Category Archives: Ukraine

Ghost Goals, and Other Ontological Problems

Looking back on the tournament, my favourite moment of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was when Luis Suarez chose to manually block Dominic Adiyiah’s header, thus denying Ghana a certain goal and – in a slightly convoluted way involving a missed penalty and a shoot-out – sending his Uruguay side to the semi-finals. With an arguably typical lack of contrition, Suarez claimed to have made ‘the save of the tournament’ when asked about his actions after the game: he was aware, it would seem, of the severity of his rule-breaking but simultaneously ironised it. Why did he do this? I suspect that the tongue-in-cheek nature of his response arose out of an intuition that apologising would be inauthentic, and could in no way represent a genuine desire to have acted otherwise in the first place. His original calculation had been one that judged that his intended violation could incur no punishment severe enough to damage his team to a degree likely to gift the match to Ghana, a nimble application of game theory which reveals that the ‘laws’ of football have a hidden expansion pack which make the dimensions of the sport much more complex than they are generally claimed to be.

Along with many others, I wanted Ghana to win that game. It was a tough choice – Uruguay had also been one of the tournament’s more likeable sides – but the possibility of seeing an African team through to the semi-finals of a World Cup for the first time ever swayed me. Indeed, I was initially furious with Suarez for his indiscretion, and racked my brain for ways in which Uruguay might be adequately punished – perhaps the shoot-out result could be scrubbed, and a goal awarded to Adiyiah, I thought. After a little consideration, however, this began to make sense only within a rather particular sense of what ‘fairness’ constitutes. For the game’s greater good – or the greater goods that the game might bring about – it started to appear better that these unpredictable violations and errors of official judgement be maintained within football’s broader ontological structure.

Of course, that World Cup had already provided a significant example of how football’s essence can very often be glimpsed in those instances when the ontological blueprint is smudged. With Germany leading England 2-1 in the first knockout round, Frank Lampard’s shot came off the crossbar and landed behind the line. The referee and linesmen did not spot the ‘goal’; the rest – Germany subjecting their rivals to a humiliating lesson in pace and invention – is history. Of course, the English media cried out for digital technology to be used for making close line-calls, and laced their editorial with spurious objectivity by pointing out that the issue of Geoff Hurst’s disputed goal in the 1966 World Cup Final could also be settled conclusively.

At the time, I didn’t agree with this (the denial of a goal to Lampard was actually pretty amusing), and the Ukrainian ‘ghost goal’ last night has failed to convince me differently. Football is, of course, on one hand a set of comprehensively-codified rules which dictate what can and can’t be done with the ball by the twenty-two men on the pitch. But this is a limited phenomenology. For the full effect of football to be appreciated, one needs to think about those moments in which an infraction is felt most deeply and why such an impression is made. Ghost goals are, as their name suggests, an uncanny experience: they’re neither of nor not-of the game, and problematise our somewhat neurotic attempts to describe sporting boundaries. The affect they bring about is strangely similar to that which comes about when a piece of fiction exceeds or rearranges the terms of its diegesis or narrative world, namely the ‘shudder’ that Theodor Adorno describes in Kafka and which is also one of the most notable responses people have to Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet. It’s also a staple of some forms of fantasy literature, and is linked fundamentally to the more self-reflective ontological jolts of postmodern literature and cinema.

Essentially, what I’m arguing is that much of football’s force as a public experience rests on the moments when it transgresses itself. There are obvious instances of this – every one of the game’s sociopolitical ramifications, to begin with – and there are those which are inscribed in its very fabric precisely because they are not the rules. Goal-line technology is, to cite a common and perfectly valid objection, yet another form of technocracy-in-action, and will deny the strange nobility of human error its part. More worrying, I think, is the threat that it will remove part of the ontological chafing that gives football, which is secretly always more than ‘just’ football and the rule-book, its real allure.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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UK Government Boycott: Geopolitics by Sting?

It seems the UK government are going to join Angela Merkel in boycotting Euro 2012 games held in Ukraine. I’m not going to attempt to unravel the ins and outs of Ukrainian politics since the nation became independent, but it is worth asking what exactly prompted this decision to be made. Ultimately, the move seems to be less to do with human rights than with geopolitics and a very particular conception of one-size-fits-all ‘democracy’.

