‘Wonderful to see’: Ukrainians in England revel in Euro 2020 encounter

Nine-year-old Luca Mullaney was over the moon when Ukraine beat Sweden on Tuesday. The half-Ukrainian boy from Bradford did a series of victory jumps but then stopped dead. “I’ve got a big problem, Grandad,” he said. “Who do I support on Saturday?”

His family are now putting their heads together ahead of the team’s Euro 2020 quarter-final against England. Luca’s mother, Sonia, is thinking she might sew him a top with Ukraine’s colours on one side and England’s on the other. Luca’s cousin has suggested he wear his Ukraine shirt for the first half of the match and his England shirt for the second.

“I’ve told him he’s in a win-win situation,” said Stefan Jarockyj, Luca’s grandfather. “One of his teams will go through to the semi-finals, so he’s in the best position possible.”

With holubtsi or cabbage rolls being stuffed in as many as 100,000 Ukrainian kitchens across the UK, varenyky dumplings pinched closed and shot glasses carefully counted to make sure there’s enough horilka or Ukrainian vodka for everyone, Luca’s dilemma is widely shared.

Jarockyj said that when the match was announced, people he hadn’t seen for years appeared at his local Ukrainian community centre. “They were asking to buy Ukrainian football shirts to wear on Saturday,” he said. “This match has regenerated and rekindled roots and national feelings instilled by parents and grandparents. It’s wonderful to see.”

Stefan Dezyk, a 19-year-old Ukrainian undergraduate from London, said the match would be a turning point for lots of young Ukrainians who were “teetering on the edge” of forgetting their national identity.

“This match has made a lot of Ukrainians remember what their country and culture are, and realise that they can feel proud of it,” he said. “It’s one of those rare moments when Ukraine is in the news and Ukrainians get a chance to say to the outside world: ‘Hey look, we’re a real country with something to be proud of.’”

Dezyk’s mother, Hanya, spoke strongly about Ukraine’s wrongly disallowed goal against England in their 1-0 defeat in the Euro 2012 tournament. Saturday, she said, will be a chance to right that historic wrong – against a backdrop of brocade.

“There will be lots of embroidery,” she said. “The women and girls will have their flowered headdresses and the men will have their embroidered shirts, as well as their football shirts.”

Ukranians first came to the UK in significant numbers at the end of the second world war, mainly – like Hanya’s parents – as prisoners of war from Germany and Poland.

Bonded by their national trauma, the Britain’s Ukrainian community has traditionally been very strong, resulting in a wide network of local community centres, churches and Ukrainian language schools.

Ewhen Chymera, a 22-year-old transport planner for Leeds city council, said all these community hubs had been deserted during Covid, but that thanks to Saturday’s match they were again at the centre of a swelling of national pride.

“We’ve been worried that over the pandemic the Ukrainian community was at risk of fracturing because people had become too used to staying at home,” he said. “We were worried that we wouldn’t be able to get them to come back to the community centres post-lockdown. But this match has reminded them that they’re part of a community, and that it’s a community to be proud of.”

Petro Chymera, a 31-year-old business analyst from Bradford, has created a special flag for Saturday’s match that bears the Ukraine coat of arms on a background of the Bradford City colours.

“Our local Ukrainian community centre has had a burst of new life since the match was announced,” he said. “Seats to watch the match on Saturday at our centre were sold out almost as soon as they went on sale.

“We’re a very assimilated community but if Ukraine wins this match, then us Ukrainians will certainly have bragging rights. But everyone wins in this match no matter what the outcome because we’re all Ukrainian and we’re all English too, so whoever gets through, we’re proud.”