When Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin was asked about racism in Ukraine during the Sweden v Ukraine pre-match news conference, he put down his headphones and stopped listening to the translation of the question, preferring to deliver a seemingly prepared statement:
“I don’t want to talk about racism. There is no racism in Ukraine,” Blokhin said.
“This is a political matter. I don’t think it has anything to do with football. If there are any incidents, they will not be in Ukraine.”
This is of course the same Oleg Blokhin who, in 2006, was quoted in the New York Times in 2006 as saying that “the more Ukrainians that play in the national league, the more examples for the young generation – let them learn from Shevchenko or Blokhin and not some Zumba-Bumba they took off a tree, gave him two bananas and now he plays in the Ukrainian league.”
The reaction is understandable – Ukrainian society must be allowed to evolve at it’s own pace, and it’s not as if racism does not exist in England, France, Spain, Italy or elsewhere in Europe (and indeed, the world). With the world’s eyes on the two eastern European countries, they have a responsibility to present a united front lest the focus turns away from football and towards cultural and social differences. And anti-racism campaigners have worked hard to change viewpoints in Ukraine and Poland and their efforts cannot be swept aside with blanket judgments.
But a public figure and national sporting hero – a man who commands a lot of respect in Ukraine – could easily have admitted his past errors and presented himself as a model reformed Ukrainian. Surely by demonstrating (true or not) that the ‘problem’ is now resolved is a better way of engaging with the Western media than denying it exists in the first place (when it’s clear to everyone that it exists, everywhere)?