Russia and Ukraine will face one another on Friday in a historic Uefa futsal European championship encounter against a backdrop of political tension over the threat of renewed conflict between the nations.
The semi-final in Uefa’s showpiece five-a-side tournament will take place amid “specific security plans” implemented at Amsterdam’s Ziggo Dome arena to ensure the event’s safety, Uefa told the Guardian.
It is the first men’s competitive meeting between the nations in a Uefa tournament since 2007. The last match in football was a Euro 2000 qualifier in 1999. The only competitive game since the conflict over Crimea in 2014 was in the inaugural Uefa women’s futsal Euros in 2019. Uefa has kept Russia and Ukraine and their clubs apart in draws since 2014 but accepts that they cannot apply to the entire knockout stages of tournaments.
“Uefa expects fair play by the two teams, on and off the pitch,” it said in a statement to the Guardian.
Coaches and players from both sides were keen on Thursday to play down the politically sensitive nature of the match.
Petro Shoturma, the Ukraine captain, admitted the Euro 22 tournament was “the most difficult in our history” and insisted the players were focused only on the match. “We have no special secrets,” he said, when asked how Ukraine would put aside the political tensions. “But we are all together as a team. With our character and our spirit, we will try to win. The only principle for us is that this is a semi-final. This is the only important thing.”
Amid concern over the game becoming a flashpoint, Oleksandr Kosenko, Ukraine’s head coach, insisted they “fully support fair play” but accepted that interest in the match in Ukraine was fierce: “We feel the emotions and support from all people but also from other countries. We are not living on an island, we all communicate in other countries. Tomorrow we will do our best to secure a positive result.”
Responding to a question about the game’s significance, Russia’s captain, Sergey Abramov, said: “It’s a special match because it’s a semi-final. It doesn’t matter who we play … Maybe you want me to talk about political things but we are going to speak only about sports.”
Russia’s coach, Sergei Skorovich, dismissed the “rumours and talk” about politics and said they would “concentrate only on futsal”. Unconfirmed reports said Russia had doubled the bonuses on offer to their players for a win.
Attendances are limited by Covid restrictions to 1,250. It is unclear how many Russian and Ukrainian fans will be in the 17,000-capacity arena, where Russian and Ukrainian flags hang side by side next to a Uefa respect banner above the court.
In the buildup, one of the Ukraine players, Danyil Abakshyn, posted a picture of himself in a Ukraine shirt, an image that revisited the controversy at the European football championships when Ukraine were forced to remove the phrase “Glory to the Heroes” from a shirt carrying a map containing Crimea.
“The political background of this meeting cannot be discarded,” the president of the Russian Futsal Association, Emil Aliyev, told Match TV on Wednesday. He insisted the Ukrainian Futsal Association were “our friends” and said: “It would be better if everyone sorted out the relationship – who is stronger or faster – on the sports grounds.”
Russia’s Ivan Chishkala, who plays club futsal for Benfica, also tried to calm tensions. “We communicate with the guys [from Ukraine], we don’t have any animosity,” he told Tass.
Uefa told the Guardian: “The Dutch LOS [local organising structure] – with the support of Uefa – is using its best efforts so as to ensure that the event will take place safely and, in this respect, is working on implementing specific security plans.”
Russia and Ukraine are among futsal’s European elite. Russia have won one title, in 1999, and finished runners-up five times since the first Euros in 1996. Ukraine have been runners-up twice.
The holders and world champions, Portugal, contest the second semi-final on Friday night with Spain, serial winners of the tournament.
The final is on Sunday and games are screened live on Uefa TV.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism