Russia may not have much hope of success on the field, but it scored a geopolitical victory Thursday after European soccer governing body demanded Ukraine make changes to a new jersey that sparked fury in Moscow.
Featuring a map that includes the Russia-annexed Crimea on it, the jersey was unveiled last weekend in time for the UEFA Euro 2020 soccer tournament that kicks off in Rome on Friday.
Although it was initially approved by UEFA, the governing body ruled that the shirt be modified on Thursday after it was criticized by several officials in Russia who accused Ukraine of politicizing sports.
Moscow considers Crimea part of Russian territory and has called its 2014 annexation of the peninsula a “reunification,” although its claim is rejected internationally. Relations between Moscow and the West have deteriorated sharply since then.
UEFA said in a statement Thursday that it approved the jersey in accordance with equipment regulations and it was not the map of Ukraine featuring Crimea that made it reconsider its initial decision. Instead, it was a combination of slogans on the outside and inside the shirt, its statement said.
At the top of the back of Ukraine’s jersey one slogan reads “Glory to Ukraine!” Inside the shirt’s collar, another declares “Glory to the heroes!”
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Both are used as an official military greeting by members of the armed forces and politicians alike, and they also became popular patriotic chants in the wake of demonstrations in 2014 that saw a pro-Russian government toppled in Kyiv.
UEFA’s statement said that the “Glory to Ukraine” slogan was approved in 2018. On its own, it said, the slogan may be considered as “a generic and non-political phrase of general national significance” and therefore may be used on the national team shirt.
However, it said that although it had validated the shirt in December, the significance of both slogans featuring together had not been considered at the time.
“Following further analysis, this specific combination of the two slogans is deemed to be clearly political in nature, having historic and militaristic significance,” its statement said, adding that “Glory to the heroes!” should be removed from the shirt.
There was no immediate reaction from either Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who shared a photo of himself wearing the new jersey on his Instagram page on Wednesday, or Andriy Pavelko, the president of Ukraine’s Football Association, who unveiled the new shirts earlier this week.
Pavelko praised the U.S. on Wednesday after its embassy in Kyiv expressed support for the jersey on Twitter, saying they “love the new look” and using hashtag #CrimeaisUkraine.
Some Russian officials, including Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, critcized the jersey. In a Facebook post late Sunday she said it had “attached Ukraine’s territory to Russian Crimea,” a moved which created “an illusion of the impossible.”
Russian MP Dmitry Svishchev also told Russian state news organization RT, that the jersey design amounted to “a political provocation.”
UEFA said it doesn’t require any modifications of Ukraine’s map on the team’s new jerseys, “considering that the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 68/262 which was widely approved by the member states.”
The 2014 resolution affirms the territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders which include Crimea.