life of a human being, of a person? No one has the right to take someone’s life. Sanctions must be tough. If Europe talks about peace, it is their words, so take action. You must be responsible for each word, you have to stand up for each principle until the very end. I would say sports sanctions must not be for even five years, but for many more. People have to realise something, their mindset has to change, and they have to think otherwise. When we understand that the process of change is completed, only, in that case, I guess we can lift or mitigate some sanctions. As of now, definitely no. We do not talk about five or even ten years.

Who are your heroes in this war?

The heroes are the ordinary Ukrainian people and the Armed Forces of Ukraine. To be in charge is one thing, to be on the frontline is completely another one. You are safe, you can sleep, you live, but on the frontline people do not have it. A hero is everyone who is there and defending our country.

Do you believe that we will win this war? Do you believe in our accession to the EU?

I know history, Ukraine always won. It was always difficult for Russia with us, because we are an unbreakable people. I always used to say it even if Ukraine had powerful weapons, the notion of willpower, spirit, those things are incredible. I am sure, I believe and I know that Ukraine is unbreakable. This demonstrates that we will win. If Putin launches a nuclear war, it is the end of the world. When it is the end of the world, it does not matter who wins. Ukraine must access the EU because we really want it. For the last seven years, I see some progress. I saw that the country has changed, grown and it deserves to be on the list of the best countries. If we win this war, Europe will want to have Ukraine. As of now, I do not know such a powerful country as Ukraine. 

What is your opinion on the role of President Zelenskyy in the ongoing war?

In his political party, there are some pro-Russian politicians, at that time I did not understand why it was possible to ask one thing from people, our country, but to have those people in power. Now I respect him, he does a great job and does not surrender. After the end of the war, he must think about cleansing pro-Russian forces. If you are Russian and do not like Ukraine, you take a suitcase, go to Belgorod and goodbye. Everyone knew who Medvedchuk and Shariy were, but they were allowed to live and work in our country. After the outbreak of the full-scale war, we suddenly remembered who they really are. But they were always near us. I hope that after the war Zelenskyy will do everything 100 per cent right.

Stay tuned next week for the second story that has been interrupted by the brutal invasion of Russia. Iryna Kochnieva is a professional football player of Ukraine Women’s National team and Kryvbas FCW in Kryvyi Rih, but was not able to make a debut due to the outbreak of the unlawful war.

This is part of a running series on ‘Football in the times of Invasion’. In this special series, each week we will describe six stories that were interrupted by an unjustified war unleashed by Russia. Different interviews will be published giving personal insight into how the war has affected the lives of leading female football players from Ukraine. 

Football is a significant soft power tool, despite powerful organisations like FIFA and UEFA denying its direct affiliation with politics. In times of war, multi-layered crises and severe tectonic geopolitical shifts, the soft power of football cannot be underestimated. Is the old adage ‘football is beyond politics’ still alive today? 

These stories that we will unravel in this series show the other side of the medal. The stories of Ukrainian female football players, who’s lives and careers have been interrupted by the brutal war, will give answers to the role that FIFA plays during these challenging times — along with its ties with Russia during previous conflicts, football sanctions and the post-war prospects of women’s football in Ukraine.

Importantly, football diplomacy can contribute to the overall struggle for Ukraine’s long-awaited victory. 

When Bombs Fell FIFA Was Slow to Act

February 24 started like any ordinary morning — early morning risers getting ready for work, others sleeping peacefully, but it abruptly turned chaotic when heavy explosions were heard at the start of Putin’s so-called ‘special military operation.’ 

After the illegal annexation of Crimea and Russian incursion into Eastern Ukraine in 2014, the EU and the US sanctions were not enough to stop the Kremlin’s war machine. In the aftermath of the Russian invasion, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan acknowledged that the reaction of the international community was rather weak and the current Russian aggression against Ukraine could have been avoided if diplomatic tools had been applied in a more effective way in 2014. 