Yulia Tymoshenko, currently imprisoned in Kharkiv after her hotly-disputed conviction for abusing power during her period of prime ministerial office, was one half of the Western-friendly image of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution of 2004/ 2005. While her ally Viktor Yuschenko provided the narrative about the unscrupulousness of the Soviet-successor establishment, Tymoshenko represented the promise of the future: a smartly-dressed middle-aged businesswoman who could help her country’s politics transcend Soviet-era bad habits and pull it into line with neighbouring Ryanair Europe. You could tell that this was the case, because Michael Palin went to visit her, her daughter and her son-in-law – a biker from Leeds! – when making his documentary New Europe. No more bread rationing, no more poisoning, no more mismanagement of nuclear power stations: Ukraine was conspicuously westernising.

Of course, the Orange Revolution was just one of several of ‘colour revolutions’ occurring in the former USSR during the noughties. In Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili led the Rose Revolution against Gorbachev-era dinosaur Eduard Shevardnadze: this regime change was received even more uncritically by the West than Tymoshenko and Yuschenko’s in Ukraine. The sense that the one-time peripheral states of the Soviet Union were striving to throw off Russian influence and open themselves up as stag-party destinations gained weight when Russia and a Saakashvili-led Georgia fought a brief war over the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008. No-one but long-time Caucasus watchers understood the South Ossetian conflict in Washington or London, but the press (and, with massive predictability, Bernard Henri-Lévy) were firmly of the opinion that the Georgians were in the right. Given the dubiousness of much of Saakashvili’s activities – he’s been accused of many of the things which Shevardnadze was removed from power for – it seems clear that the kneejerk backing of the underdog arose largely out of Western anti-Russian sentiments, which generally show themselves eventually to be anti-communist sentiments.

Ukraine is read according to the same principles as Georgia in this area. Although Moscow itself is critical of Kiev’s treatment of Tymoschenko, there’s still clearly an associative logic at work in Western Europe and the US that maps her with democratic (ie. non-Russian, non-communist) values of transparency, electoral fairness and political altruism. She’s long been the beneficiary of a generic humanism that frankly can’t be bothered to ask itself what the outcomes of her period of office were for people who actually live in Ukraine or what the circumstances were which brought incipient pariah Viktor Yanukovych to power in 2010. It’s European politics as appraised by Sting & Trudie Styler, a set of circumstances where the phrase ‘human rights’ acts as a veto on any attempt at comprehensive analysis.

As I said in my discussion of the Panorama documentary, the hosting of the tournament in Poland and Ukraine is premised entirely on the modernisation – in other words, the assenting to neoliberal consensus – of both countries. The Tymoschenko issue represents, in a slightly convoluted way, this not happening. While reserving judgement on whether or not the British government have made the correct choice here (and they may well have done, albeit for the wrong reasons) for them to have sent representatives to Donetsk while Tymoshenko remains in prison would, on some level, have felt for them like a betrayal of Thatcher-era Cold Warriors.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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The Psychodrama of England’s Ukraine Panic

It’s not unheard of for England fans and the English media to lose the run of themselves in the run-up to a major tournament — it usually manifests itself in a belief that this is going to be their year. The build-up to Euro 2012 has, of course, been unusual in that respect with the FA’s and the team’s preparation so shambolic that there are few talking up their chances of lifting the Henri Delaunay trophy in Kiev on July 1st. Instead, media and fans are losing the run of themselves on the supposed threat of violence and racial attacks.

 Joe has already written thoroughly about the Panorama ‘Stadiums of Hate’ report, which was sensationalist and most likely overstated the scale and extent of an albeit very real problem of hooliganism and racism in both the host nations. Certainly, some of the images broadcast were horrific and darker-skinned fans might well be forgiven for being nervous about travelling to Ukraine having seen them. But it is also unlikely that people will be coming home ‘in coffins’, as Sol Campbell said, when he was shown the pictures of Asian students being attacked. You can’t blame Sol for his reaction but why did Panorama canvas him as a talking head on the matter when you imagine his familiarity with Ukraine would be sketchy at best? Why not people — particularly non-white people — with first hand experience of the country? The anxiety — which, among the seven visiting nations to be hosted by Ukraine, appears to be confined to England — has now reached almost hysterical levels with plans for England supporters to be protected in a gated community, to which nobody without an England supporters’ club card will be admitted. If implementing segregation is seen as the way to combat racial antagonism, we might say that the gentrification process of English football has well and truly reached its final point.

Of course, the irony is lost on few people of England fans being apprehensive about violence abroad, not least on the Irish, who saw far-right England ‘supporters’ go on the rampage at Lansdowne Road in February 1995. Nobody in Ireland, as far as I can recall, worried that the European Championships that England would host sixteen months later would be marred by violence. This despite the fact that violence at an international football match might be a better indicator of a potential reoccurrence at a tournament than violence in the closed circuit of domestic football. The people behind these segregated fan zones seem to also be unaware  of how gravely offensive it might be to the hosts. And I am thinking here of the majority of Ukrainian people, who, I am guessing, are not aiming to use this opportunity in the world spotlight to show how much they hate foreigners, which, of course, they probably don’t. Think about it: you travel to a foreign country for a tournament and before the locals even get to say hello to you and give you a welcome and express curiosity about what western Europeans might think about their country, you retreat off into a sanitary cordon, rebuffing any contact with them. Would that have gone down well in England during Euro 96 if the French, the Czechs or the Croatians decided to do it?

