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‘We’re more similar than it might seem’ - How Irish and Ukrainian football fans created an unshakeable bond

John O’Neill and Vladimir Procopec on organising a recent charity match and the commonality between the two nations.

A charity match between Irish and Ukrainian football fans was organised at Home Farm FC back in March.
A charity match between Irish and Ukrainian football fans was organised at Home Farm FC back in March.
Image: John O'Neill

IT CAN be easy to forget with all the cynicism and sportswashing that is rife in modern times, but football sometimes can be a cause for good.

At its best, the sport can bring people from diverse backgrounds together and create a communal feeling among them that otherwise might not have existed.

One recent example of this trend can be seen in how the Irish football community has helped with efforts to support and aid Ukrainians who have struggled as a consequence of the war with Russia.

Cobh Ramblers and Bohemians were among the League of Ireland clubs to offer their support, while the Irish team welcomed two Ukrainian children to training yesterday ahead of the two countries’ Nations League fixture at the Aviva Stadium this evening.

There was also a charity football match organised last March between Irish and Ukrainian football fans at Home Farm FC, which the You Boys In Green supporters group helped to arrange.

The Irish fans had been regularly going over to Lviv for charity football matches since 2011 and had planned to go again this summer before the war broke out.

“We made a lot of friends from playing there, and the first year we went, we were short of players,” John O’Neill, the current chair of the Irish Football Supporters Partnership (IFSP), tells The42.

“We thought we couldn’t partake in the tournament because of that. But they let us play and they also [arranged for] a few local guys to play with us, so a few players from Lviv played on our team as well, wore the jersey and became part of the squad.

“And then even when we came back in future years, they just joined the squad, even though we had a full squad. So we built a lot of relationships through football with them and this became [almost] an annual tournament.

“As part of You Boys in Green supporters’ club, we organise a lot of fans’ games anyway, in different countries.

“We have a mixture of levels in terms of the standard, but there are no strict rules on it.

“It’s a proper full 11-a-side game, refs, the whole thing. It’s a regulation tournament, but we did charity for a couple of kids’ orphanages over there. We did some fundraising, got a small bit of money off the FAI the first time and then we did some of our own stuff, just general sort of little kit bags for kids, football gear, footballs, pens and school stuff as well. It’s not specifically for charity but they do ask as an extra ancillary to the tournament if we want to do it.”

Consequently, once the war broke out, O’Neill and co naturally felt a need to show support for their Ukrainian counterparts.

“We have a lot of friends on social media, Facebook, WhatsApp and whatever, in Ukraine. We were getting messages saying do we know anyone who can get weapons for them, they were literally crying out for help. Obviously, coming from a neutral country, we wouldn’t have those contacts anyway. But we really wanted to do something and like everyone, felt helpless.

“There were donations to charities going on already. But we wanted to do something that really resonated with us and was sort of in line with how we got to build the relationship in the first place.

“So we were thinking: ‘What about a charity fans game?’ We got to know them essentially through that avenue. So, we said: ‘Okay, we’ll see if we can get something off the ground.’ We tried a few League of Ireland grounds. We got accommodation from Home Farm and they’ve been very good from the get-go, didn’t charge us anything, and were really happy to get on board.

“And it grew from that really, a desire to do something to help out from the football community.”

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And the day itself proved a great success. 

“There were probably about 700 or 800 that came on the night and I’d say nearly 80% were Ukrainians. And there’s a lot more now [in Ireland] obviously, with refugees.

“We got a lot of people involved. We had about 150 kids there. From donations we got, we were able to give a little party pack.

“The biggest, most emotional part of the night was the Ukrainian anthem. It was the earliest stages of the war and it was as bad as ever. We got a Ukrainian singer who had actually fled the country. She is a really powerful singer. She has hundreds of thousands of followers on YouTube — I didn’t realise how famous she was. She sang the Ukrainian anthem before the game and it was a poignant moment for everybody, hearing them sing when their country is really under siege and at that point, it was looking like Russia were nearly taking over before the backlash. So it was a great reminder for them of their country and being proud of it and that recognition.

“Even my friends who came down for the game, they had a tear in their eye at that and just what it meant.

“I think that best encapsulated what the event was about. Recognising Ukraine and supporting them in that way, and everyone kind of coming together to be supportive of them in this time.”

Meanwhile, the funds raised on the evening went towards Ukrainian war charities.