After Russia’s bloody and cynical full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, it was high time for FIFA and UEFA to U-turn their policy towards the Kremlin. It finally banned Russia from all international competitions and on 18 March 2022 the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) rejected Russia’s appeal to lift the ban. 

UEFA took the Champions League final from Russia, and terminated a 33.5 million British pounds per year sponsorship deal with Gazprom — the Russian state-owned energy giant and one of Putin’s geopolitical tools. The European football’s governing body ruled that Russia will not participate in UEFA Women’s EURO-2022 and Russia’s bid to host the men’s Euros in 2028 and 2032 ineligible.

Heavy sanctions were put on Chelsea FC and its owner, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who tried to act as a mediator between the peace delegations of Ukraine and Russia.

Political Pressure on an ‘Apolitical Institution’

However, such bold FIFA decisions were taken only due to huge pressure exerted from the  National Football Associations, namely from the French Football Federation and the Polish Football Association that continued to ‘name and shame’ FIFA’s slow reaction to the invasion of Ukraine. For the President of FIFA Gianni Infantino, it was an uphill task to cut his ties with Putin. He offered that Russian teams continue playing under the name of the Football Union of Russia, playing home games on neutral territory and behind closed doors with the Russian flag and anthem banned.

It sounded rather unfair towards the Ukrainian people who keep fighting against Russian aggression. The clear signal to FIFA was sent by the British PM Boris Johnson, who condemned Infantino’s stance on the events in Ukraine saying ‘there is a clear need for football to continue to present a united front in the light of Russia’s abhorrent actions in Ukraine…Sport cannot be used as a platform to legitimise Russian aggression.’ 

Fierce objections from the above-mentioned Football Associations have caused a domino effect: other National Football Associations supported this brave position. But if they were silent about excluding Russia from all international competitions, would FIFA have the courage to do it on their own? FIFA was cornered and shamed in its attempts to further appease the Kremlin. An Order of Friendship that was given to Infantino by Putin turned into a symbol of hypocrisy.

Finally, ‘FIFA and UEFA have decided together that all Russian teams, whether national representative teams or club teams, shall be suspended from participation in both FIFA and UEFA competitions until further notice.’

But what about Ukrainians who pay with their lives for their freedom and democracy? Is football not supposed to unite for peace and become a winner of this democracy? For, the phrase ‘further notice’ hints at lifting/mitigating all football sanctions and returning to ‘business as usual’ as soon as the situation in Ukraine is stabilised. Such an ambiguous position may put Infantino’s third term reelection ambition as FIFA’s President behind an eight-ball. 

2018 World Cup a Mark of Shame for Football

Before the Russian invasion, in 2018 Russia held the FIFA World Cup despite appeals from Ukraine and the international community to give this right to another country — not the one that is violating human rights and all norms of the international law. However, FIFA kept insisting that ‘sport is beyond politics.’ It has neglected the Russian crimes and, to some extent, sponsored Russian military might. FIFA turned a blind eye to its own Human Rights Policy adopted in 2017, pledging to ‘go beyond its responsibility to respect human rights and positively contribute to their enjoyment.’

FIFA President Gianni Infantino and Putin Source: Kremlin.ru (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vladimir_Putin_(2018-06-13)_06.jpg), „Vladimir Putin (2018-06-13) 06“, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode

The background of that grand sports event was grim: illegally detained Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar political prisoners in Russia, labour abuses against workers on World Cup stadium construction sites, anti-LGBT laws, war atrocities in Syria and the ongoing Ukraine’s territorial integrity violation. FIFA preferred to bite its tongue and silence those issues, having appeased Putin’s imperialistic goals to showcase the Russian power, improve its image on the international arena and strengthen its geopolitical positions. 

