Silhouettes and Slogans: Russia in a Huff Over Design of Ukraine’s Football Shirt

Silhouettes and Slogans: Russia in a Huff Over Design of Ukraine’s Football Shirt

Bill Shankly, the legendary Scottish football coach, once responded to a journalist’s prompt that some people think football is a matter of life and death by quipping that it was more important than that.   It was pure hyperbole from the fiery Scotsman.  Yet in July 1969, El Salvador and Honduras fought a war when a qualifying game for the following year’s FIFA World Cup finals in Mexico brought to a head long-simmering tensions between the neighboring countries.  The ensuing four-day conflict – referred to as the Football War - led to the deaths of approximately three thousand soldiers and civilians.

Football’s often uneasy relationship with life’s serious things surfaced yet again. This time in the context of Russia’s very real war against Ukraine after Moscow took high-level umbrage over the design of the Ukrainian national shirt to be worn at the month-long UEFA EURO 2020, Europe’s preeminent soccer tournament for national teams, that began on June 11.

On June 6, the president of the Football Federation of Ukraine, Andriy Pavelko, unveiled the shirt the Ukrainian team was going to wear at the tournament.  Specifically, the first- choice yellow shirt bears a faint outline of Ukraine on the chest that includes Crimea (which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014).  In addition, the slogan “Slava Ukraini!” (Glory to Ukraine) is sewn on the back, just below the collar, while the response “Heroyam Slava!” (Glory to the Heroes) is located on the inside of the collar.  This exchange became a rallying cry during the Revolution of Dignity and subsequently a form of greeting, including among Ukrainian football fans.

Pavelko explained that the idea had arisen following Ukraine’s remarkable victory in October 2019 over one of Europe’s top national teams, Portugal, in a cauldron-like atmosphere.  The win meant Ukraine had qualified for EURO 2020.  The new design was approved by UEFA, European football’s governing body, that December.

In a several Facebook posts Pavelko expressed hope that the design would “inspire our footballers to new victories.” and described in detail “the very long and complicated” negotiations that had taken place almost two years ago.  Later in the week, Pavelko added that “it was extremely pleasant that on the whole the new design of the kit has received such tremendous support in Ukraine and throughout the world.”

Throughout the world – with the obvious exception of Russia.  The Kremlin was quick to react.  Duma deputy Dmitriy Svischiev railed against the “illegality” (on Planet Russia, maybe?) of showing a map of Ukraine that includes “Russian territory,” while flamboyant Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova complained that the slogans on the shirt “are nationalistic… The slogan on the shirt echoes a German Nazi rallying cry.”  "Sports is not a battlefield,” she added “but a place for competition; it is not a political arena but an athletic one."                               

Zakharova conveniently overlooked the fact that sport should not be a testing ground for performance enhancing drugs, either.  The Russian Football Association, a supposedly independent body that has been a prime beneficiary of the Russian government’s industrial-scale sports doping program, lodged an official complaint.  RT’s interpretation was, well, classically RT-ish:

On Thursday, June 10, UEFA reaffirmed the legitimacy of the silhouette design on the shirt pointing out that the outline simply reflected the internationally accepted Ukrainian border.  The phrase “Slava Ukraini!” was also acceptable because on its own it "may be considered as a generic and non-political phrase of general national significance" and therefore violated no norms or rules.  But the response “Heroyam Slava!” was somewhat lamely adjudged to form a "specific combination of the two slogans… deemed to be clearly political in nature, having historic and militaristic significance… This specific slogan on the inside of the shirt must therefore be removed for use in UEFA competition matches.”  UEFA promised to revisit the issue after EURO 2020.

Several Ukrainian commentators immediately pointed to Russian pressure and influence within UEFA, including through Gazprom.  This entity has been a long-term major sponsor of all UEFA competitions.  Undoubtedly, Gazprom – a majority state-owned company - contributes to the Russian strategy of using sport sponsorship for image-laundering. (Interestingly, in Germany Gazprom sponsors the Gelsenkirchen-based FC Schalke 04 football team, a relationship that began in the Noughties when Gazprom was promoting and then building the original Nordstream.  This was part of a campaign to court the population of Germany’s industrial heartland as well as officials in Berlin. Imperatives of energy and national politics aside, it is hard to believe that Gazprom officials were not aware of the delicious irony that Schalke 04 is generally recognized to have been Hitler’s favorite football team…)  However, despite the understandable temptation to draw causal links, the UEFA Executive Committee (where Pavelko is an active member) vote suggests that there were no shenanigans, probably because UEFA, under its Slovenian president, Aleksandr Ceferin, seems genuinely determined to restore the organization’s deservedly tarnished reputation.

Headlines and accusations that UEFA had bowed to Russian pressure do not appear to reflect the actual outcome: The fact that UEFA’s Executive Committee dismissed the Kremlin’s central complaint about Ukraine ‘reclaiming’ Crimea.  Indeed, given that Ukraine got its way on two of the three points of contention – approval of the silhouette and the “Slava Ukraini!” part of the slogan – in footballing terms Ukraine can be said to have recorded a 2-1 win over Russia.

Furthermore, as is typical of many ham-fisted Russian public moves, the episode has arguably back-fired on Moscow.  A broader audience is now aware that the slogan “Slava Ukraini! Heroyam Slava!” exists and what it means.  With Putin’s war in Ukraine showing no signs of being closer to resolution no rebuff to the Kremlin’s propaganda – whether in cyberspace or on a football field - should be regarded as too small or too trivial, especially if it provokes further serious discussion of the deeper issues involved.