When Ukraine qualified for the European Championships after a draw with Slovenia last year, Artem Fedetskiy, crowded by fans, screamed out "Glory to Ukraine" and "Death to the enemies!"
The enemies are clear, even if the overall situation is not. Ukraine is at war with Russia, and their soccer team — being a part of the larger society and a marker of nationalism — has no choice but to be involved in the conflict.
Soccer always has the pretense that it is removed from the greater society, from politics and the societal consequences of it. FIFA and UEFA have rules that forbid government interference in the national teams, and the general attitude is that the sport is an escape, a utopia where the nonsense of the world doesn't matter. A sacred oasis.
It's not just idealistic, but idiotic. People, by being alive, are political creatures. The soccer community is made up of these people, the political consequences of the world are theirs to suffer as well; the reported 10,000 Ukrainians who have been killed in the two-year war are possible fans of the sport and relatives of the players. If the national team is supposed to represent the people and be a beacon of light, joy and hope, then it also has to represent the darker parts of life. It's inescapable.
Ukraine is going to compete in the Euros, and the burden of war is going along with them. It's no surprise then that most of the players selected to the squad play in Ukraine. They play in Dynamo Kiev, Zorya, Dnipro and Shakhtar. One of the players who became a victim of the conflict between the two countries is Yehven Seleznyov.
The striker played for Dnipro last year. He was one of the forces that propelled them to a Europa League final berth against Sevilla. He scored the solitary goal in the second leg against Napoli in the semifinals of the competition to send Dnipro through. He was the beloved and worshiped superstar of the team.
Then he left the team. So many others did as well, Dnipro, like many Ukrainian sides, are struggling financially and the loss of players due to a need for money and the inability to pay those same players was always coming. Some players moved to Dynamo Kiev and others moved further away. Seleznyov, who scored 11 goals in 48 appearances for the national team, a mainstay in the group and a shoo-in for the Euros 2016 squad, transferred to Kuban Krasnodar. A Russian team, on Feb. 25, 2016.
He looked for sympathy by invoking the notion of a divide between sports and politics: "I never mixed sport and politics. This is just the situation, I hope people will understand."
That was to no avail. He was immediately labeled a traitor and derided publicly by the media and fellow players alike. He was also axed from the Ukrainian side.
At the beginning of last month, he revealed in an interview that he had terminated his contract with the Russian team. Three days later, Shakhtar confirmed that he had signed to them for two years and when the Ukrainian squad for the Euros was announced at the end of that month, he was one of the strikers chosen.
It's futile to live under the delusion that sports are separate from the greater world and from politics. That notion is just not true at all. These Ukrainian players are not just playing for their own prides and ambitions this summer, they're representing other Ukrainians like them who are fighting in and suffering from the war. They are going to do this with a squad of players who predominantly play on Ukrainian teams and if they are successful in any way, they will sing about it and tout the victory as a victory for the people of the country, not the sport.
Sport and the European Championships are a great spectacle, but one can only run from reality for so long. The Ukrainian national team, far from being a team of talented individuals, is a rallying point for a people in turmoil.