One of the Russian puppet and closest allies, the Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov, is notoriously known for severe human rights abuses. Since the first days of the Russian invasion he and his ‘elite Tik-Tok troops’ kept threatening the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy with a massacre. But, despite Kadyrov’s dark record, at that time, a World Cup-2018 training site was opened in Chechnya and Kadyrov boasted with a photo he took with a star player from Egypt national team Mohamed Salah, even making him an honorary citizen. The journalist John Leicester has described this old trick as such: ‘Using the appeal of sports, especially football, to make themselves and their regimes look good is one of the oldest tricks in the despots’ handbook.’

All in all, in 2018 all countries, whose national teams participated in the most prestigious football tournament, silently ‘boycotted’ the fact that it was taking place in Russia, despite Ukraine’s territorial integrity violation. The ‘hard’ power of the use of force was louder and stronger than the ‘soft’ power of football, having taken each international actor by surprise. No one could have probably imagined what was on the horizon in a couple of years.

Ukrainian Football After the 24 February 

This bloodiest conflict since the Second World War in the heart of Europe has severely destroyed not only Ukrainian sports infrastructure or FIFA/UEFA’s appeasement schemes, but the lives of all Ukrainian football players, particularly the woman in the sport. 

Photos: Official accounts of the UAF Women’s Football. This is what the stadium ‘Sonyachny’ (‘Sunny’) in Kharkiv looks like after the arrival of the ‘Russian world.’ Until the beginning of the war, the stadium was the home arena of the women’s football club ‘Zhytlobud-2’ and the training base of the national team of Ukraine. In 2020, the final of the Ukrainian Football Cup among women’s clubs also took place at this stadium.

In fact, mostly all of them were forced to leave their homes and are now scattered all over the world. FIFA has slightly amended its policies, giving an opportunity for all Ukrainian players to sign international contracts outside of the usual transfer window.

Unfortunately, the fate of some players of the ‘Mariupol’ FCW is still unknown. 

Ukrainian football clubs have organised, and will do so in the future, charity football matches to raise funds for resolving humanitarian issues caused by Russian atrocities, and supporting the needs of the Ukrainian defenders. 

Some Ukrainian male and female footballer players put their T-shirts up for auction, football clubs across the globe continue to show their solidarity with Ukraine by demonstrating Ukrainian flags or posters with appeals for peace. Moreover, the inscription ‘PEACE’ with olive branches is on the ball for the 2022 UEFA Champions League final and will be auctioned to help Ukrainian refugees. The UEFA Foundation  provides an emergency fund of 100,000 euros to assist children and refugees in Moldova.

Most Ukrainian female football players joined the Women’s Battalion team to raise funds for the needs of the Ukrainian army. The legend of Ukrainian football Andriy Shevchenko has become the first ambassador of the brand ‘UNITED24’ to tell international partners about Russian atrocities and mobilise the world community to support Ukraine more.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Andriy Shevchenko Source:https://www.president.gov.ua/en/news/prezident-pidtrimav-iniciativu-pro-zasnuvannya-nacionalnogo-75141 (CC BY 4.0)

All Ukrainian football players’  lives and hopes have been shattered overnight and now they are fighting for their country at foreign football stadiums, having turned into powerful ‘football diplomats’ for peace and democratic values in Ukraine. 

Published as part of our own Future of Ukraine Fellowship. Read more about the project here and consider contributing here.

Cover Photo: Personal archive of Natiia Pantsulaia

Christine Karelska

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Christine Karelska is an alumna of the College of Europe in Natolin and the Democracy Study Centre in Kyiv. Her main specialization is the European Neighborhood Policy. Christine was an intern-analyst of the Public Association “Community Associations” in Odesa. Her main academic spheres of interest are security studies, international relations, gender equality and local governance. Currently, she is working as an Advisor on International Relations of the Vice Mayor of Odesa and as an Assistant to the Deputy of the Odesa City Council. Previously, she worked as a Project Manager of the Ze!Women movement aimed at gender equality and promotion of the First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska’s projects in the Odesa region.

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