In an article first published on oDR in August 2011, Sergei Zhadan explores how the Euro 2012 football championships have become something of a substitute national idea in Ukraine.
Ukraine is a beautiful country with hospitable people but a complicated history, and the problems and paradoxes of their historical heritage stand in the way of Ukrainians’ ability to look into the future with certainty and confidence. The country exists in a constant state of self-examination, trying to prove its authenticity and self sufficiency to the world (and indeed to itself). Some would say it is in search of a national idea, seeking it anywhere it can – in politics, culture, religion. And, of course, in sport.
[This] year’s European Football Championships, hosted by Ukraine and Poland, provides yet another excellent cause for reflection on the country’s place under the sun. From the moment the news went out that Europe’s finest would be gracing Ukrainian stadiums, the whole country started talking about a new chance. A chance to declare ourselves, to remind the world of our existence, to prove ourselves. Or, as we like to say, to improve ourselves.
"Everyone has been looking forward to 2012 – taxi drivers, lawyers, small businessmen and big swindlers, builders, drivers and policemen, owners of hotels, brothels and flats for rent, students, black marketeers, interpreters, prostitutes and politicians. For the last in that list, by which I mean both prostitutes and politicians, it was particularly important."
The football itself was forgotten immediately – an insignifcant part of the scenario. After all, how can you improve yourself with a national team that even loses all its friendlies? Any discussion of the European Championships thus usually ignores the football, and concentrates instead on geopolitics and Ukraine’s prospects of joining the EU. The stakes are high – we either "improve ourselves”, or we stay where we are. Nobody is keen on the latter option; everybody wants to improve themselves at least in some small way by summer 2012, and so for several years now all hopes for the future of Ukraine’s self-image have been in the hands of the UEFA bureaucrats. The new embodiment of the national idea is stadium building.
Apart from their hospitality, Ukrainians have traditionally been noted for their trusting nature and dreaminess. It was not difficult to persuade them that the European Championships would be their own great leap forward. Over the last couple of years we have been living in expectation of a big football miracle. Everyone has been looking forward to 2012 – taxi drivers, lawyers, small businessmen and big swindlers, builders, drivers and policemen, owners of hotels, brothels and flats for rent, students, black marketeers, interpreters, prostitutes and politicians.
For the last in that list, by which I mean both prostitutes and politicians, it was particularly important. The Ukrainian government had high hopes. The number of tourists who would be attracted to Ukraine for the Championships and would spend some money here ranged (and still ranges) from a modest 50,000 to a more optimistic million. The core message was: we won’t just improve ourselves, lads, though that goes without saying, but on top of it we’ll end up better off. And we’ll all be winners!
A million tourists – that’s a good start for a beautiful friendship with a united Europe. Ukrainians looked into the future with more confidence than usual and redoubled their efforts every time rumours appeared in the press about the possibility of Ukraine being dropped as a Euro host because of delays with its preparation schedule. This drew wide public criticism of all concerned – from the chairmen of local football clubs to the country’s President and Prime Minister. Naturally, no one trusted the UEFA bureaucrats, naturally everyone suspected the Poles of duplicity; and it goes without saying that no one believed either the government or the opposition. The process of self improvement was turning out to be rather troublesome and nerve-wracking.
At that point, at the most unexpected moment, the economic crisis broke, bringing a change of government in its wake. Even the most optimistic citizens were made to understand that the state is a family business, and that no outsiders can expect to be let in. The new regime lost no time in declaring that while it is not against the chance of self-improvement, this chance is unlikely to be extended to all and sundry. A special Deputy Prime Minister with responsibility for Euro-2012 was even appointed, to show how seriously the new government took the forthcoming sporting festival. Meanwhile the public’s attitude to the championship was changing, in line with its attitude to the new regime. From time to time statements would appear to the effect that it might be better if Ukraine were dropped as a Euro host. The thought that Ukraine would be represented at such an official and high level event by the present government led protest-minded citizens to make somewhat unpatriotic declarations about the championship being unimportant and unnecessary to Ukraine. At the same time there was a groundswell against the airing of such opinions, with references to the washing of dirty linen in public.
