Vadim Furmanov –
On February 25 Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk striker Yevhen Seleznyov became the latest player to leave the crisis-ridden club in the winter transfer window. Seleznyov followed in the footsteps of goalkeeper Denys Boyko and defensive midfielder Valeriy Fedorchuk, who left for Beşiktaş and Dynamo Kyiv, respectively. Unlike the departures of the latter two, however, Selzenyov’s move has been surround by controversy—the Ukrainian striker elected to move to Russian club Kuban Krasnodar, despite the fact that the two countries are de facto at war.
Yevhen Seleznyov is not the first Ukrainian to move to Russia
Seleznyov is by no means the first Ukrainian player to move to a Russian side since the war in the Donbass first broke out nearly two years ago. The right back Bohdan Butko, a member of Ukraine’s Euro 2012 side, joined Amkar Perm from Illichivets Mariupol in early 2015. The 19-year-old midfielder Oleksandr Zinchenko moved to FC Ufa from Shakhtar Donetsk under controversial circumstances, and it was even rumored that he was considering a switch to Russian citizenship—he was since handed his first cap for the Ukrainian national team against Spain last year.
The subject of Ukrainian players moving to Russia in a time of war has long been a source of contention in Ukraine, and many prominent personalities from Ukrainian football have shared their views on the subject. Former national team player Oleh Luzhny said last year that any players who left to join a Russian club should not be allowed back into the country and that midfielder Andriy Bohdanov, at that point closely linked with a transfer to Russian side Rostov, should be deported—Bohdanov ended up staying in Ukraine.
Karpaty midfielder Oleh Holodyuk stated that he would not move to a Russian side for any amount of money, and would rather perform in the Ukrainian First League. Dynamo’s legendary goalkeeper Oleksandr Shovkovskyi was asked about his thoughts on moving to Russia in the present circumstances and responded “I cannot speak for other players, but for me it would be somewhat strange to go play in the Russian championship at exactly this moment.”
It is therefore no surprise that Seleznyov’s transfer was highly controversial, especially considering that he is thus far the most high-profile Ukrainian player to move to Russia. His decision to leave Dnipro comes as no surprise, however, as the club is in serious financial difficulties and is having trouble even paying its players on time. In fact, Seleznyov chose to forgive the club’s debts toward him and as a result was allowed to leave on a free transfer, despite the fact that his contract does not expire until the summer. He had earlier publicly stated his discontent at how he was being treated, and by now the departure of yet another Dnipro star hardly raises any eyebrows.
Seleznyov Didn’t have to move to Russia
But Seleznyov’s choice of club has been contentious. He had been linked with moves to clubs in Portugal, Greece, and Turkey, as well as with a return to Shakhtar Donetsk, where Seleznyov began his career. Instead, Seleznyov chose Kuban—a club fighting for survival in the Russian Football Premier League.
As expected, the transfer has been highly divisive. Many users on prominent Ukrainian sports websites Tribuna and Matchday have accused Seleznyov of treason and have called for him to be left out of the Euro 2016 squad, despite Ukraine’s lack of options at that position.
Journalist Serhiy Dryha of Matchday was highly critical of Seleznyov’s decision. As Dryha notes, many of Seleznyov’s former teammates at Dnipro are staunch patriots. Artem Fedetskyi, Roman Zozulya, and manager Myron Markevych are all outspoken supporters of the Ukrainian army, and Zozulya auctioned his Europa League silver medal to raise funds for Ukrainian forces.
Captain Ruslan Rotan admitted that he was close to a move to Russian club Rubin Kazan in 2014, but decided against the move due to the current situation. Dryha goes on to write “It is difficult to expect that the decision of Seleznyov to move to Kuban will be perceived positively. Now all of Yevhen’s interviews will be examined under a microscope, and he will not be able to get away from uncomfortable questions in both Ukraine and Russia. Football is not within politics!? Tell that to Markevych, Zozulya, Rotan, and Fedetskyi. And to the friends and family of the ultras who died [fighting in the war]. Will we understand Yevhen’s move? Will we forgive him?”
The comments of Seleznyov’s agent Vadym Shabliy further angered Ukrainian supporters. Shabliy wrote on his Instagram account: “For Zhenya Seleznyov circumstances emerged in which his playing time at Dnipro was called into question. Half a year before the dream tournament—Euro 2016—we could not risk it.”
Seleznyov started 15 of 16 Premier League and 5 out of 6 Europa League matches in the first half of the season. The return of Roman Zozulya after an extended injury layoff may have cut into his minute, but Shabliy’s comments come across as a barely-believable excuse.
Not everyone in Ukraine criticised Seleznyov
Furthermore, Seleznyov’s new club is battling relegation and, like Dnipro, finds itself facing financial difficulties. Last week the Russian Football Union banned Kuban from registering new players due to unpaid wages to one of their former players. This is not the first time Kuban has faced such sanctions.
Nevertheless, condemnation of Seleznyov has been far from universal. For every social media comment calling him a traitor, plenty have defended him from such abuse. In a fan poll on Tribuna, 44% said his move was treason, while 56% answered that it his personal business.
Seleznyov himself has defended his decision, telling Tribuna: “I never mixed sport and politics. This is just the situation, I hope people will understand. Maybe someone called me a traitor, I don’t know. But I did not betray anyone! I acted fairly toward everyone. I came here to play football, to help my national team in the future.”
Seleznyov has also received support for his move from Oleksandr Zavarov, a former assistant manager of the Ukrainian national team and current adviser to the president of the Football Federation of Ukraine. When asked if Seleznyov’s move would affect his selection for the national team, Zavarov responded: “I don’t think so. The most important thing is for him to score and prove his effectiveness. He will do this at Kuban, why wouldn’t he be called up for the national team? Footballers play everywhere, after all.”
Oleh Salenko, who played for both the Ukraine and Russia national teams in the early 2000s, also defended Seleznyov and stated that the move was a step forward for his career.
Whatever one’s personal opinion on Yevhen Seleznyov’s transfer to Kuban, the controversy surrounding the move reveals the extent to which football has been affected by the war between Russia in Ukraine – not just the displacement of clubs and never-ending financial crisis, but the rhetoric and media coverage surrounding the sport have been substantially altered as well.
Vadim Furmanov is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science. Originally from Ukraine, Vadim has resided in Chicago since 1994 and is a passionate supporter of both Dynamo Kyiv and the Ukrainian national team. He is also a Chicago Fire season ticket holder and a member of the Fire’s Section 8 supporters group. He writes primarily about Ukrainian football, as well as the intersection between football, politics, and history. You can follow Vadim on Twitter @vfurmanov.