Wednesday, June 12, 2024

SPORTS | 25-02-2022 13:52

‘This is a nightmare’ – ‘Terrified’ Argentine footballers flee Ukraine

As much as many would like to deny the fact, football can rarely stay separated from politics.

The life of your average footballer is full of potential annoyances. A run of poor performances, injury, contract disputes: all are part of the ups and downs of the professional game. Fleeing from a warzone, however, as ex-Gimnasia forward Claudio Paul Spinelli was forced to do on Thursday, is an eventuality that few could imagine even in their darkest nightmares.

“I have been up since 2am talking with him. The situation is desperate,” the father of Spinelli, who signed for Ukraine's Oleksandriya in 2021, explained to local station Radio 10 on Thursday as images and footage of Russia's invasion of its neighbour were beamed across the world. “Up to yesterday he was upset because the league might be postponed, but nobody thought about the reaction of this madman who decided to attack the country.

“He is getting away, he grabbed his few possessions from his apartment and he is trying to escape. He is on the road towards Poland. This is a nightmare,” said the father, also named Claudio.

Spinelli, who gained a cult following during his spell at Gimnasia under Diego Maradona due to both his distinctive moniker – he was named after ex-Argentina ace Claudio Caniggia – and flowing blonde hair, also reminiscent of the former great, is one of seven Argentine footballers currently active in Ukraine. 

Francisco Di Franco, who plays for Dnipro and has called Ukraine home since 2017, has also felt the effects of these recent dramatic events.

“There were bombs that fell close to the city in Dnipro at 5am, I was terrified,” he admitted on Thursday to Radio La Red. “I don't know if they attacked the city but I heard the explosion. I saw it from my window, the building shook. Just after those two explosions the club called us in to the base and we were there for a while.

“There was another explosion, we went into a bunker and now we foreigners are in a hotel for our safety.” Ex-Vélez Sarsfield midfielder Gerónimo Poblete found himself in an even more precarious position, playing for Metalist Kharkiv – just 50 kilometres from the Russian border. On Thursday the player's family confirmed via social media that they would attempt to contact the Argentine Embassy in order to remove him from a zone which had suffered severe bombing attacks.

As much as many would like to deny the fact, football can rarely stay separated from politics. Those caught up in the chaos of invasion have been forced into an unimaginable situation of life or death, but on a wider level Russia's actions have prompted a belated re-evaluation of the sport's ties with the nation. Even before troops entered Ukraine, UEFA found its long-standing and hugely lucrative relationship with state energy company Gazprom coming under the spotlight, while there was no little embarrassment over the fact that a match as important as the Champions League final in 2022 was scheduled to be played in St. Petersburg.

FIFA chief Gianni Infantino, meanwhile, was among the scores of public figures to condemn the invasion, and probably did not appreciate reminders of his previous close relationship with Vladimir Putin, which included his receiving the Russian Order of Friendship in 2019 for his support of the previous year's World Cup in the country.

Hindsight, of course, is always a blessing, but it barely helps FIFA's case that at the end of 2022 the World Cup will be held in another country which over the years, like Putin, has shown scant regard for the human rights of discriminated populations such as LGTBQ groups, and whose designation has been met with a constant cry of protest. Nor can other clubs and organisations who have happily welcomed massive investment from nations accused of severe human rights violations hope to plead ignorance against accusations that they are willing accomplices in what has been dubbed 'sportswashing' – the use of football to clean up tarnished records and present a more acceptable public face. 

This is a time of geopolitical and most importantly humanitarian crisis, where football should rightly take a back seat – but we can only hope it serves as a lesson to those in the game willing to stick their heads in the sand until real catastrophe looms.

Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards


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