Oleg Sukhar – the tall star of the team – has brought a Ukrainian flag with him. ‘I guess we should really cut Crimea off the flag now,’ he jokes. Everyone laughs. Sukhar and his amateur football teamare on their way from Dortmund airport to Titisee-Neustadt, a small town in Germany’s Black Forest region. The news comes on the radio: ‘Merkel is meeting with her colleagues of the EU countries to discuss the crisis in Ukraine.’ ‘We went away to forget about the political crisis,’ Sukhar jokes, ‘and now it has caught up with us again! Someone turn the radio off!’ Everyone laughs.
Humour and cynicism are often all that Sukhar and his friends have left when they talk about the chaos in their country. There is a lot of frustration. ‘With the new government, political positions are now even more expensive than before,’ says Sukhar. It doesn’t matter if you’re a state secretary, mayor or head of department in a ministry – if you want to be somebody in Ukrainian politics, you have to pay.
But the team would prefer not to talk about all that; they would rather do what they came here for – play football. The footballers, who are all between 20 and 30 years old, have brought sweets with them for their hosts – made by the confectionery company owned by their new president, the ‘Chocolate King’ and oligarch Petro Poroshenko.
The footballers’ hometown is 2,500 kilometres east of Germany, but only 60 kilometres from the Russian border. People there speak Russian, but feel Ukrainian. ‘Russian is my native language, but at kindergarten and school everything was in Ukrainian. This was completely normal for me, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it,’ says Pavlo Krutogolov, the goalkeeper. During the Soviet era, if you were from Ukraine, this was the nationality given in your passport. A distinction was made between Soviet citizenship and the nation someone came from. According to the footballers, not many people in Kharkiv want to belong to Russia, and Russia does not want the people from Kharkiv either.
When the young men – some of whom are already fathers – think about the future, however, they don’t feel like laughing. But things have to keep going anyway. The group’s zest for life is infectious. They may exchange words on the pitch from time to time (in fact, the team even split up one day – some wanted to go swimming in a lake and give the pedalo’s a go, while the rest wanted to visit a car museum), but at the end of the day, they all stick together and make the best of their situation. ‘If I didn’t have my football team, there wouldn’t be so much for me to laugh about in Kharkiv. We’re friends and football connects us,’ says Sukhar.
The cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Sloviansk, where much of the fighting is taking place, are not far away from Kharkiv, which has over one million inhabitants. Midfielder Oleksiy Zinchenko regularly calls his friends from Sloviansk. The branch of the bank he works for has been closed. Anyone who was able to leave Sloviansk has done so; those who remain are caught between the fronts. ‘Most people want to live in a sensible country where people don’t just line their own pockets,’ says Zinchenko. They feel exploited by the politicians. On Ukrainian television, they add, talk show guests talk to each other in both Ukrainian and Russian. People understand each other – at least in everyday life. But there are others who exaggerate the differences between east and west for political gain. Although things are peaceful in Kharkiv, where it’s business as usual, the team reports that the crisis is still having an impact there – the value of the Ukrainian hryvnia has fallen by 50%. Bank clerk Zinchenko, who is paid in hryvnia, changed the mortgage currency for his flat from dollars to the hryvnia just in time. ‘At the moment it’s almost impossible to get a loan. The interest rate is more than 20%,’ says Zinchenko. In this way, the country’s economic situation just keeps getting worse.
The Ukrainian visitors won most of their friendly games. ‘When things have calmed down a bit in Ukraine, we’ll see you there for the return leg,’ promise the footballers from the local German club.
‘We will have to wait and see whether they were joking. They are not the only people hoping that peace will come quickly in east Ukraine. ‘It would be much better,’ says Zinchenko, ‘if Ukraine was making the headlines because of football.’ Like two years ago during the UEFA European Championship, when everyone was talking about striker Andriy Shevchenko.