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.
“We were a real team in the very best sense of the word,” he said after the match. “No one uttered a single bad word to anyone else during the game.”
Although it has lost a chunk of its eastern regions, Ukraine is represented in its entirety within the national team. Eastern territories provided a half of the national squad’s players.
Eastern clubs Shakhtar Donetsk and Zorya Luhansk have been playing in a domestic exile since outbreak of the conflict, which fueled one of the worst East-West crises since the Cold War. Shakhtar are now based in Kiev but play in Lviv.
As a result, many players have had to move their families from Donetsk and Luhansk as the largely Russian-speaking cities became strongholds of the pro-Russian separatists.
The conflict in the east has made its mark on the country at all levels, stirring Russian-Ukrainian ethnic rifts between colleagues at work, friends and even family members. Refugees abandon eastern areas, deaths fire further enmity.
All these raw sensitivities can find their mark in the ritual and tribalism of Ukrainian soccer.
Shakhtar center-back Yaroslav Rakytskiy is hoping to return home one day. His arm bears a tattoo with roses.
“This is the symbol of the Donetsk and Donbass region. I also got a compass tattoo. It would guide me home one day”, Rakitskiy posted a photo with the comment on Instagram.
But sport and politics are always uneasy bedfellows.
Rakytskiy is often criticized by fans for not singing the national anthem of Ukraine while lined up before the kickoff.
“I just do not sing the anthem and that is 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 a year ago.
Andriy Pavelko, the president of the Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU) spoke of “45 million hearts beating in unison” during the match.
That unity may yet be beyond Kiev’s grasp.
The guns have been mostly silent since a ceasefire agreement in early September, but there has been an increase in violations over the past few weeks, with both sides blaming the other for the escalating violence. Conflict is far from over.
Sergei Pozhidayev, a racing driver who lives in the rebel-held town of Makiyivka, saw things in somber terms.
”In Donetsk people feel bad about what’s going on around them. When there’s a war, when you’re being shelled, when houses are destroyed – can you think about football?
“People... are listening out for noises from the sky. When there is peace, then we can talk about football.”
The conflict in the east became a battle over the future of Ukraine as a whole. Russia has denied accusations it fueled rebellion with arms and troops, but at the height of fighting fears abounded of an outright annexation of the industrial Donbass region, even a rebel push beyond its boundaries.
“War is pain and grief for everyone,” 36-year-old midfielder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk told Hromadske.tv. “The hope is that we’re strong enough and united enough as a country to find a way out of the situation and get back to a peaceful life.”
additional reporting by Lina Kushch; editing by Ralph Boulton