Law four of Fifa’s 2020-21 Laws of the Game is explicit: “Equipment must not have any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images.” It seems straightforward enough. Nothing political.
But of course, everything is political. A minute’s silence is political. Taking the knee is political – although not in the sense it heralds the Marxist apocalypse, as some of the more ludicrous pundits and spokespeople have suggested – and so is not taking the knee. Wearing a poppy is political, and so is not wearing a poppy. That’s especially so when national teams are involved, because nations are political. Every choice of image made by the representative of a nation is necessarily is political, even if that politicisation lies only in avoiding the more overtly political: flags, badges and kits.
Ukraine’s yellow and blue colours reflect the flag, which itself is derived from the colours of the 12th-century kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia and represents a blue sky above a field of wheat. Which seems benign enough, but it is precisely because of those fertile plains that Ukraine has been both so attractive to invaders and so difficult to defend. Add in the horrors of the famine of 1932-33, which killed millions of Ukrainians, and a wheat field suddenly becomes an extremely powerful image.
But Fifa or Uefa, clearly, cannot legislate against teams wearing colours that have a meaning to them (not everybody can be like Venezuela, who adopted their vinotinto identity after turning up at a tournament in Panama in 1938 and being given burgundy shirts). So law four goes on to acknowledge that “political” is hard to define, and lists various examples of what would be considered inappropriate: references to people, parties, organisations, groups or governments; any organisation which is discriminatory or whose aims or actions are likely to offend a notable number of people; and any specific political act or event.
Notably missing is any reference to a map. Which seems reasonable enough. How could you ban a country from showing an image of its outline? But the problem is that maps show borders and borders are often disputed. The map on Ukraine’s kit for Euro 2020 includes Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, and Donbas and Luhansk, where a war is currently being fought. The intention, said Andriy Pavelko, the head of the Ukrainian football federation, was to “add strength to the players, because they will fight for all Ukraine”.
That does seem pretty obviously political and wilfully provocative, yet Uefa approved it. But really, what was the alternative? It’s not Uefa’s job to legislate on national boundaries, and to ban the shirt would itself be a political statement – although it would be no great surprise were Fifa to add maps to the list of outlawed symbols.
Then there’s the phrases “Glory to Ukraine” on the back of the neck and “Glory to the Heroes” inside. They do not obviously fall under the prohibition on “provocative, derisory or inflammatory” slogans and are an official military greeting in Ukraine. They date from the first nationalist movements of the 19th century and the 1917-21 Ukrainian war of independence. It is true that they were adopted by the far-right Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, which committed atrocities against Jews and Poles in the second world war, but the phrases were also used in the Euromaidan protests against the Kremlin-backed presidency of Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. There was criticism of the use of the slogans not only from the Russian foreign ministry but also Jewish groups within Ukraine, and in the end Uefa approved “Glory to Ukraine” but asked for “Glory to the Heroes” to be removed because of the combination’s connotations.
But that again highlights the complexity of definition. Emblems and phrases can have multiple meanings and those meanings can change over time. Context, likewise, is critical: when the Croatia defender Domagoj Vida and assistant coach Ognjen Vukojevic, both of whom had played for Dynamo Kyiv, published a video on social media featuring the slogan “Glory to Ukraine” after defeating Russia in the World Cup quarter-final in Sochi three years ago, the provocative nature of the phrase was far more obvious. Vida was warned by Fifa and Vukojevic sacked by Croatia soon afterwards. Given football cannot even decide what handball is, it is absurd to expect it to legislate on the precise semiotics of Ukrainian military slogans – which may be a reason to ban any slogan of any nature.
But the furore over the shirt hints at another truth, and that is for Ukraine Euro 2020 is about far more than football. The coach, Andriy Shevchenko, who in 2012 stood for election for Ukraine – Forward!, a party that subsequently joined the Opposition Bloc against Yanukovych, has largely played down the issue, but Ukraine is at war. While the Euro 2020 draw makes a meeting with Russia unlikely, this is a squad that has a clear sense of purpose and in such circumstances the petty differences that can undermine teams tend to melt away.
And this is a good Ukraine side, far stronger than the one that lost every game at Euro 2016. No side that still features Andriy Pyatov in goal can ever feel entirely comfortable, perhaps, but there is a pleasing balance to the midfield, with Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko and Atalanta’s Ruslan Malinovskyi, who ended the Serie A season in astonishing form with six goals and eight assists in his final 11 games, creating in front of either Serhiy Sydorchuk or Taras Stepanenko, one of those players of eternal potential whose time, at 31, may at last have come. Goals could be a problem – an experiment with a back three in March brought three 1-1 draws in World Cup qualifying – but Roman Yaremchuk, who has 40 in his last two seasons for Gent, plus Andriy Yarmolenko and Malinovskyi is dangerous enough.
Shevchenko led Ukraine to promotion to Nations League Group A and this is not the trickiest group, with the Netherlands first up on Sunday, then North Macedonia and Austria. Ukraine have genuine hopes of reaching the last 16 and perhaps going further. And if they do, there will be plenty in Donbas, Luhansk and Crimea who celebrate; there are times when even playing football is political.