June 2012: Words Instead of Goals

Serhij Zhadan is one of the best known writers in Ukraine. He has recently published his new book, "Totalniy Futbol", in German. It is a collection of essays by eight writers from Poland and Ukraine. ContiSoccerWorld talked to Zhadan, 37, about the mood in his homeland shortly before the starting whistle for the UEFA Euro 2012, about his club, Metalist Kharkiv, and his role as goalkeeper for Ukraine's national writers' team.

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Serhij Zhadan, editor of the book "Totalniy Futbol" (published by Suhrkamp Verlag). Photo: Susanne Schleyer


ContiSoccerWorld: Mr. Zhadan, you have published a book about the UEFA Euro host countries, Poland and Ukraine. Is it a travel guide? Or a soccer book?

Serhij Zhadan: It is a hybrid, part travel guide, part soccer book. The eight essays tell the reader about soccer in Poland and my homeland, Ukraine. They are also stories about people's everyday lives, politics and the economy; indeed everything that is characteristic of these countries.

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ContiSoccerWorld: The title "Totalniy Futbol" addresses the all-embracing impact of soccer. But some of the writers have almost no connection with soccer. Natasza Goerke, for example, admits that she does not know the offside rule…

Zhadan: Well, that writer is not quite so unversed on the subject. OK, maybe not all of the writers regularly visit the stadiums; but they do know a lot about the impact and the importance of soccer in their particular countries. For me, it was more important for the writers to be able to say something about the host cities rather than explaining to the readers how the offside rule works.

ContiSoccerWorld: You, on the other hand, have a close link to soccer. You are in charge of organizing Ukraine's national writers' team…

Zhadan: Not just that, I am the goalkeeper!

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Half travel guide, half soccer book: "Totalniy Futbol" by Serhij Zhadan

ContiSoccerWorld: In the run-up to the UEFA Euro 2012, you are also playing against Germany and Poland. How good are Ukraine's writers? One of your opponents, the German writers' team, is the current European Champion, after all.

Zhadan: It is a triangular tournament which will be held in Germany, Poland and Ukraine. We have already played in Berlin against the German and the Polish writers, and we played against them both again in Kraków. We lost twice to our German counterparts. But the score lines were only 0:2 and 0:4. And by the time this interview is published, we will have played against them for the third time, in Ukraine. We are a very young team and we are gathering experience on the pitch. After all, we only founded the team one year ago. The tournament is our international debut. Results are not so important. The exchange of opinions on the touchline is much more interesting. We also took part in joint readings.

ContiSoccerWorld: The UEFA Euro has a slogan, "Creating History Together". Do you think this will come true? Poland and Ukraine are two very different countries. For example, there are two organizing committees, one in Warsaw and the other in Kyiv…

Zhadan: You are right, our countries are very different. The political systems, the economy … and also the whole issue of organizing the UEFA Euro 2012 have been and still are major political topics. Perhaps we as writers can create a sense of community by means of the cultural approach. We have started building bridges with the book and the writers' tournaments.

ContiSoccerWorld: What are relations like between Poles and Ukrainians, setting aside the question of politics?

Zhadan: Well, I must say that we are very different. Of course, there are business connections here and there, whereas private links are rather rare, I think. For us Ukrainians, Poland is a foreign country. The UEFA Euro 2012 is not going to change very much. Ukraine is politically isolated, after all the things that have happened recently. Thiis is a process that a few soccer games will not be able to resolve.

ContiSoccerWorld: Shortly before the opening ceremony for the UEFA Euro 2012, there are many negative headlines about the political leadership in Kyiv, above all concerning how they have been dealing with the opposition. Many people think that the government is trying to abuse the UEFA Euro 2012 as a way to paper over the shortcomings in its image. How do you view this issue?

Zhadan: It is clear that the people in power were planning to profit from the UEFA Euro 2012 in grand style, economically, politically and with regard to their general image. But it has backfired, and the result is very negative. During this period, many journalists will be visiting Ukraine, but they will not be writing any positive stories, and quite right too. Nevertheless, you have to separate sport from politics to a certain extent, at least as far as the fans are concerned. For us Ukrainians, the UEFA Euro 2012 is highly important. We are hugely looking forward to the games.

ContiSoccerWorld: You are calling on your readers to pay attention to the Eastern European fans. You write that "the air of our countries" is composed of their destinies, biographies and internal contradictions. So, what are Eastern European soccer fans like?

Zhadan: The ultras, the hardcore fans, are not really any different from those in other regions. They have their rituals, their songs, similarly to elsewhere in the world. But it is the other kind of fans who are more interesting for tourists, I think. They are normal everyday people, with their own life stories. People should try to talk to them, because that is the way to find out more about a country rather than just reading headlines about what is going in the corridors of power. I myself go to the stadium regularly. I see lots of decent people there.

ContiSoccerWorld: You go to the games of Metalist Kharkiv, your local club?

Zhadan: Yes, indeed, I go to the "Spider", which is our name for the stadium because of its unusual design. Unfortunately, Metalist is not usually in the running for silverware, but they are not a bad team either.

ContiSoccerWorld: Do you go with your son?

Zhadan: No, he is 16 years old now and he has other interests. I must say I think it is a shame, but there you are. Metalist is not at the level of Dynamo Kyiv or Bayern Munich, regrettably. We cannot boast of any major successes.

ContiSoccerWorld: But this season you reached the quarter finals of the Europa League, and it took Sporting Lisbon to knock you out!

Zhadan: Yes, that's right. I was in the stadium, it was dramatic. We narrowly lost the first leg in Lisbon 1:2, but could only manage a 1:1 draw in the return leg at home. We had some good chances, and even missed a penalty … tragic. That's soccer.

ContiSoccerWorld: Will you also be going to the UEFA Euro 2012 games?

Zhadan: Yes of course, to the games of Ukraine's national team! For me as a fan, the UEFA Euro 2012 is sport, not politics. I am simply looking forward to some great soccer, fingers crossed.