Ukraine's Political Clans Lay Aside Disputes For Key Game

KIEV, Ukraine -- Football is supposed to be apolitical, but it certainly wasn't in Ukraine on Sunday evening, when the leaders of the former Soviet republic's warring political factions watched the national football cup final together.

Ukraine's Yushenko (L) and Yanukovych (R) make strange political bedfellows.

President Viktor Yushchenko, a supporter of free market reforms and Dynamo Kyiv alike, was in a VIP box next to Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich who, besides being Yushchenko's political nemesis is a life-long Donetsk Shakhtar fan.

The two men differ on practically every major issue in Ukrainian politics. Yanukovich, for instance, favours closer relations with Russia, while Yushchenko is adamant about Ukraine joining the European Union.

During Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, Yushchenko defeated Yanukovich in a presidential election, after mass protests cancelled a Yanukovich win due to mass vote-rigging. And even then, football was part of the Ukrainian political game.

At the height of the demonstrations paralysing the Ukrainian capital Kiev, in a driving snowstorm, Dynamo took the field in a Champions' League match AS Roma. Match security was tense, as Dynamo Kyiv's owners are allies of Yanukovich, while the Dynamo fans going to the game were overwhelmingly in favour of Yushchenko.

Gate police forced thousands of ticket holders to remove tonnes of orange tape, ribbon, and banners - the colour of Yushchenko's political party - before being allowed into the stadium. The logic was UEFA-approved: No politics at a Champions' League match.

It didn't work. At fifteen minutes with play at a frigid 0-0, the referee ordered the white game ball replaced by a regulation orange one for better visibility in the heavy snow.

The crowd cheered and Dynamo Kyiv - though the side's players prior to the game were openly split on whether Yanukovich of Yushchenko should be president - eventually defeated the Italians 2-0.

Political passions about football colours were so intense in Ukraine that season that Shakhtar's tycoon owner, metals magnate Rinat Akhmetov, ordered his side to switch to all-black kit, as Shakhtar's traditional orange uniforms were supposedly offensive to Yanukovich and his supporters.

Shakhtar subsequent losing streak convinced Akhmetov the black uniforms were a bad idea, and it was in proper orange kit that Shakhtar defeated Dynamo next season, taking both the cup and the league title.

It is difficult to underestimate the importance of football in Ukrainian politics, where practically all major teams are operated (at a loss) by magnates holding political jobs and often seats in parliament.

Ukraine, set to co-host the 2012 European football championships, is a country where the entire ruling class, no matter their current political leanings, grew up in the waning days of Soviet Ukraine - a time when Ukrainian nationalism was punishable by law, except when cheering Dynamo Kyiv in matches against foreign clubs.

(Or, as veteran Ukrainian fans point out to this day, when the Soviet national side played, as nine or ten of the eleven players on the field were, inevitably, Dynamo members dressed in Soviet red and gold.)

Which brings us to Ukraine's national cup match this Sunday, set against a background of just possibly an end to the year-long constitutional battle between the Yanukovich and Yushchenko, and at the very least a return to base of combat units dispatched to the capital, as the dispute threatened to bubble out of control.

No matter the final score, Yanukovich will win from the game, as television cameras will show him supporting Ukraine's team of the working class and ethnic Russians: Shakhtar. Part of the deal ending the crisis, after all, was to hold parliamentary elections in September, and Yanukovich's party must stand for seats, depending on an base electorate that, by and large, supports Shakhtar.

The game likewise will strengthen Yushchenko's political position, as the same television cameras will display the president to the nation as a normal chap who is happy to take in a match, and at the end of the game Yushchenko and no one else will hand over the trophy.

Ukrainian political analysts, and sports commentators alike were predicting a close match, and no magic resolution of the differences between Ukraine's president and prime minister. Ukraine's off-field battles will continue for years, observers said.

Source: Deutsche Presse-Agentur