Ukraine Footballers Score Herculean Feat -- Uniting The Country

KIEV, Ukraine -- Forget that they have reached further in the World Cup than any ex-Soviet nation since the fall of the communist bloc, Ukraine's football team has scored a more impressive feat: uniting this fractious land.

Ukrainian soccer fans in Kiev celebrate their national team's victory over Tunisia in the 2006 World Cup opening round 23 June 2006. The Ukrainian team has since qualified for the tournament's quarter-finals rallying the entire country disregarding political belongings.

That is no small deed in a country of 47 million that was split into two warring camps by the "orange revolution" in late 2004.

One side, the Ukrainian-speaking nationalist northwest, backed Viktor Yushchenko, a pro-Western reformer eventually swept to the presidency. The other, the Russian-speaking southeast, supported Viktor Yanukovych who wanted to retain close ties to Moscow.

But those lines have steadily blurred as Ukraine's boys in yellow advanced through their first-ever World Cup to secure a spot in the quarter-finals against Italy on Friday.

"Nothing unites quite like football," said Vassyl Androsenko, a 52-year-old engineer in Kiev.

Indeed the team's victories have led to utterances that would have been considered heresy only a month ago.

"Trust me, if Ukraine becomes champions I won't care even if Yanukovych becomes premier," said Andriy Ratskyi, a 48-year-old construction worker in Lviv, the nationalist bastion in the west where the pro-Russian ex-premier Yanukovych has been considered the evil boogeyman for nearly two years.

"The main thing is that we win," he said.

"When the team plays... nobody cares what political party the players belong to because at that moment they're all ours," said Yelena Stefanovich, a 32-year-old nurse.

"For the first time in the recent past the east and the west have a common goal," said Andriy, a 36-year-old economist in Lviv. "Usually what's good for Lviv is bad for (the eastern city of) Donetsk and vice versa. But our team's victory is good for everyone.

"I think these guys have done more tonight to reunite the country than all politicians put together," Petro Poroshenko, tipped to be the next parliament speaker, said after Ukraine secured its quarter-final spot by beating Switzerland in a penalty shootout earlier this week.

The football team can serve as an example to the nation's politicians whose bickering and infighting has kept the nation in perpetual turmoil for nearly two years.

Many fans agree.

Like the national parliament, Ukrainian footballers come from all corners of the country, but that doesn't prevent them from working together.

They don't argue whether to speak Ukrainian or Russian, but freely converse in both with each other on and off the field.

"Trust me, if our politicians could agree and understand each other like (star striker Andriy) Shevchenko and (fellow striker Andriy) Voronin and make decisions as quickly as (midfielder) Maxim Kalinichenko, people would like them as much as the footballers," said Andriy, a 36-year-old economist from Lviv.

"Today politicians can learn from footballers on how to work towards a goal," said Roman Bezsmertnyi, a top official in one of the parties that argued for three months on whether or not to reunite with its onetime allies in a governing coalition after parliament elections in March.

Aside from unity, the travails of the football team also seem to be having an surprising effect on academics.

"I watched the (winning) match against Saudi Arabia with people from my class and on the next day, we had a test and the whole class passed," said Ivanna Gutsylo, 18.

"In the class that had exams after (the loss) to Spain, five people failed," she said.

Source: AFP