Be that as it may, Ukraine is gradually reaching the home straight in terms of preparations for Euro-2012 – official sources gleefully report completed targets, the opposition mutters about "stolen millions", the public are encouraged to become "friends of the Euro", and the financial streams, it seems, are all flowing in one direction (which the public have agreed to, even if they don’t agree with it). It’s too late to change anything, too early to start reflecting, so it might even be possible to start talking about football.
The main thing is how the national team will perform in the actual championship. Ukraine was eliminated in the qualifying rounds for the 2010 World Championship in South Africa after a humiliating defeat by Greece at a half empty stadium in Donetsk. The pundits at the time, it must be said, were reassuring in their predictions, declaring that third place was still a perfectly possible and acceptable result. The team then went on to lose 4-1 to France’s reserve team on the same pitch and with the same half empty stands. It is difficult to imagine who would then occupy a place lower than third.
But central government initiatives are not of course the whole story. Traditionally, a lot depends on the "local elite". Not least, on their sharp wits. Take Kharkiv, for example. The eastern Ukrainian megapolis has jumped on the Euro-2012 bandwagon, displacing the less quick-on-the-ball Dnipropetrovsk and depriving it of the chance to stage matches during the Championship finals. This has exacerbated the already difficult relations between the Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk fans. But that is a minor problem, unlikely to muddy the Kharkivites’ joy at the prospect of being directly involved in the Euro.
What’s more, Kharkiv’s coup in becoming a Championship venue has come at the same time as its real football renaissance. The local "Metallist” club, actively supported by its chairman, oligarch Oleksandr Yaroslavsky, has over a very short period turned into the "third power" of Ukrainian football, making it to third in the Ukrainian Premier League for the last five years, behind the more famous Kiev "Dynamo" and Donetsk "Shakhtar" clubs. His popularity among the Kharkiv fans is impossible to overestimate – he created a new, winning team; he has bought that team a succession of Brazilian mercenaries, making its play unbearably similar to that of every other middle-ranking European club; and, most importantly, he is not officially a politician, which in today’s Ukraine dramatically reduces the number of your enemies.
Yaroslavsky has been the main "euro-investor" in Kharkiv, putting money into the refurbishment (actually rebuilding) of the city’s main stadium, and the construction of a new terminal at Kharkiv airport. His hard-earned oligarch’s savings are currently being invested in a flashy new hotel for the city’s central square.
The city fathers, lacking the cash and therefore the opportunity to build their own hotels and terminals, make sure they are regularly seen around with Yaroslavsky, knowing how beneficial such proximity to football investment is for their own ratings. Experience has told them that the Ukrainian public shows little interest in new factories and industrial complexes, but is enthusiastic about new stadiums and shopping and leisure centres, taking their construction as a sign of concern for public welfare on the part of Government and Capital. Before last year’s mayoral elections all the pundits agreed that Yaroslavsky would be sure to win if he put himself forward. Yaroslavsky, however, turned down his chance to go into politics, preferring to build yet another hotel.
Yaroslavsky himself has grown accustomed to his role as head Kharkiv integrator, and as far as one can tell finds it to his liking. He has meetings with UEFA representatives and government officials and gets to build what he wants. He secures rapturous responses from journalists loyal to the regime and scathing comments from its critics in the press. Of course, it is also true that both media camps are inclined to excess in their judgements. For example, the author of one recent article about Yaroslavsky, after listing the latter’s investments in buildings connected with Euro-2012, went on to make the somewhat optimistic comment that:
“All the above mentioned factors lie at the heart of the football miracle that may turn out to be the catalyst of economic progress. Our situation may be compared with that of post-war West Germany, which won a football championship at a difficult moment in its history. The enormous enthusiasm that this engendered was followed by an economic miracle. The example of South Africa in 1995 is also fresh in our memory. The country hosted, and won, the Rugby World Cup, which fostered an improvement of community relations and an end to the longstanding lack of understanding between blacks and whites. Football is not just the 90 minutes of a match. It is an instrument that can unite city and country, and solve social, economic and other problems.”
