In Soviet time sports competitions were very important, most importantly, they were symbolical. Millions of people literally stuck to TV screens to watch the hockey matches between the USSR and Canada. The author’s father still remembers in details those bouts (there have been even series of matches): who scored and how – the famous “Firsov’s kick,” what was the atmosphere among the fans like at the time, how the generations of stars changed. That was really symbolical. Two systems were competing, Soviet realistic (the East) and American capitalistic (the West). The opposition was present in other sports competitions, the world’s soccer championships and summer Olympic Games.
Times have changed, the Soviet system collapsed, and the Cold War was left in the past, but symbolical sports face-offs are still taking place. Of course, they are of a different scale and tension, but we saw the “confrontation” of the highest level this Tuesday. The question is about the football match between Donetsk Shakhtar and London’s Chelsea within the framework of the third round of the group stage of the UEFA Champions League. Namely the chief coach of Shakhtar Mircea Lucescu called this bout a “top-level confrontation,” all the more so Chelsea is the current winner of the UEFA Cup, which the Donetsk Club strives to win, especially after winning the second in prestige European club trophy, the UEFA Cup (now the League of Europe) in 2009.
In this case one can speak about the sports opposition of two famous oligarchs, Rinat Akhmetov, who owns Shakhtar, and Roman Abramovich, who owns Chelsea. On the eve of the match, Akhmetov noted: “The Day after tomorrow is his [Abramovich’s. – Author] birthday and we will try to do our best to prevent his team from congratulating him. We have good friendly relationships, but tomorrow there will be a struggle on the field.”
This could have probably been left without special attention, especially in terms of sports, but the
fuel was added by Ukraine’s president. After coming from Moscow, when he had been on a state visit, he commented on the bout, calling it the match “Ukraine-Russia.” Even more so, it turned out that he had discussed this topic with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. “I told him it would be a match between Ukraine and Russia. I think Shakhtar will win, and I am in a fighting mood,” Yanukovych stated.
The team should be paid its due: Shakhtar has won with a 2:1 score. The Ukrainian team gave battle and showed beautiful and efficient football. Currently it is the leader in its group, standing all chances to enter the next round of the competition.
In the backdrop of Yanukovych’s recent trip to Russia, which did not bring any results, but was quite symbolical on the eve of Ukrainian elections, this match had a special taste. Having burned its fingers on the Kharkiv accords, the current Ukrainian leadership has for a long time been refusing to accept Russia’s offers in exchange for lower prices for gas. So, the match of the football teams of two oligarchs, a Ukrainian and Russian one, made it possible for someone to win.
“For Yanukovych, and of course, for Shakhtar, Shakhtar’s victory is very pleasant,” political scientist Volodymyr Fesenko commented on the matter, “Indeed, the country is lacking political and economic victories, therefore any sports victory is very important for Yanukovych. We can put it this way: it meets his interests. As far as I know, Putin is not such a fervent football fan as Yanukovych. This is no judo. Of course, this is not a competition between Ukraine and Russia. Moreover, Chelsea has only one relation to Russia, Abramovich. Therefore Yanukovych’s statement about his match Ukraine-Russia is his personal vision. But there is a rivalry of oligarchs, their football ambitions. This victory means a lot for Akhmetov. The most important thing here is not about defeating Abramovich’s club, rather about defeating the winner of the Champions League meant to imply that we can become the Champions League winners, too. Of course, there is something about psychology of confrontation, especially when one fails to make an agreement with Russia. If we agreed to Russia’s ultimatum, we could be speaking about defeat. And the fact that we haven’t, which gives a chilling effect to our relations with Russia, it is no defeat. Yanukovych wanted to imply to Putin that we can compete with them.”