World Cup 2022: Ukrainian football fans back Poland and England

Many will support allies playing in the tournament, which will largely be overshadowed by war.

Poland Ukraine football
Poland's Robert Lewandowski, wearing a Ukrainian armband, celebrates qualifying for the World Cup Qatar 2022 [File: Kacper Pempel/Reuters]

For some people in Ukraine, football has become a welcome distraction from the endless air raid sirens, Russian missile attacks and other harsh realities of war.

And while interest in the 2022 World Cup might be more muted than usual, committed fans are looking forward to the tournament.

Volodymyr Maklyakov, a 26-year-old Manchester City fan originally from Kharkiv but now living in western Ukraine, says that although he has not felt “any great emotions” in the build-up to the big event, he will do all he can to watch the games.

Doing so could prove difficult since Russia has targeted Ukraine’s energy facilities in recent months, resulting in power shortages and blackouts.

Maklyakov would have supported his beloved Ukrainian national team had they not narrowly missed out on qualification after losing to Wales in a playoff game.

Instead, like many Ukrainian football fans this World Cup, he will be cheering for Poland and England in gratitude for their support during the war.

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Poland has welcomed about 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees and provided almost $3bn in aid.

The United Kingdom has provided Ukraine with nearly $4bn in military aid. It has also been a strong diplomatic ally.

Ukrainian refugees in Poland
Ukrainian refugees enter Poland during the first few weeks of the war [File: Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

“I am very grateful to Poland because they are helping Ukraine,” Maklyakov said, adding that there have been many examples of the Polish football team showing solidarity with Ukraine.

Poland had been scheduled to play a World Cup qualifier with Russia in March. They refused to play after the team’s captain, Robert Lewandowski, led a boycott of the match.

Lewandowski has since pledged to wear a Ukrainian blue and yellow armband at the World Cup. It was given to him by former Ukraine captain and coach Andriy Shevchenko.

Erfan Kudusov, a Crimean Tatar based in Kyiv, says he will support England and Poland because he will be “forever grateful” for the hospitality they showed to his family who fled the war.

Erfan Kudusov with his sister in Warsaw, Poland [File: Nils Adler / Al Jazeera]

Igor Novikov, a former adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and a lifelong Blackburn Rovers fan, said support for Poland is a “no-brainer” because the two nations enjoy “a brotherhood”.

“Now, football and politics are very much the same,” Iryna Koziupa, a Ukrainian sports journalist, said, adding, “We are looking at how each country behaves towards Ukraine during the war”.

Koziupa said other teams that are “friendly towards Ukraine during this war”, including the United States and Canada, will also enjoy Ukrainian support.

This political element means there will also be hostility towards what she describes as “unfriendly nations”.

Koziupa said Iran is a particularly unpopular team because Tehran supplies military drones to Russia, which have been used to target Ukraine’s infrastructure.

In October, the Ukrainian football federation urged FIFA to ban Iran from the World Cup, citing human rights violations and its supply of weapons to Russia.

“People are calling for Ukraine to take Iran’s place, especially given the group they are in with the US and England,” Novikov said.

A major Ukrainian club team, Shakhtar Donetsk, have appealed to FIFA to allow Ukraine to participate in the event of a ban on Iran.

Koziupa said the scandals surrounding FIFA and the host nation Qatar have diminished interest in the tournament.

“FIFA pretends there is no war and that people are not suffering in different parts of the world,” she said, referring to a recent letter sent by FIFA to World Cup teams urging them to avoid protests and “focus on the football”.

Ukraine football fan
Iryna Koziupa at Shakhtar Donetsk’s Champions League game on November 2, 2022 [Photo courtesy of Koziupa]

If Ukraine had qualified, Koziupa says it would have provided “an opportunity to tell the world about war through football as Shakhtar did in the Champions League”.

Shakhtar Donetsk recently competed in the European club tournament despite the war and losing a youth coach who was shot while fighting Russian forces. The team plays their home games in Poland.

Arsen Tartan, second from left, with other Ukrainian Arsenal fans [Photo courtesy of Arsen Tartan]

But for others, the World Cup is still a simple affair and about supporting the best team.

Arsen Tartan, a Kyiv-based Arsenal fan with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game, said he “sincerely wishes his Polish brothers success” but he won’t be backing a particular team.

For Arsen, club loyalty is the most important, so he will support his beloved Arsenal players – new and old – as they play for their respective teams.

Source: Al Jazeera