The private video filmed after the Croatia Russia match, FIFA’s reaction to it aimed to please the Russian Federation and the chain of ensuing events provoked a powerful international social and media response which exposed Russian propaganda narratives, uncovered a few painful truths as well as raised uncomfortable questions challenging some conventional western myths about Ukraine, Russia, FIFA, Facebook and western politics.
Let us quickly look back at the facts. On July 7, 2018, Croatian team defeated Russians on penalties at the 2018 FIFA World Cup quarter finals. After the match, Croatia’s defender Domagoj Vida and assistant coach Ognjen Vukojević, both of whom had previously played for the Ukrainian club Dynamo Kyiv, recorded a video message for their friends in Ukraine where they dedicated their victory to the Ukrainians with the words “Glory to Ukraine!”
The video was widely cheered in Ukraine, but caused a broad public and media outrage in Russia. FIFA called it a “political statement”, threatened to disqualify Vida and later fined Vukojević CHF15,000 for “unsportsmanlike conduct”. The Croatian Football Federation (HNS) fired Vukojević from the national team’s coaching staff and officially “apologized to the Russian public for the actions of a member of the Croatian delegation”. Before the match with England, Croatian fans unfolded a huge banner with “Thank you, Russia” written over it, whereas this “spontaneous display of gratitude” was aired by the RT. Vida was subsequently loudly booed by the Russian fans whenever he got the ball on the playing field. Russia 1 state TV channel devoted a whole talk show to the video in a generally strongly negative tone. Russian politicians and bloggers alike were heard calling Croats “traitors of the Slavic unity” and fascists.
Western media, while reporting on the incident, reiterated the rhetoric of the Russian propaganda branding the slogan as “nationalistic” and “politically controversial” and firmly tying its context to WW2, whereas it easy to establish that the slogan was born decades before, during Ukraine’s struggle for independence in 1918-1920 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glory_to_Ukraine ).
FIFA’s actions led to a social media explosion among Ukrainians. More than 158,000 Facebook users staged a storm on the official FIFA page giving it a one-star rating and writing the words “Glory to Ukraine” in the comments in different languages. FIFA’s rating plunged from around 5 to 1.1 in a matter of days. Thereafter the rating functionality was removed from the federation’s pages on Facebook and Google Maps. Facebook went on subjecting some of the Ukrainian users who participated in the FIFA-bashing flashmob to additional cumbersome identity checks or giving them short-term bans. Maxim Savanevsky, a Ukrainian video blogger and an IT and media expert compiled a viral video (https://twitter.com/i/status/1016427318682607616) containing bits of speeches by politicians and leaders of various countries who used the slogan “Glory to Ukraine” from the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, former US Secretary of State John Kerry, and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite to the president of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko.
There was also an official response from the Ukrainian side. Football Federation of Ukraine sent a letter to FIFA supporting Domagoj Vida and Ognjen Vukojević, stating the “Glory to Ukraine” is a commonly used greeting in Ukraine… (and) should not be interpreted as an act of aggression or provocation, ” the letter said. It was apparently ignored by FIFA.
Russian propaganda narratives and popular western myths
“Russians and Ukrainians are brotherly nations” – a phrase Putin never tires to repeat. However, the sour reaction of the general Russian public to the full Ukrainian equivalent of the “Vive la France!” slogan shows that Russian society is rife with anti-Ukrainian sentiment and imperialist chauvinism.
“Putin is the problem, Russians are OK” – a mantra embraced by many liberal politicians and journalists in the West. However, the public reaction towards Vida and Vukojević as well as Croatians as a nation shows that the mass aggression in Russia could be easily manipulated and channeled in the desired direction. State media are fuelling a mobilization mentality upholding the feeling that Russia is “besieged with enemies”, and these narratives fall on a fertile ground. Apparently the conflict of the collective West with Russia is on a much deeper level of values and ideology, rather than just politics.
“Sports are not connected to politics” – a very old fallacy dating back to the antiquity. Since Athens and Sparta had to suspend the never-ending war to hold the Olympics, sports and politics have gone hand in hand. In the 21st century they are as close as ever. So, if Russia is not at a hybrid war with Ukraine, why should the “Glory to Ukraine” be regarded as offensive to the “Russian public” and why would it necessitate formal apologies and exemplary disciplinary actions from both FIFA and HNS? Apparently both FIFA and HNS are well aware of the “regional particularities” and of the political undertones of the “Glory to Ukraine” slogan given the context of the time and place where it was uttered by two Croatians.
“Facebok is an impartial social platform” – a myth, Ukrainians experience first-hand on a daily basis. Pro-Ukrainian bloggers and ordinary users get blocked for weeks and months for “hate-speech” based on clearly robot-generated reports on posts and comments written years ago. And the network’s administration does nothing to stop it, shrugging off relevant calls for action and criticisms. At the same time, Facebook has been very swift in looking for “bot-generated activity” behind the brilliant Ukrainian initiative of “give FIFA one star”. After all, people who flocked to the FIFA’s official FB page, apart from “Glory to Ukraine” wrote a lot of keen criticisms. All of the comments were deleted together with the rating functionality.
“FIFA is impartial, apolitical and honest ” – where was its judgment when they finally agreed to hold the Cup in Russia? They had full four years to reconsider and strip Russia of hosting the World Cup after news started coming thick and fast about the invasion in Crimea and Donbas, MH17 and war crimes in Syria. And in light of the praise lavished by Gianni Infantino on Russia and its murderous leadership and of his insistence that “the legacy [of the WC] will put Russia on the top of countries in football around the world” (http://keirradnedge.com/2018/07/13/infantinos-russia/). The position of the Federation’s leadership looks hypocritical and calls into serious question its integrity. Apparently, FIFA consciously gave Putin’s regime a carte-blanche to massively whitewash its image.
“Western politicians are all about values, integrity, rule of law and civil freedoms” – none of the important football countries chose to boycott the bloody World Cup, despite Russia’s dismal performance in terms of civil rights, freedom of speech, journalist security and observance of the international law. For one, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, the president of Croatia, was seen together with Dmitry Medvadev and Gianni Infantino chatting merrily at the WC. Was she forging informal ties to Russia? Did she have a hand in the “Thank you, Russia” banner?
The situation around Vida and Vukojević managed something that dozens of thousands of Ukrainian casualties failed to do. It brought Russia’s aggression against Ukraine back into the mainstream of the international and specifically western media. However, international and specifically European attendance of the WC matches in Russia as well as reluctance of the world football nations to boycott the bloody WC in Russia unfortunately tell us that civilizational values are eclipsed by “panem et circenses” in the collective West.
Artem Velichko specially for InformNapalm