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Russian/Ukraine: Soccer Match Shows Political Rivalry

Sports and politics, for better or worse, are often intertwined. That was the case last Saturday in Moscow, where the national soccer teams of Russia and Ukraine faced off in a much-anticipated match that showed the rivalry between the two countries.

Prague, 13 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- On a purely sporting level, Saturday's soccer game between Russia and Ukraine promised a lot of drama. A win for either side could mean a spot in the European Championship, one of the soccer world's more prestigious events.

But it wasn't so much the game -- which ended in a 1-1 tie -- but the political subtext that charged the atmosphere surrounding the match at Moscow's Luzhniki stadium.

Russian officials stressed time and again that the game would serve to illustrate the strong "fraternal" relationship between Ukraine and Russia.

In fact, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said the game would serve to further cement the two countries' relations. The day of the match, however, Ivanov downplayed the political overtones to the game in an interview with RFE/RL.

"I wouldn't want to politicize today's game. We've (Russia and Ukraine) gone through a difficult period in our relations, when there were hard problems to resolve. Many of those problems still exist, but at least the mechanisms are in place to resolve them. Therefore, I don't want to use soccer to define our relations."

At times, bilateral relations have been marked by difficulties, as independent Ukraine strives to redefine its ties with Moscow, long the power center under the Soviet system and the Czars. Since independence in 1991, bilateral relations have been hampered by a number of issues, including the Black Sea peninsula Crimea, which is part of Ukraine but home to a sizable Russian minority. The division of the old Soviet Black Sea Fleet, based in Crimea, has also been a sticking point. Ukraine's outstanding gas bill owed to Russia is another issue. Today, Moscow is looking warily on as Ukraine haltingly establishes relations with NATO, a move that could signal Kyiv's further drift away from Russia.

The hype leading up to the soccer match exposed some latent Russian chauvinism towards Ukrainians. Many Russians view Ukrainians not as a separate ethnic group, but rather merely as "small Russians."

Vasil Zilgalov, of the Ukrainian service of Radio Free Europe, says the buildup to the match was marked by some ugly nationalism on the part of the Russian media.

"Many noted in Kyiv, and I saw it in today's press, that there was a lot of agitation on the part of the Russians, in the mass media. Russian state television showed some footage which, I would say was shameful, the way they portrayed Ukrainians -- of course, connected with the soccer game, but they had ethnic overtones."

Ukrainian national team coach Josef Sabo also blamed the Russian media for "insulting the Ukrainian players and coaches" in their reports leading up to the game.

Soviet Sport, a leading Russian sports daily, was perhaps the worst offender. It ran a headline calling on Russia to "Beat the Khokhly, save Russia." Khokhly is a racial slur for Ukrainians. The phrase is reminiscent of a well-known anti-Semitic slogan.

Ivanov did criticize the article in Soviet Sport, but in a somewhat muted tone.

"Not only politicians and diplomats should be responsible in what they say, but the mass media also. I don't think such a statement on the eve of the match will help to create the right atmosphere."

The atmosphere in Kyiv and throughout Ukraine following the match was euphoric. The tie score meant Ukraine was still in the running for next year's European championships.

One Ukrainian television program proclaimed: "This was the epoch-making match of the century if not the millennium." In Russia, the mood was, of course, far from jubilant. One daily, Vremya MN, said the tie -- due to a late Ukrainian goal that was the result of a terrible error by the Russian goalkeeper -- was a metaphor for all that ails Russia.

"Let's be blunt," the daily wrote. "We did it our way. ... Just like we do so many other things: elect presidents, collect harvests, or, for example, build roads."

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.