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Roman Zozulya - the messy political debate (10th October, 2017)

Politics in Spanish football is nothing new.

But this was the first time that someone foreign, someone outside Spain, was being rejected in Spain for political views.

And it was going to be messy.

This year started with Roman signing for Rayo on loan from Real Betis, fans protesting the signing, Roman going back to Betis but being registered at Rayo, being in limbo and not being able to sign for a club, FIFA giving Zozulya an unprecedented chance to play for a fourth club in a season*, a club in Sweden that rejected him because of rumblings of left-wing fans (possibly Malmö), and his agent felt that many clubs no longer see Zozulya as a professional football player because of the accusations.

Finally, this summer, the player signed for Albacete. And yet the saga only finished this week, when Javier Tebas’ complaint about two Rayo fans who protested the Zozulya signing was dismissed by the court (although that might not be the end of it).

But that wasn’t all - political parties such as Podemos and Izquierda Unida (IU) got involved. Pablo Iglesias of Podemos weighed in by saying that "It is very healthy for the fans of the team in my neighborhood [Vallekas] to say that Zozulya is not part of Rayo's values. Rayo is a team that does not get along with intolerance and racism". Alberto Garzón, leader of IU, echoed those sentiments too.

On the other hand, Betis players called it a public lynching and defended Zozulya, and many newspapers such as El País and AS defended him. Kharkiv Metalist ultras took it one step further and started spreading conspiracy theories - they posted on Facebook (February 8, 2017) that several Rayo Vallecano fans had fought on the side of "DNR/LNR" troops in Eastern Ukraine, saying that:

“We have reliable information that roughly ten ultras from Rayo Vallecano fought on the side of these terrorists in Eastern Ukraine. They quietly returned to Spain, were detained by the police and fined a ridiculously small amount due to lack of evidence.”

So what are the arguments for and against Zozulya?

A lot of the defense of Zozulya has been about how Zozulya is not a neo-Nazi, but rather a patriot. The Ukrainian embassy called him one of many “Ukranian patriots who supports the Ukranian army in their fight against the aggressor for the territorial integrity of our country...We’re proud to have such brave and patriotic young people like Roman Zozulya. We consider the accusations against our compatriot unjust." And many media outlets have said the same thing.

But the problem is that it is a false equivalence. Zozulya is unquestionably patriotic. The Azov Battalion, part of the Ukrainian National Guard which is fighting Russia, has used Zozulya's image as part of a recruitment drive when he was at Dnipro. And in early 2016, Roman Zozulya sold his UEFA Europa League medal for 210,000 hryvnias (about €7,500 at that time), and donated the money to help the Ukrainian army. In addition, Zozulya has set up a charitable foundation called People’s Army (Narodna Armiya), delivered aid to Ukrainian soldiers on the frontlines in the war in Donbass and visited the wounded in military hospitals - there are even pictures of him helping out. In 2016, he even received a special commendation from the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine for his support to the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

He is openly nationalist, but that doesn't mean that he is not a neo-Nazi. The accusation is that he is affiliated to Pravy Sektor, a far-right, neo-Nazi party with extremist views. Zozulya, in an open letter, denied the links and explained that he was the victim of a misunderstanding on arrival in Spain when a journalist mistook the tryzub on his shirt (national coat of arms of Ukraine) for the symbol of a neo-Nazi paramilitary group. However, some Rayo fans believe that some of his views on social media indicate that he does have neo-Nazi beliefs, something that Zozulya has not addressed at the moment. For example, his tweets include photographs with the image of Stepan Bandera, leader of Ukrainian nationalist groups that cooperated with Nazi Germany during World War II. And there's even a photograph of him doing the Nazi salute.

So is Zozulya a nationalist? Absolutely. Is he a neo-Nazi? There are indicators, albeit very, very few, that suggest that he is.

The debate then goes back to a matter of morals and ideology - what is the line between understanding and debating an opposing point of view, and outright rejecting it and declaring it unacceptable? In the Zozulya case, fans of Rayo Vallecano, traditionally and proudly left-wing, are currently saying that someone who supports a far-right group is not welcome. Is that hypocritical coming from a community that arose from immigrants all around Spain and whose central message is that everyone is welcome? Or is it drawing the line between being proud of a certain viewpoint and defending it?

There are too many questions, lots of finger-pointing and very few answers.

But an interview by Rayo goalkeeper Toño amazingly might just be the answer - he was looking at a sporting aspect and giving an answer on sporting terms but at the same time gave an answer to a very difficult political question on political terms.

He said that "we must also consider that if he comes we will have to accept it in the best possible way and if he can contribute by scoring goals we must treat him as part of the team, regardless of ideological thoughts."

Maybe Toño was just trying to diffuse a tricky situation.

In another way, maybe he is answering the political question - yes, every view point is to be heard and debated, no matter how different. And if he scores a few goals, maybe political differences won't matter so much.

Maybe he deserved a chance to show himself on the pitch, and have political debates off it. Maybe, just maybe, we should not revere footballers for the people they are but for what they do on the pitch.

And yet, politics will always be a part of football. Most football clubs have a story, sometimes their origin story, that connects them to politics. And since the personal is political too, maybe we will continue to have cases like Zozulya.

*He couldn't play in Spain, as RFEF rules only allow players to play for two clubs in the season, and so he was allowed to go to Dnipro. Except UEFA banned Dnipro from making signings, as Dnipro hadn't paid wages. The only option was to go out on loan elsewhere, and that did not materialize.

Albacete, with their far-right ultra group called the Brigadas Blancas, are in a way the perfect fit.


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