1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Ukraine united behind Shevchenko despite ongoing conflict

July 2, 2021

Since 2014, Ukraine has been embroiled in a military conflict with Russia. Even at Euro 2020, the conflict is ever-present, but Ukraine's success is uniting the country ahead of an historic quarterfinal against England.

Spectators and players during Sweden's clash with Ukraine during Euro 2020
Ukraine beat Sweden, but can they do the same to England on Saturday?Image: Andy Buchanan/AP Photo/picture alliance

Oleksandr Zinchenko led his teammates over to the small group of Ukrainian fans in the corner of Hampden Park in Glasgow and encouraged them to raise their arms in a Iceland-style Viking clap.

"U – KRA – I – NA!" they chanted, clapping in unison. "U – KRA – I – NA!"

"We only live once and we might never experience these moments again, so I encourage everyone to celebrate," Zinchenko said after his team's last-minute, extra-time win over Sweden, which saw Ukraine reach the quarterfinals of the European Championships for the first time.

"This was a victory of character and desire," said Zinchenko. "Today, we all looked each other in the eyes and went into the game as if we were going to war."

Ukraine at war

Militaristic and warlike hyperbole isn't uncommon in football, but for Ukraine they're more than just words. The country really is at war, with the Crimean Peninsula having been annexed by Russia in 2014 and the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk and the surrounding Donbass region under the control of Russian-backed separatists.

Zinchenko knows this better than most, having fled Ukraine with his mother when war broke out in February 2014 – to Russia, of all places, where he signed for the unfashionable FC Ufa near the Ural mountains. Playing in Russia and speaking Russian, Zinchenko's career path was controversial back home, but his reputation has improved considerably since signing for Manchester City and starring for the national team.

It is impossible to disentangle Ukrainian football from the ongoing conflict, which erupted after the ousting of Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych following the Euromaidanprotests, and divided the country along geographical, political and even familial lines. The two biggest eastern Ukrainian football clubs, Shakhtar Donetsk and Zorya Luhansk, have had to play games in exile.

For some of their fans, there were suddenly more important things than football. Ukrainian ultras from various clubs were instrumental on the Euromaidan, defending protesters from the notorious titushki– mercenary thugs who supported Yanukovych's police. Others joined the army or the volunteer battalions to fight against the separatists in the east.

Clashes between protesters and police on Independence Square in Kiev on February 19, 2014.
The Euromaidan in 2014 also involved Ukrainian football fans, and the revolution is still having far-reaching implications in Ukraine.Image: Reuters

'Ukraine: a team of over 40 million'

But now, the national team's success at Euro 2020 is uniting Ukrainians once more.

"Today, there is no 'you' or 'us'; today, we are one Ukraine! A team of over 40 million people!" said current president Volodymyr Zelensky after the Sweden game, and there was nothing coincidental about the words he chose next:

"From Uzhhorod [in the west] to Luhansk [the occupied city in the east], from Chernihiv [in the north] to Simferopol [in annexed Crimea]: team Ukraine has character and strength, it fights and suffers painful blows, but it stands up again and strikes back!"

Prior to the tournament, the Ukrainian football association (UAF) had already provoked Russian ire with a kit which featured an outline of Ukraine – including the occupied Donbas and Crimea, both still internationally recognized as Ukrainian territories.

Russia also took umbrage with the slogans "Slava Ukraini!" (Glory to Ukraine!) and "Heroiam slava!" (Glory to the heroes!) which were woven into the players' jerseys, claiming them to be "political provocation."

The slogan "Glory to Ukraine!" has had various historical interpretations in the 180 years since its first recorded use by national poet Taras Shevchenko in the 19th century – from popular usage during the 1917-21 War of Independence to its appropriation by the far-right Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists in the 1940s. More recently, the slogans gained popularity as a rallying call for protesters on the Euromaidan.

UEFA ultimately ordered the UAF to remove the "Glory to the heroes!" part, saying that the "specific combination of the two slogans is deemed to be clearly political in nature, having historic and militaristic significance."

Ukraine Euro 2020 football shirt
Ukraine's kit at Euro 2020 features an outline of the country including Crimea, illegally annexed by Russia in 2014.Image: Stringer/AFP

Ukrainian fans united

But that hasn't stopped Ukrainian fans from singing uncomplimentary songs about Russian president Vladimir Putin during the tournament. In Bucharest, rival Austrian supporters even joined in while, during the last-16 game against Sweden in Glasgow, a fan was attacked after entering the Ukrainian section of Hampden Park dressed in a retro Russian kit and a Cossack-style hat.

With Ukraine currently on Italy's "List E" for coronavirus restrictions, however, the only Ukrainians at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome for the quarterfinal against England will be Italian-based. But even this has its advantages.

"These games are big deal for Ukrainians who live abroad," says Denys, a Ukrainian fan based in Amsterdam. "It's been a chance to meet other Ukrainians who you didn't know. It's been a feel-good factor."

Ukaine head coach Andriy Shevchenko
Andriy Shevchenko: a Ukrainian legend Image: Andriy Shevchenko/AP/picture alliance

Back home, there is huge pride in the team, coached by former Dynamo Kiev, Chelsea and AC Milan striker Andriy Shevchenko, whose exploits on the pitch have earned him legendary status in Ukraine far beyond football.

"I'm so proud of the country, Shevchenko and the team," Natalia, a fan from Kyiv, told DW. "I hope that these successes unite the country and inspire the nation to further achievements."

Even fierce club rivalries are put aside in support of Ukraine. "We used to fight with Dynamo Kiev fans," admitted Vitali, a former Shakhtar Donetsk ultra, in a recent documentary for broadcaster ARTE. "But then the national team would play the next day and we would be allies again."

There will be fewer fans to celebrate with Shevchenko, Zinchenko and the rest of the team in Rome, should they upset the odds and beat England. But their success so far has already served to unite Ukraine during a difficult time.

Additional reporting by Valerii Saakov and Maksym Drabok.