Once again, I am not denying the existence of racism or hooliganism in Ukraine. People who know the country better than I do, however, have expressed a more nuanced view than Panorama’s. Black players for English clubs have experienced some terrible racial abuse in Eastern Europe in recent years, but all the major Ukrainian clubs field at least a few black players, and, according to some accounts, the racial abuse is not as ubiquitous as Panorama suggested. My own team, Sligo Rovers, played in Ukraine last year in the Europa League against Vorskla Poltava, and our star player, the former Cameroon international Joseph Ndo, experienced no racial abuse whatsoever. If anything, the welcome afforded Sligo by the locals was warm, respectful and curious. I’m sure there are people that have not had such a pleasant experience on their visit but it’s worth bearing in mind that not everyone on the terraces will be the thugs featured in ‘Stadiums of Hate.’

English football is to be applauded for the way it has largely dealt with the scourge of racism and hooliganism that once blighted the game so. Of course there are still outbreaks of each but the English game has made much progress. This latest psychodrama though is a hysterical flip-side of that earlier culture of confrontation; where once England fans (or at least a regrettably sizeable minority of them) used to see the public squares of foreign towns and cities as a battleground to be conquered, now they seek out spaces within them to privatise out of the reach of the people hosting them. The English media has sounded the ‘here be monsters’ alarm on a number of occasions in recent years, most notably about the likelihood of racial attacks in Eastern Germany during World Cup 2006 and the crime panic that preceded South Africa’s tournament two years ago. Both times the fears proved to be completely ungrounded and England fans that did travel said that they never felt anything but safe all the time they were there. That is not to diminish the clear reality of South Africa’s violent crime problem but the likelihood of it spilling over onto the World Cup was always going to be slim.

As I said before, the other six nations that will be playing in Ukraine do not seem to be reacting in this way. I have been following the Portuguese and the French press closely and, while they have alluded to the existing problems, they are not whipping fans into a frenzy of fear and panic. These are two countries with a significant number of black players in their squads and both take the problem of racism in football very seriously (a way in which the English often imagine themselves to be unique). There is an argument to be made that Ukraine should not have been awarded the tournament — the transport and accommodation situations are clearly inadequate for a championship in such a vast country — but its own problems of domestic hooliganism do not represent a very strong argument. The Ukrainian authorities reaction to the Panorama programme could have been far better but neither is it in their interests to allow foreign fans to be indiscriminately attacked while the world watches and I very much doubt it will happen. Remember how England fretted about its knife-crime problem hampering its bid for World Cup 2018? It didn’t have much of a bearing on England’s bid failing but few football fans would have allowed such a real problem to keep them away from a World Cup in England. The difficulties of travel have thinned the English numbers this year but I still imagine there will be plenty of English fans intrepid enough to wander out of the segregated fan zones, meet the locals and will probably have a pleasant experience to tell the folks back home.

Posted by Oliver Farry

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Spectres of Graham: Euro 2012 and the trace of Sweden ’92

Yes, there was Italia 90 –

I have hazy memories. 7 years old, local youth club, Italy overcome Czechoslovakia. Do I have enough for more sweets?

England scruffy, Lineker bundled, Pearce disallowed, Wright nods in.

Faint recollections of Oman Biyik, Caniggia, Schillaci.

Platt’s goal v Belgium, Platt’s goal v Cameroon.

But I was definitely  in bed when Lineker put those penalties away.

The reality of the semi-final lost to a thousand replays and rememberings.

– but it was not really mine.

This roundabout poetic guff is a tool to explain that Euro 92 was my first proper tournament.

The sticker collecting was much more serious, developing my knowledge of the continental wheat and chaff. Italy joined Denmark in a bonus section at the back of the album in case the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States joined Yugoslavia in having their invitation withdrawn.

It was only later that Graham Taylor’s right back problem could be seen as my introduction to pre-tournament injury sagas.

Gary Stevens limps off v Finland to be replaced by the up and coming Keith Curle, a centre-back who would make such a hash of the full-back post in the first game of Sweden 92 that a young David Batty became No.2 in the second. Eventually, Graham Taylor introduced a sweeper system to do away with the nuisance in the third and final group match.

