“That’s just our football”

Text: Robert Schwaß, Fotos: Saskia Heller |

Impressions from Ukraine’s Premier League Match:
Фк Карпати Львів – Шахта́р Донецьк

“Life is itself a game of football”, Scottish Poet Sir Walter Scott once said and pointed on the several aspects which are influenced by the game though they are taking part aside the pitch. In Ukraine for instance, supporters went through some changes since the Euromaidan. After Timm Beichelt and Sebastian Pape had the chance to visit Shakthar Donetsk in their temporary home in Charkiv playing against Karpaty Lviv,  Saskia Heller and me visited a Premier League Match of both teams in Lviv. We were curious about, how the fans show identification with their teams, but also towards Ukraine.

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It is Friday evening, September 28th and still one hour left, before today’s match between Karpaty Lviv and Shakhtar Donetsk starts. Staying in front of Ukraina Stadium (Стадіон Україна), football romantics immediately could get a nostalgic feeling and fell in love with the impressive flood-lighting. The lovely pay kiosk and the rusted entrance gate with its Cyrillic letters on top spreading charm of rough 90s football. Though it is 2018 and modern football also affected Ukraine. Lviv was one of 2012’s European championship hosts and therefore got a modern Arena a bit outside of the city centre. Karpaty planned to play there, but after some bad results they decided to return to their time-honoured home ground, a supporter who sat next to us joked. Other people say, the costs for Arena Lviv were just way too high. Another reason could be the little interest of spectators – only 9’127 spectators went to watch the match of Ukrainians top division, although Shakthar is Ukraine’s second most popular team after Dinamo Kyiv (Arena Lviv suits 34’915, Ukraina Stadium suits 28’051). As an outsider, I could only guess why it is like this: Is the lower level of football a reason or the ticket prices? (50 – 150 UAH ≙ 1,50 – 5,00 EUR) are extremely cheap comparing with prices in German Bundesliga, but looking on the income of many Ukrainians, it still means a lot of money. Striking the fact, that the attendance during Lviv games decreased noticeably since 2014, people maybe have other priorities since Euromaidan revolution. From a sporting perspective the story of the game is told quickly: With 5 goals within the first half Shakthar dominated the game, a 6:1 after 90 minutes underlines the dominant position of the “Miners”, who are currently on top of Ukrainian Premier League. (Highlights can be watched here) Anyway, we still were more interested in what happened on the stands and outside the stadium.

Ultras and active supporters in Ukraine changed since 2014

Lviv as a city plays a strong role in Ukrainian patriotic movements and culture. The supporters of Karpaty have strong ties to the history of their hometown. Big graffities around the stadium mark their territory. “Banderstadt Ultras” is written in big letters, in honour to Stepan Bandera, a leader of Ukrainian Independent and Nationalist Movements such as OUN and UPA. Bandera plays a controversial role until today. Many Western Ukrainians see him as a hero and liberator, Eastern Ukrainians would rather call him a war criminal who was willing to ally with Nazi Germany. Despite that debate, a huge monument remains of Bandera near Kropyvnytskoho Square in Lviv. Like many Ultra groups in Ukraine, Karpaty supporters have the reputation of being far right-wing. During the match, we see supporters wearing anti-antifascist shirts. A graffiti of Karpaty Ultras contains the Celtic cross, a sign for Neo-Nazis. Seeing this in and outside a football ground is embarrassing for me, never mind if it appears in Germany, Ukraine or at any other place.

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Talking about football and identification, I would like to draw attention towards Joanna Pfaff-Czarneckas concept of belonging. Pfaff marks, thatbelonging is an emotionally-charged social location. People belong together when they share values, relations and practices”. Among the Ultras, those values changed during Euromaidan in 2014. Several groups announced that they would end their rivalries and support and protect Pro-Maidan protestors against riot police. Even left-wing Ultras from Arsenal Kyiv fought together with their opponents. Yet the following war in Eastern Ukraine led to splits inside the fans of Shakhtar. The club, who is being feed with money by oligarch Rinat Akhmetov was counted as a Pro-Russian club. With the ongoing conflict in Donbas Region, the club had to leave its home location and is now playing in Charkiv. Especially a lot of pro-Ukrainian Shakthar Ultras had to leave the region as well. An unofficial fan-profile on Instagram with at least 3’600 follower states, that the Ultras missing the times when they could stand together at Donbass Arena. Other fans maybe stayed and supported the Separatists. We were curious about, how People in Lviv would react, when Shakthar is playing there.

Pyrotechnics and common chants

During the match around 300 Karpaty Ultras are in their home sector 15/16, positioning themselves behind a huge banner, which claims that they are “Always loyal”. Flags are blowing in the wind, not only Green-White-ones, the colours of Karpaty, but also Ukrainian and some red-black flags, a sing for the (former) Ukrainian Insurgent Army. Despite Karpatys bad performance on the pitch, they support their team the whole 90 minutes, lightning some flares, singing chants with passion. In the away sector there are not more than a dozen of Shakthar-Fans, staying behind a Ukrainian flag as well, surrounded by almost more policemen than supporters. It seems they also want to express their pro-Ukrainian attitude. Ultras from Lviv begin to sing “Slava Ukrajini! Herojam slava!” (Glory to Ukraine). Shakthar-Fans join them. Even there are a lot of Donetsk supporters sitting on the neutral stand, which probably is a result of the team’s success over the last years. There is no historically rooted rivalry between both fan groups, so L’viv’s Fans stay calm. Only chants against Shakthars financer Rinat Akhmetov can be heard from time to time out of the Ultras Block. On the other tribune, there are fathers with Karpaty-Scarfs sitting next to their kids who are screaming for Shakthar. I talk with some of them if they are pleased with the match. One older man says, he supports both teams, a father who asks me to take a picture of him and his son tells me, that the final score isn’t that important, both are Ukrainian teams and it “is just our football.”

After the game we are quickly trying to catch our Marshrutka to the city centre. Saskia and I are quite excited by all the impressions. Though we didn’t think there will be clashes, we also didn’t expect so much acceptance for the away team. It seems that football fans in Ukraine came closer together since 2014. Rivalries stopped for the moment, priorities are changing, when there is a war going on in your country. Those facts we, who live in quite stable and peaceful circumstances should we keep in mind, when we are discussing patriotic issues abroad. Active scenes identify themselves as Ukrainians, maybe even stronger than before. Indeed, the common chants and the national anthem in the beginning of the match were quite impressive. On the other side, the glorification of nationalist symbols always has a negative connotation for me. The usage of well-known fascist symbols is something I don’t want to see around me, supporting my favourite team. With all those thoughts we are on our way to Kharkiv, the town, were Shakhtar play their games since the war in Donbas.

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