Michael MacKay, Radio Lemberg, 29.09.2017
In UEFA Europa League action on September 28, Zorya Luhansk defeated Athletic Bilbao by a score of one goal to nil in a match played in Bilbao. Player of the match was Ihor Kharatin, who took a floating corner kick from Artem Sukhotskiy and headed it into the Athletic net at the 26 minute mark in the 1st half. Zorya ("the Star") gained three points and advanced to second place in their group. A little-known Ukrainian football team beat a better known Spanish side, and beat them on their home pitch. Zorya Luhansk is an underdog team, and fans and sports writers love teams like that for the excitement they bring to athletic competition.
Go beyond the world of sports, and there’s much more to the underdog story of Zorya Luhansk. Zorya and Athletic played this match on the home pitch of the Bilbao team, in the Basque country of Spain. But there will not be any match played on the home pitch of the Luhansk team, in the Donbas region of Ukraine. That’s because parts of the Donbas region, including the city of Luhansk, have been invaded and occupied by Russia. Since 2014, Zorya Luhansk have been exiles, unable to play in their own city because a Russian army of regular and auxiliary soldiers cut Luhansk off from the rest of Ukraine and the rest of the world. While Putin’s ongoing war and his occupation army keeps the team away, the home-away-from-home for Zorya Luhansk is Slavutych Arena in Zaporizhia. That stadium, though, does not meet UEFA standards. When Zorya plays UEFA Europa League home games, it plays them in facilities that do meet standards, such as those in Odesa or in Lviv. Fans of Zorya, who are themselves exiles or so-called “internally displaced persons,” travel from wherever they are in Ukraine to where the home matches are played. Players and fans alike are living out of suitcases, and no one knows when they will be able to return and play from their proper home of Avanhard Stadium (on the photo above) in Luhansk. This is a football team and a group of fans who are struggling to keep body and soul together, seeing little hope that liberation and a return to their home will happen any time soon. Yet Zorya Luhansk competes at a top international level and wins against western European teams that are stacked with multi-millionaire star players. Now that’s an underdog story!
The biggest fans of Ukrainian football teams, the “ultras,” are a remarkable cohort. In western Europe, ultras are often associated with violence, with football hooliganism. In Ukraine, ultras are more associated with Ukrainian nationalism. Ukrainian nationalism is very much about inclusivity and assertion of the positive about Ukraine, rather than exclusivity and denigration of “the other” as so many other nationalisms are. Zorya Luhansk ultras are solidly pro-Ukraine, and they demonstrated that during EuroMaidan (the Revolution of Dignity) when they defended the patriots when they were attacked by Yanukovych’s goons and when the busloads of Russian “tourists” (titushky thugs) came. When Russia launched its special operations against Luhansk – the attack on the border guard post, the seizure of the SBU building – the Zorya Luhansk ultras were in the thick of the fight to defend Ukraine. When Russia’s special operations war against Ukraine turned into full-blown invasion of Ukraine, it was time for the ultras to leave, along with over a million other Donbas people driven from their homes by the assault from Muscovy. Today, when Ukrainian football teams play each other in league play, the ultras do not brawl in the streets as they do in other European countries. They march together, under Ukrainian flags, singing patriotic songs. It’s the Ukrainian ultras who came up with the simplest and also the rudest patriotic song for a time of war: the “Putin khuilo!” song.
There is a museum in Luhansk showcasing the history of the football team Zorya. I heard about it in 2012, which was the last time I visited Luhansk. I didn’t go and see it then, thinking I would see the museum on my next visit. But Russia invaded Ukraine and occupied Luhansk, and my next visit will be after the liberation – which I hope will be soon. In the meantime, I’ll wear my Zorya “futbolka,” sing “la la la la la la la la” about Putin, and cheer on the inspiring underdog from a proud Ukrainian city, Luhansk.