Sport and Politics: Inextricably Intertwined – The Impact of Football on contemporary Ukrainian National Identity

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The power of sport is often understated in its role in contemporary nation building. This analysis will focus primarily on football due to its significance as the national sport of Ukraine. As the primary function of nation building is to bring people together in order to identify collectively with the state, it is obvious that sport can assist such a process. As Bale (1986, 18) writes ‘national identity and sport have historically been inextricably linked providing the examples of football at national level representing a town or region to international sides that represent the nation as a whole’. Football in Ukraine has historically been extremely popular. As with its political and cultural identifications, club football has traditionally been a divisive topic along which lines Ukrainian citizens drew their allegiances to. The most prominent rivalry between Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk embodied the often generalized political and cultural divergence between its people. Dynamo represented the capital and its club and fans felt greater identification with the Ukrainian state, whilst Shakhtar represented more acutely the Donbas region and its Sovietized working class population. This is further highlighted by the fact that their name translates as Miner, the main profession in the Eastern area. 
Since 2014, football has also been impacted by both Maidan and the war and has subsequently contributed more fervently towards the nation building process. Ukrainian ultras, who qualify as members of civil society, unanimously instigated the first changes towards a more unitive society by calling a truce between all rival fan movements including those in the East. They agreed to stop fighting amongst themselves in favour of joining together against a common enemy; the Yanukovych government, which was subsequently superseded by Russia once its infringement began (Fesenko, 2016). This bottom-up approach escalated further with many ultras and fans of clubs from across the country volunteering to fight for Ukraine in the Donbas. Whilst it should be conceded that ultras were traditionally the most patriotic of supporters, what can be highlighted is that the nation building process benefited from this. The commonality shared in passions toward football provided a precursor for support in defending the Ukrainian state’s territorial integrity, with a large proportion of such volunteers hailing from the traditionally more Sovietized and working class Eastern regions (Fesenko, 2016).
In addition, certain admistrative measures were also introduced to raise patriotic fervor and a greater of identification with Ukraine. The FFU (Football Federation of Ukraine) alongside the UPL (Ukrainian Premier League) initiated a motion of the playing of the national anthem prior to all domestic league matches (Interfax-Ukraine, 2017). This was in order to galvanize unity amongst both sides of supporters towards greater identification with the Ukrainian nation, which continues to the present. Furthermore, veterans of the war in the Donbas have frequently been invited to attend matches in a further sign of promoting a cohesive society using examples of the military to rouse unity around a common enemy (Ihor Surkis, 2017)
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Ex – Dnipro Striker Roman Zozulya (Centre) with Ukrainian soldiers near the frontline in the Donbas
However, as a result of the conflict in the East, Shakhtar and Zorya Luhansk have been displaced from their home stadiums and from their primary support hub. This has led them to play games in Kyiv, Lviv, Zaporizhya and Kharkiv, amongst others, where they have been welcomed and supported by the local populations, especially during European matches (Furmanov, 2017). This also highlights a greater unitive nature amongst football fans across Ukraine, willing to back a once rival club and region that previously was perceptively anti-Ukrainian in its identity (Rich, 2016).  Nevertheless, what should be noted, is that despite their displacements, the clubs remained in Ukraine and both clubs continue to represent Ukraine as a nation on the continental stage. Dnipro reached the Europa League final in 2015, despite not playing a single home game in Dnipro due to safety reasons regarding the War. Their achievements also inadvertently created greater support toward the Ukrainian state due to their positive representation of it by excelling at football (Polityuk, 2015). This was also compounded by some members of the Dnipro squad visiting the frontline and actively showing support for the Ukrainian soldiers.
Andriy Pavelko, the FFU President and MP for the Poroshenko Bloc, has implemented a modernization project of the governing body. This had led to a greater impetus on the national team with matches being hosted across the country, from Lviv to Odesa to Kharkiv. A supporters’ movement aiding people to travel and see the games, both at home and away, has also been initiated in order to garner stronger unitive support for both the national team and the country in general. Kyiv also successfully hosted the Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid in May 2018. Overall, the combination of the football administrative bodies approaches and supporters’ own initiatives have benefited from each other. The links between sport and identifying with the state have inadvertently been strengthened due to the greater crossing of cultural and political boundaries that previously caused rivalry. Instead they now embody a greater unity with the Ukrainian state as a whole.  
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Real Madrid fans on Maidan in May 2018

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