It’s funny what you recall.

1990 had Waddle, Gascoigne, Barnes; 1992 had Palmer, Daley, Sinton. However, at nine years of age it was unbridled support, no pub-based rants about the absence of Peter Beardsley from the passenger manifest of the FA’s charter flight from Luton.

The stultifying dullness of a nil nil draw with Denmark has seemingly expunged most details of England’s opener from my memory. A pre-Arsenal Jensen hit the post (an anticipation of his goal in the final, which gave no hint of his miserable Highbury goal-quest).

France follow. Cantona, Papin, Boli. Home from school. Pearce bleeds, spanks the bar. Nil nil.

It’s all on Sweden. We have to win. They have a new wonder, Brolin, talk of the playground.

Football training means I don’t get home til half-time. The lift home, full of hope: Platt has scored, it’s 1-0.

45 minutes later the tone is set for my England-supporting career. Equaliser, Brolin-Dahlin-Brolin-Brilliant, Alan Smith.

To bring this memoir to a head: with the gift of hindsight England’s preparations for Euro 2012 seem to reflect some of the principal themes of that doomed Swedish enterprise from long ago.

Even the tournament itself has its parallels. Sweden ’92 was the final incarnation of the 8-team, 2 group, straight-to-semis affair. Ukraine/Poland is the last hurrah of the 16-nation bill which so perfectly demonstrates Europe’s depth, offering room for a fairytale or two and only the odd uninspiring group game. (In 2012, Group A seems most likely to give rise to these – although the co-host set-up must take most of the blame for this).

France 2016 and Uefa’s 24-nation grope for broadcast cash promises little but dilution and group-stage humiliations for a tournament that did not need fixing.

Apologies for the tangent, back to England and the vicious 20-year cycle.

For Hodgson, see Taylor.

A manager who beams Englishness, only with a 40-watt bulb. Not an inspiration, but a proven achiever of everything save dizzying heights. A real FA man. Hodgson, schooled in dignified elimination with Switzerland and Finland, would perhaps not appreciate his tactical likening to Taylor, but I can’t help but feel that the same 4-4-2, the same slavish adherence to organisation, the same directness unites them.

And as for ’92 and all that, England once again find themselves shorn of talent. The limited pool has been exposed. Wilshere, Walker, Cahill, Lampard, Bent. They may not be Barnes and Gascoigne but all would be pushing for the first XI. At least they are denied to Hodgson, while Taylor chose to leave some of his more mercurial talent at home.

For the Ox, see Daley. Young pace men, impact wingers, untested. Daley would flop where Owen and Rooney would one day shine. Let us hope Oxlade-Chamberlain can bring some brio to the touch-line. With Downing and Milner for competition surely he will not go the way of Sven-era Walcott.

Roy’s fancy for Carroll doffs a cap to Taylor and Smudger too. Taylor took Shearer (albeit a pre-Blackburn incarnation) and didn’t use him when Lineker needed help. Hodgson must utilise Welbeck: his top-drawer finish against Belgium demands it, as Rooney serves his time for his Montenegrin impetuousness.

There’s a more superficial similarity, too. France and Sweden leer from the trapdoor of 1992’s group stage.

Last time a draw with the French left us needing to do too much against the underestimated hosts.

Now a draw against Laurent Blanc and his increasingly confident team, leaving us – realistically – needing to beat Sweden to escape the possibility of another host-nation banana skin in the final group game, seems as much as we dare hope for.

The one significant difference is that twenty years of frustration have finally matched expectations to reality.

The manager, the players, the fans, and the press do not come into the Euros still giddy from a World Cup semi-final and all those pills.

Rather, having had to swallow 2010 and a very different exit at the hands of the Germans gives Roy and his team the benefit of perspective – he’d still have a job if England get no further than Group D.

However, as a nine-year-old, a group stage exit hurt. Where was my night in Turin?

Posted by Gregg Morgan

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I had meant for my first post to deal with the BBC’s Panorama investigation – if a month-long research trip which draws no conclusions other than ‘Polish and Ukrainian football both have problems with racism’ merits that title – but felt compelled to turn it over for a little longer lest I came across as contrarian. With the benefit of an extra day’s consideration, I still feel that the programme was flawed on almost every level, and conveyed far more about the shortcomings of the contemporary TV documentary than about the issue it purported to address. Moreover, it emblematised lazy thinking about Central and Eastern Europe: dogged by its unwillingness to supply a political or historical context for the behaviour it (rightly) condemned, it managed to ignore the fact that the racist and anti-semitic convulsions it represented are the perverse outcomes of the factors that mean the Euros are being held in Poland and Ukraine in the first place.

