Originally I was going to write this week’s article on the controversy surrounding the World Cup given that it is just under 100 days away from starting. Given the amount of trouble that the Brazilian Football Association (FA) is in to get all the stadiums finished, which are mostly still suffering the labors of construction work and the feuding between FIFA and the Brazilian government over getting the work done safely and without the supposed slave labor that the BBC has spent the past six months reporting on. I was going to write about all of that, but then something else distracted me. The Ukrainian National Football Team played the US on Tuesday night in Cyprus. And I ended up trying to figure out why that was happening at all.
Since the uprisings in the Ukraine began last year and since the incursion by Russia into Crimea last week, it does not seem like a good time for Ukraine to be playing any international matches. Currently the country is engaged in a state of emergency with no clear outcome visible at the moment. Crimea could reasonably split off or become a part of Russia; Ukraine could end up becoming a new Georgia. There are many possibilities and it could go in any direction. But Ukrainian FA was desperate for this match with the United States to go ahead despite the country being in turmoil.
The most important thing to take away from this is that soccer goes on. For the Ukrainian FA was desperate to play this match because it signaled that everything was okay. Playing international soccer matches is what stable, independent countries do. After the invasion of Iraq, it was key that the Iraqi FA kept going and played competitive matches against other countries. In the aftermath of the invasion, the Iraqi government decided to build a new 65,000 seat national stadium in Basra called “Basra Sports City.” The country spent $550 million on the complex and it hosted the Gulf Cup there last year. In Afghanistan, soccer became something to rally around because it was a symbol of peace. The Afghan National Team was banned from 1984 until 2002 because of war and Taliban control, but as soon as the country claimed that it had been liberated, it started competing in international competitions again. In the 2003 SAFF Gold Cup (South Asian Football Federation), Afghanistan played India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. Last year Afghanistan won their first SAFF cup and beat India 2-0 in the final. Afghanistan is now the highest ranked SAFF team and is 138th in the world. The Afghan FA has also started building a new national stadium for its soccer team to replace the old Ghazi stadium, which was just renovated in 2011.
Soccer is seen as a thing that stable states do, and it is a way of showing to the world that you are an independent nation. Having a Football Association in your country is seen as part of the process of being recognised internationally as a country. Palestine has a Football Association, as does Kosovo. Tibetan exiles in India have tried to form their own Football Association, but it has not been accepted by FIFA. It is foolish to think that having a national soccer team is what makes a country exist. However, it is a good indicator that a country is functional and has a sense of national identity. These are the reasons that Ukraine was so desperate to proceed with its match against the US. The match is currently going ahead under the slogan ‘Peace for Ukraine’ and is showing the world that the Ukrainian team is playing under one flag while the country is split between two.