Ukraine mounts soccer show of unity, but east "blind" to success

Wed Nov 18, 2015 11:29am EST
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By Igor Nitsak

KIEV (Reuters) - Gunfire still rings out across the battlefields of eastern Ukraine where soldiers face off with pro-Russian rebels; but on the soccer pitch, players of east and west Ukraine have mounted a clear display of national unity.

They have driven the country into the European soccer championships for the first time through the qualifying rounds.

Defender Artem Fedetskiy, in blue-yellow national kit, lunged into the crowd after clinching the place in Paris next year with a draw in Slovenia. Fist-punching the air, he led compatriots in raucous chants of "Glory to Ukraine!" "Glory to the heroes!" "Death to the Enemies" and "Ukraine Above All".

Since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March last year and a pro-Russian rebellion broke out in the east, Ukraine's soccer stadiums have been a focus of wounded national feeling, as well as anti-Russian anger. Obscene chants deriding Russian President Vladimir Putin are a particular favorite.

The rebel Donetsk People's Republic, where Russian rather than Ukrainian TV dominates, would have been part "blind" to the success. Some officials there expressed indifference, even disapproval of the celebrations. While there is war, what price soccer?

"I’m far away from this," Vladimir Averin, president of the Karate Federation of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic told Reuters. "I know Russia lost to Croatia, but I don’t know if Ukraine won or not.

"Whoever knows here, found out on the internet."

But striker Evhen Seleznyov, one of the Ukrainian players born in the rebel eastern Donbass region, epicenter of a rebellion that has claimed over 8,000 lives, saw the game as evidence reconciliation was possible.   Continued...

Ukraine's players celebrate after winning against Slovenia at the Stadion Ljudski, Maribor, Slovenia in this November 17, 2015 file photo.  REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic/Files