A shameful narrative

Ukraine has been slow to offer up an interesting narrative about itself, concludes the Guardian; a bit of an understatement for the utter pig’s ear that benighted country is making of the Euro 2012 football championships.

There was the lengthy stand-off about the Kiev stadium refurbishment. The Tymoshenko fiasco. The hotel price fixing. And now, ugliest of all, the racism. Ukraine’s failure to make itself sound interesting seems a bit trivial in comparison.

 The most ironic thing is, Ukraine has probably the most compelling narrative of any footballing nation in the world. I refer, of course, to the Death Match.

In 1942, Kiev was an occupied city. In an effort to normalise this new reality and pacify Kievites, as well as prove the superiority of the Aryan race, the Nazi invaders organised a series of football matches between occupying forces and local players.

 The odds were not good. The Ukrainian team, Start, was improvised from the few players of two Kiev clubs who were not at the front. Nobody in Kiev, except occupiers and collaborators, had had enough to eat for months. Some of the players had already spent time in a prison camp (Anatoly Kuznetsov’s Babi Yar describes conditions in the city and the camps in searing, unforgettable detail).

Nevertheless, Start won every single match. At the final rematch, so goes the story, the Ukrainian players were ordered to perform the Nazi salute. They were told they could not possibly beat the German Luftwaffe team, and warned to consider the consequences of winning.

A poster for the ‘revenge’ rematch

They refused to salute, and they won the match. Afterwards, they were arrested, tortured and killed.

So goes the story. The truth, as can be seen from the Wikipedia entry, is more complicated, obscure and controversial. Yet the bare bones of fact remain: the Start players took on the occupiers against huge odds, and won. That is a story of sportsmanship and courage that any country should be proud of.

 Instead, Ukraine has dithered over approving a new Russian-Ukrainian movie about the Death Match, while allowing football supporters to beat up foreigners and perform Nazi salutes at games – and be filmed doing so by the BBC.

Officials have said they are doubtful about showing the movie in Ukraine because they fear it may stir up anti-German sentiment ahead of the Euro 2012 championships, and also because it depicts Ukrainian wartime collaborators.

Not having seen the movie, I can’t really comment on the latter, except to say that the collaboration of some Ukrainians is as historical a fact as the Death Match, and the fact of one should not detract from the other. But the former, in the light of the BBC’s Panorama programme which I have seen, is so blinkered it would be funny – were it not so tragic.

It’s like these people have spotted a splinter while failing to notice the bloody great tree. In my experience, the trauma of the war and occupation still runs deep in Ukrainian society. But I’ve yet to meet a white German who ever felt threatened or discriminated against in Ukraine. Anyone with non-white skin, however, faces on a daily basis anything from curious stares and daft questions to outright hostility and violence.

Ukrainian officials are wringing their hands over a perceived Russian slight in a movie about something that happened seventy years ago, while in real life, today, fans at football matches are behaving, in their small way, almost as shamefully as the collaborators Kuznetsov writes about in Babi Yar. Priorities, anyone?

“Ukraine has spectacularly failed to sell itself,” The Guardian quotes football writer Mark Perryman as saying. But it’s worse than that. Those idiotic and hateful football fans with their pictures of Hitler, and the militia who pretend they don’t exist or actively encourage them, are crapping on their own history.

I should say that the football matches I went to in Kiev (a few years ago now) were always raucous, cheerful, good-natured affairs. And I think it’s important to remember that seventy years ago, it was just some Ukrainians who collaborated with the Nazis, as now it is only some Ukrainians who are idiotic, racist and violent. I know they exist; I’ve met a few of them. But I’ve met many, many more who are among the kindest, bravest, most open and generous people in the world.

It’s just a shame that some of the former now seem to be running the country. Pity the latter.


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