Ukraine’s Jersey Slogan For Euros Linked to Fascist Right
International soccer tournaments are no stranger to political controversy, and this year Ukraine’s jersey design has kicked off an international incident before a ball has even been kicked.
The feature that has stolen the most headlines is the jersey’s outline of Ukraine’s border, including Russian-annexed Crimea. Russia annexed the region in 2014, but the international community has not recognized this military maneuver.
While the inclusion of Crimea has angered the Russians, the much more controversial inclusion on the jersey is the slogan “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes”. The slogan was popularized by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a far-right fascist group with links to Nazi collaboration during World War II.
The slogan has its roots in far-right nationalism, but it was used prominently during 2014 protests that deposed pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. It is also extensively used in the military.
The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv tweeted support for Ukraine’s new jersey including the controversial slogan.
Of course, Russia had a much different response. Maria Zakharova, ministry of Russian foreign affairs spokesperson, released a statement that referred to the inclusion of Crimea within Ukraine’s borders as the “illusion of the impossible.”
The slogan featured on Ukraine’s soccer jersey has a complicated past, to say the least. In recent years with Ukrainian nationalism on the rise in response to Russia’s invasion and occupation of Crimea, the saying has regained prominence.
The phrase has persisted, with some arguing it represents resistance to Soviet and now Russian rule. In contrast, others point to atrocities that the OUN, the popularizer of the slogan, committed against Poles, Jews, and Soviets.
While the slogan is omnipresent in modern-day Ukraine, in the military, protest movements, and now on its national team’s soccer jersey, not all observers give the ubiquity of the phrase a pass.
Per Anders Rudling, a Swedish historian, told Deutsche Welle that various fascist World War II militias used similar phrases.
In Western Europe and the United States, this nuanced and complicated past is often overlooked in favor of using Ukraine as a buffer or wedge issue against Russia. Similar to Belarus, American and European leaders and media skirt around facts if they inconvenience the larger narrative.
In this case, the American and Russian governments shoot barbs at each other through a cold proxy conflict, refusing to recognize any nuance or context.
The reaction of the American embassy in Ukraine and the Russian foreign affairs ministry show that the soccer pitch is often an ideological and historical battlefield.
Soccer Tournaments and Political Controversy
The Ukraine jersey saga is not the only political controversy brewing before a ball is kicked in Euros 2021.
English fans have been booing their own players in warmup games after the players have kneeled to protest racial injustice in the country. Manager Gareth Southgate has asked England fans to stop booing the players, but the English players were greeted with boos in both warmup matches.
The England team has decided to continue the protest popularized by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, which saw a massive resurgence in response to the police killing of George Floyd last summer.
In response to the booing, England defender Kyle Walker said, “all we can do with the knee, you know, my son, he was asking, “Dad, why are you doing that?” And I was actually happy he asked me that because now I can educate him on what he can do.”
Irish players also took a knee in a friendly against Hungary and were booed by Hungarian fans.
In the last major tournament, the 2018 World Cup, Swiss stars Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka found themselves in the midst of an international incident for celebrating goals with an eagle gesture. Shaqiri and Xhaka, both of Albanian and Kosovan descent, angered Serbia as the celebration is a sign of Albanian nationalism. Shaqiri was heavily booed by Serbian fans in their following matchup and fined by FIFA.
Ukraine’s Jersey and the Europian Games
Unlike in the Swiss case, UEFA has approved the political statements on Ukraine’s jersey, and they are set to be on display in Ukraine’s first match against the Netherlands on June 13.
Russia is also in the tournament and in a different group, so tournament organizers will be crossing their fingers that they don’t match up in the knock-out stage.
Ukraine is one of the weakest groups in the tournament and will relish its chances to make it to 16. Russia will face the strong Belgian and Danish teams in their group, but with four out of six third-placed teams advancing to the knockout stage, Russia will also be a favorite to make it out of their group.