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Ukrainian politicians made a futile attempt in 2018 to get countries to boycott the World Cup, which was hosted by Russia. A Sports Ministry order the same year barred government financing for athletes while they take part in competitions in Russia. (Pixabay)

It’s one thing for a Ukrainian soccer club to lose a top defender, quite another to see him go to a top team in Russia.

So when Shakhtar Donetsk’s Yaroslav Rakitskyy signed with Zenit St. Petersburg, a rival team in a rival country, fans in Ukraine went ballistic.

His Instagram account was bombarded with abusive comments, most not fit to print, with many questioning his patriotism. Others said the 29-year-old, who has 54 caps with the national team, should never don Ukraine’s jersey again.

Rakitskyy, who has attracted criticism at home for his perceived lack of Ukrainian patriotism before, has stayed out of the fray. Zenit’s press service declined an interview request from Current Time, and a reporter for the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA was barred from a Zenit press conference on January 30 on the grounds that he didn’t represent professional sports media.

It would not be the first time the conflict between Moscow and Kyiv over Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine has spilled over into sport.

Ukrainian politicians made a futile attempt in 2018 to get countries to boycott the World Cup, which was hosted by Russia. A Sports Ministry order the same year barred government financing for athletes while they take part in competitions in Russia.

The conflict in parts of Ukraine’s eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk — which has pitted Russia-backed separatists against Ukrainian government forces and resulted in at least 10,300 deaths since 2014 — has hit Ukrainian soccer hard. Shakhtar has not played in its home region since the fighting started, and the country’s top league has shrunk from 16 to just 12 teams amid tough economic times.

Shakhtar’s owner, Rinat Akhmetov, had some of his assets in the two regions “nationalized” by the separatists and some of the country’s top soccer talent has left for greener pitches.

In transferring to Zenit, Rakitskyy will be playing for not only one of Russia’s wealthiest and most successful teams, but one of Europe’s. Backed by Gazprom, Zenit paid 10 million euros for the 29-year-old defender, who had spent his entire career with Shakhtar and won seven Ukrainian titles there.

Rakitskyy took flak in 2014 for his supposed reluctance to sing the national anthem while playing for Ukraine.

“I just do not sing the anthem and that’s it. Of course I remember the words. Just taking that time to get tuned for the game, listening to other people singing,” Rakitskyy said on national television that year.

For those who questioned his patriotism, the move to Zenit appeared to confirm their suspicions. An Internet poll by the news portal showed 56 percent opposed Rakitskyy ever donning the national jersey again. Nearly 10,000 took part in the informal survey.

Oleksandr Horshkov, who played for Ukraine and several seasons for Zenit, predicted Rakitskyy could become a “pariah” if he continues to be called on to play for the national team.​

“I think it is a very possible scenario that he would become a pariah on the team, although I would not like it. Sports should be out of politics, but nowadays everything is possible,” Horshkov told Sports24.

Horshkov added that Zenit’s reasons for pursuing Rakitskyy appear to be purely for sporting reasons.

“There were problems in the Zenit defense, especially on the left. Management decided to buy a quality center back,” he said.

Russian sports daily Sports Express compiled a list of well-wishes addressed to Rakitskyy under a headline: “Fans — Rakitskyy: ‘Don’t Listen To Eight-Year-Olds. You’re A Legend!'”

Twitter user Milanista struggled to contain his enthusiasm, saying Rakitskyy “going to Zenit is amazing. Will bring some much needed stability to the backline.”

And he won’t be the only big-name Ukrainian at the club. Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, who captained Ukraine in the past and even played a few seasons for German giants Bayern Munich, is an assistant coach at Zenit.

For fans of Shakhtar, it’s just the latest in a long drip of bad news. They must cheer from afar, as their team’s “home” matches are played mostly in Kharkiv, but also in Kyiv and even for a time in Lviv, as well.

Their home stadium, Donbas Arena, a state-of-the-art facility built at a cost of $425 million that also hosted games during the 2012 European soccer championships, now sits empty, damaged from shelling.

Shakhtar sits atop the Ukrainian Premier League with a seven-point lead over Dynamo Kyiv. But the league is not what it used to be, with once-top squads Dnipro and Metalist Kharkiv having been relegated to amateur status.

Dnipro’s fall, in particular, most cruelly captures the struggles of soccer today in Ukraine. In 2015, the club was being toasted after falling just short to Spanish side Sevilla 3-2 in the Europa League final, the continent’s second-biggest competition behind the Champions League.

Off the field, all was not well at the club. Dnipro owner and oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy was struggling to pay the bills, including salaries to coaches and players.

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Two years after that Europa League final, Dnipro was relegated in 2017 to Ukraine’s third tier, the Ukrainian Second Division, as Kolomoyskiy’s patience and financing dried up. In 2018, the club was relegated again, to the amateur league.

With Dnipro’s fortunes waning, one of its top players, Yevhen Seleznyov, left the club in 2016. His destination? Russia. The striker, a regular on the Ukrainian national team, signed with Russian Premier League side Kuban Krasnodar amid jeers from fans in Ukraine.

“I never mixed sport and politics. This is just the situation. I hope people will understand,” Seleznyov told the website at the time. “Maybe someone called me a traitor, I don’t know. But I did not betray anyone.” (RFERL)


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