“We put a third of it to the Red Cross campaign, and then the remainder to what is called the Association of Ukrainians in Republic of Ireland. So they donated the money directly to pay for this X-ray machine in a hospital in Dnipro, which is X-rays people who are after being shot and stuff, some of the victims there. And they’re able to assess them quickly, which they didn’t have [before], and they badly needed. And then we paid for a lot of medical supplies directly.”

The match between Ukrainian and Irish fans is now set to become an annual event and O’Neill says the bond created between the two sets of supporters highlights the power of sport.

“It’s like a language. And even over there, when I was in Lviv, they’d have very little English. But we still connected through football and got on really well, and would build relationships from there.

“It does show the power of bringing people together in a footballing sense, but also a community sense as well. I wouldn’t have those relationships otherwise, so it’s a real common ground to work off.

“Obviously, there are a lot of differences between the countries, we’re so far away, geographically and culturally. But when you get together to do something like football, we realise we’re more similar than it might seem at the outset. So I think sport definitely brings people together that way.”

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Vladimir Procopec, a Ukrainian national who has lived in Ireland for the past 25 years, also helped organise the game.

“It was a very good event, we had a crowd of Ukrainian refugees who were brought in for free and stuff like that.

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“But for me, it wasn’t about the money, it was about how you actually keep the interest of Irish nation to what’s happening in Ukraine at the moment because, in all reality, life takes over. So people get tired of listening to bad news – war, war, war, war, stuff like that.

“A lot of my friends who have been helping very much from the beginning of the conflict understand it’s not the interest falling down, but because you have your life, you have your bills to pay and stuff like that, you don’t want to be listening to that on a daily basis.

“Also, don’t forget that, because of this conflict, the prices have gone up, the logistics have been broken in a lot of things. So the whole world’s going to have to pay including the Irish people, so that’s not going to be received very well.

“People are working hard to pay all their bills. If you have a massive hike, you kind of start wondering why are we paying for all that.”

Asked what brought him to Ireland in the first place, Procopec says simply: “I travelled the world quite a lot. I came to Ireland, I loved the country, found a job, and made a few friends. And that pretty much was it.”

He has naturally been horrified by the situation unfolding in the country of his birth.

“You kind of go to bed with the news in your hands and the first thing you do [when you wake up], you open up the news and start reading, and then you call your family and find out if the area has been affected, any rockets or bombs being dropped around and stuff like that.

“I’m lucky in that respect because my family lives in southwest Ukraine, so the area hasn’t really been affected. But you know yourself, a rocket launched or whatever is going to end it, because even the Russian offices are saying that they can’t guarantee where their rockets are going to end up. That’s how bad the Russian ammunition is at the moment. So obviously, you’re terrified of your family being hurt.

“But what’s going to happen is going to happen, unfortunately, I can’t change things. I would leave Ireland and go back to Ukraine to help it, but to be honest, there’s such inspiration in the Ukrainian nation that you can’t even get into the force. You can’t do it, you actually have to queue in the office to try to get into the force, and there’s not a guarantee that you will. So for that reason, I just decided to stay here, because if I can’t get into the force, it’s pointless me sitting there, and worrying over in Ukraine, whereas over here, I can do something, I can help the refugees, I can help to organise things, I can help keep the interest in it. In my case, I have decided that’s more effective, rather than just being in Ukraine.”

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Amid this dire situation, Procopec has taken some comfort from the support offered to his country worldwide and by Ireland in particular.

He says there was already a substantial Ukrainianian community in Ireland, “a good couple of thousand spread all over an island,” even before the outbreak of war.

A CNN article from last month suggested “more than 30,000 refugees have arrived” on these shores since early March, meaning Ireland has taken in more than many other larger European countries nearby.

“It’s unprecedented,” says Procopec. “Let me put it this way: people don’t even need to have a passport to get into Ireland. Who else does that? And the measure was taken by the Irish government, knowing how the system worked before. I was just like: ‘Wow.’ You can’t ask for anything else. And to be honest, I know of people who took up to 27 families and provided them with accommodation, helped them with everything else they needed, and stuff like that. And that’s been happening all around Ireland. So of course, it’s massive support.

“With all my friends, from day one, I was receiving phone calls, people were asking: ‘How’s my family? How’s it going? What do I think of it?’ And I’m still getting those phone calls. So it means good people everywhere around Ireland are worrying about things like that and that is what this world should be. But unfortunately, it does not always work like that.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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