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Ukrainian Player Called 'Traitor' For Opting To Play In Russia

Yevhen Seleznyov celebrates scoring the opening goal during the UEFA Europa League semifinal second leg against Napoli in 2015.
Yevhen Seleznyov celebrates scoring the opening goal during the UEFA Europa League semifinal second leg against Napoli in 2015.

Yevhen Seleznyov was on top of the soccer world less than a year ago, as a star striker for an ascendant club with millions of fellow Ukrainians cheering him on.

Now, he's being forced into some fancy footwork in an effort to defend his decision to play in neighboring Russia, a country which is supporting separatists in a bloody two-year war in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 9,100 people.

"I never mixed sport and politics. This is just the situation, I hope people will understand," Seleznyov told the website recently. "Maybe someone called me a traitor, I don't know. But I did not betray anyone."

A sportswriter quickly called him out for his surprise transfer, and Ukrainian players have even chimed in on the debate.

Karpaty Lviv midfielder Oleh Holodyuk said no amount of money would convince him to play in Russia. Oleksandr Shovkovskiy, a goalkeeper at giants Dynamo Kyiv for more than two decades, told the soccer website that it would be "a bit strange to go play in the Russian league especially at this time."

Last summer, it would have been difficult to imagine such animosity toward Seleznyov. He was one of the key drivers in Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk's improbable ride to last year's Europa League final, the continent's number-two club-soccer competition. It was Seleznyov, born in what is now separatist-held territory around Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, who did all the scoring against Italy's Napoli in the semifinal, sending the Ukrainian side through to their first UEFA-competition championship match. The team's exploits were a dose of good news for a country weary of war in its east and slipping living standards. Like millions of other Ukrainians, President Petro Poroshenko rooted the team on in the final in Warsaw, where Dnipro fell 3-2 to Sevilla.

Financial Woes

Fast-forward less than a year and Dnipro is no longer the darling of European soccer. In fact, the team is struggling to stay afloat, mired in debt that has team owner, Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy, reportedly pondering whether to unload it.

And Dnipro is not alone. Metalurh Zaporizhya dropped out of the Ukrainian Premier League in October. Many of the remaining 13 teams are said to be struggling financially. Shakhtar Donetsk, one of the more successful Ukrainian teams on the European stage, and Zorya Luhansk are spending a second season in domestic exile because of the fighting around their home stadiums.

Goalkeeper Denys Boyko and midfielder Valeriy Fedorchuk left Dnipro in the winter transfer window to Turkish side Besiktas and Dynamo Kyiv, respectively. Those moves didn't surprise many soccer followers, given the team's mounting woes. In February, Ukrainian sports websites were reporting that the club was facing exclusion from all European competitions due to debts to the coaching staff of former manager Juande Ramos, who himself is reportedly owed 900,000 euros ($996,000).

With team prospects less than rosy, Seleznyov finalized his transfer to Kuban Krasnodar, in the Russian Premier League, on February 25.

Seleznyov is not the first Ukrainian player to grace a Russian roster, but he is of a higher caliber than most. The 30-year-old striker has scored 11 goals for the national team in 48 appearances and is all but assured of being included in the squad for the Euro 2016 tournament in France.

Serhiy Dryha, a soccer beat writer at the Matchday sports website, slammed Seleznyov for reportedly turning down offers from Portugal, Greece, and Turkey before opting for Russia.

Dryha suggested that many of Seleznyov's former Dnipro teammates -- captain Ruslan Rotan, Artem Fedetskyi, Roman Zozulya, and team manager Myron Markevych -- are überpatriotic and particularly proud of the country's military. Zozulya went so far as to auction off his Europa League runners-up medal in December to raise money for Ukraine's army.

"It is difficult to expect that the decision of Seleznyov to move to Kuban will be perceived positively. Now all of Yevhen's interviews will be examined under a microscope, and he will not be able to get away from uncomfortable questions in both Ukraine and Russia. Football is not within politics!? Tell that to Markevych, Zozulya, Rotan, and Fedetskyi. And to the friends and family of the ultras [hardcore fans] who died [fighting in the conflict]. Will we understand Yevhen's move? Will we forgive him?"

Some observers have noted that Rotan turned down an offer to join Russian side Rubin Kazan in 2014, citing the political situation around Russia's actions in Ukraine. Rotan's decision came months after Russia forcibly annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 and fighting began in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian forces.

Anthem Controversy

Even players on Ukraine's national team have been criticized for a perceived lack of patriotism. Yaroslav Rakytskiy, a defender who plays his club ball with Shakhtar Donetsk, has been slammed for not singing Ukraine's national anthem before international matches.

"I just do not sing the anthem and that's it. Of course I remember the words. Just taking that time to get tuned for the game, listening to other people singing," Rakytskiy said on national television in 2014.

Oleh Luzhny, a retired Ukrainian defender who once played for Arsenal, in 2015 said any player opting to play in Russia should never play again for the Ukrainian national team.

Not everyone in Ukraine's soccer community has been critical of Seleznyov, however.

Oleh Salenko, who played for both the Russian and Ukrainian national teams, told the Russian website Sport Express that Seleznyov made the right move.

"I'm not surprised at all. I see that many Ukrainian clubs are beginning to experience serious problems. For players with a name and near the end of their careers, they can head quite easily to other countries," said Salenko, who scored a record five goals in a group stage match at the 1994 World Cup.

Amid reports of a shaky future for Dnipro, Kolomoyskiy in February reassured jittery fans that he was ready to pay Dnipro's outstanding debts, although he left open how much that figure might be.

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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.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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