I have quoted this article at such length because amongst all the bravura rhetoric it makes a number of points with which it is difficult to argue. Firstly, our situation is to some extent comparable to that of post-war West Germany, a country indeed politically split into two parts. Secondly, the government does display a keen and absolutely groundless confidence in enthusiasm as the sole prerequisite for an economic miracle (given that in the short term there are simply no other prerequisites to hope for). Thirdly, it is not impossible (although no certainty either) that the third place predicted by the pundits might actually reduce the lack of understanding between "blacks" and "whites", if we take "white" to mean those who sit in the VIP boxes at the stadium and "blacks" the fans in the stands. Lastly, and here too it is difficult to argue with the author of the article, Ukraine’s social, economic and "other" problems have recently intensified to such an extent that no possible solution, even one on a football pitch, can be ignored. It’s just a pity you can’t buy victory in the Championships – now that would be an economic miracle.
"Ukraine’s social, economic and "other" problems have recently intensified to such an extent that no possible solution, even one on a football pitch, can be ignored."
Returning to the situation in Kharkiv, a "football arms race", aiming for full battle readiness by Euro-2012, is already in full swing. The most significant project in this respect is the repainting of the facades of old buildings on the way from the airport to the city centre. Someone had the great idea of painting the old grey facades in various acid shades. The decision was, however, taken not to paint any other parts of the buildings, presumably on the grounds that tourists are unlikely to want to wander down between them.
The city has also been subjected to a mass tree felling exercise. What connection this has with football is anyone’s guess, but perhaps the authorities felt that it would look better if they were seen to be doing something to prepare for such an important event. In fact all recent construction, refurbishment or economic projects have been justified by the city council as part of the preparations for Euro-2012. To take one example, last year a road was driven through the local forest park, despite public protests, supposedly because of the Championships. The same goes for the tree felling along the city’s main thoroughfares. Sometimes it seems as though some consultant told the city authorities that the main condition for being awarded the Championships was the minimisation of green spaces within the city limits. I suspect that the planned creation of a Disneyland in Kharkiv, at massive expense, will also be justified by Euro-2012. And indeed – how can you have football without Disneyland?
Preparations for staffing the Championship are also in hand. For example, training is under way for stewards, who will replace the usual police presence at matches. So far, however, this initiative is not going so well. Recently at a football match in Kiev fans, infuriated by something, simply threw stewards off the stands. Literally, threw them. There is also interesting and, undoubtedly, useful work going on with the actual Kharkiv police, some of whom have been sent on courses to learn English. Although I must say that with my long experience of the Kharkiv police, I would be more worried about what they say than the language they say it in. I fear that English may lack some of the nuances of vocabulary that characterise the Ukrainian cop.
There are also certain inconsistencies in the new Ukrainian government’s ideological stance. For example, a promotional video for the Championships removed the statue of Lenin from Kharkiv’s Freedom Square, whereas in reality it is still standing – just opposite the new hotel being built by Oleksandr Yaroslavsky, in fact. And it doesn’t look as though anyone is planning to remove it. On the other hand, they did decide to remove the monument to the proclamation of Soviet power in Ukraine, to the indignation of local communists. Meanwhile the Governor of Kharkiv has announced a plan to convert local student hostels into "Soviet style’ hotels, which he believes will not only solve the city’s hotel room shortage problem but prove a real tourist attraction.
This ambiguous attitude to the country’s recent history is symptomatic, one senses, of the central issue, which is the complete absence in the power structures of any ideological base whatsoever, the utter emptiness behind all this searching for an ideological principle. The idea of solving all the country’s social and economic problems by getting oligarchs to build stadiums cannot be seriously considered as a national idea. Repainting the fronts of houses pink cannot be seen as improving the country. It is inconceivable that European Union officials will shut their eyes to Ukraine’s corruption and censorship after attending a few football matches. Why should they? Did the Moscow Olympics in 1980 transform international attitudes to the Soviet Union? Did the Beijing Olympics in 2008 transform international attitudes to communist China?
On the other hand, after the Championships, we will still have the stadiums, even if they might sometimes used as detention centres for political prisoners.