First of all, though, something has to be said about the style of the documentary. In a lineage of televisual treatments of football disorder which goes back at least to Donal MacIntyre’s strangely priapic infiltration of the Chelsea Headhunters, Chris Rogers’ film was edited and soundtracked in a manner which virtually demanded vicarious participation in the adrenalised spectacle of hooliganism. Long panning shots of choreographed Nazi saluting and jump cuts between various clips of drunken paggering were interspersed with ‘brave’ interviews with self-confessed race warriors: make no mistake, the audience were told, we got right in the thick of it. Oddly, this documentary vocabulary is almost identical to the one employed in the much-maligned Danny Dyer’s The Real Football Factories. The difference, I think, is that Dyer – a long-time straw man for advocates of ‘intelligent’ media in Britain – almost always attempts to provide some form of social or historical rationale for violence, something Rogers didn’t find time to fit into his schedule of going to football matches and looking shocked.

A second criticism, which moves firmly in the direction of my real gripe with the programme, centres on the its lumping together of Poland and Ukraine into a homogeneous Ryanair Ruritania. Hey, there’s a tram! There’s some decaying brutalist architecture! The policemen wear funny hats! Although a certain ideational blurring of national characteristics is inevitable when countries co-host tournaments (Switzerland and Austria were transformed into a United States of Heidi in 2008; 2000’s general iconography was of beer, chips and featureless landscape) the differences are, in this case, hugely important. Poland is a Central European country in which the Catholic Church continues to play a fundamental ideological role: geopolitically, it tends to lean westwards or towards nations with a comparable economic and historical profile such as Hungary. Ukraine is Orthodox, much poorer than Poland, and far more ethnically heterogenous, with a significant Russian population  hinting at its long history of governance by its eastern neighbour. At this point, one might wish to point out the to makers of the documentary that the temperature and character of nationalism varies according to particular cultural determinants.

However, one of the primary determinants in both countries, and in fact in nearly all of the nations which once constituted the Warsaw Pact, is the legacy of an antagonism between state-endorsed communism and the (western-sponsored) drive for the recognition of national singularities. The pro-democracy movements of the 1970s and 1980s were often propelled by ideological liberals, some of whom fitted the western media’s agenda of generic humanism (many, of course, had to conceal socialistic leanings in order to appeal). However, popular support was often generated through the stirring up of chauvinistic resentment: communism became linked in a schematic sense to Russia, and Russians were cast as the inevitable enemies of the patria. The Party and its functionaries became simplified as nationalists were encouraged to think of themselves as constituting a noble opposition.

The end of communist rule throughout Eastern and Central Europe left reservoirs of nationalistic feeling with nowhere in particular to go. ‘Independence from Moscow’ had largely been achieved, yet the rush of rebellion proved addictive. Having been legitimised as romantic outlaws by the democrats who were taking governmental positions in the wake of elections, nationalists began to locate new arenas in which to express what, ultimately, was a combination of unadulterated anti-authoritarianism and narcissism. Football was an obvious sponge for this machismo, and the new governments – many of whom found it expedient to play down their links to the political right – were ideal in a nationalist imagination seeking new agencies to disobey.

Racism is driven by a very peculiar motor in the countries discussed by Panorama. While the groups which espouse it undoubtedly pick up members by providing extremist ‘solutions’ to socio-economic problems, it doesn’t react as – say – the BNP or the Front National do to the perceived threat of large-scale immigration. There isn’t any large-scale immigration, in fact. What Rogers unanalytically portrayed was a more general hostility to government which turns (often with horrific results) on minorities because liberal politics are seen, surreally, as the new heels which grind down ‘real Poles’ or ‘real Ukrainians’. In many respects, the nationalist groups are the monsters of pro-democracy Frankensteins.

The hype around the Polish-Ukrainian tournament has tended to disregard this. Euro 2012 is, in a manner which is admittedly rather subtle, being painted as a triumph of westernisation. The stadiums in Poland and Ukraine are no longer the imposing constructivist edifices, all angular concrete and blazing floodlights, in which ‘crack Eastern European outfits’ used to outwit Melchester Rovers on their European Cup awaydays. Instead, they’ve largely been built or remodelled to match the expectations one has of a modern British or French stadium, namely bright colour – the chromography of choice and diversity – and gentle curves embodying late capitalist flexibility and openness. On the whole, the tournament is a slightly belated welcoming of Eastern and Central Europe into the fold of core EU values. It’s unacknowledged that the flip side of the establishment of those values is the racism and xenophobic violence Panorama picked up on last week.

Posted by Joe Kennedy