The Ultras, Azov Battalion, and Soccer From Inside Ukraine

The Azov Batallion has been called patriotic by some, neo-Nazis by others, and on Monday night they were at Kiev's Olympic Stadium for a Euro 2016 qualifying match.

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Sep 10 2014, 11:50am

Photo by R.J. Rico

There are no hot dog guys at Olympic Stadium in Kiev, no one there to hawk sweets or souvenirs up and down the stairs as the Ukrainian national soccer team plays.

If you're looking for someone to give your money to, you've got two options: the beer vendors selling pints for about $2 apiece, or the men dressed in paramilitary gear with balaclavas over their faces and donation boxes in hand.

The latter would be members of Azov Battalion, a prominent far-right paramilitary group that has been fighting separatists some 400 miles east of Kiev. They've been labeled patriots by some, neo-Nazis by others, and on Monday night they were impossible to overlook.

During the Euro 2016 qualifying match between Ukraine and Slovakia, a group of about a dozen Azov soldiers worked in teams of three, one man standing in the middle of the stairs holding a large Ukrainian flag with the Azov logo, while two others walked alongside the seated crowd, each holding a box of money, silently soliciting donations for the Ukrainian Army as if they were ushers racking up on Sunday service.

The majority of the Azov soldiers at the game, at least according to one of them nicknamed "Spot" are former diehard "ultra" fans who have shifted their focus from the soccer field to the battlefield.

"The ultra movements used to be completely separate and had conflicts with each other," Spot explained. "Now they are standing shoulder to shoulder because of the situation. Those of us who are still here in the West are doing everything we can to support Azov before we join them in the East."

The presence of the "men in black" has become such a routine part of life in the Ukrainian capital that an American mother working in Kiev said she had no qualms about letting her two young daughters walk right by the masked men to enter the stadium.

"It's absolutely not intimidating," said the mother, who asked not to be named. It is part of everything now and they're defending their country. As Americans our family supports them in that."

By Eastern European soccer standards, Monday's qualifier—Ukraine's first competitive game since the war with separatists began in the East—was a somewhat muted affair.

There were no coordinated marches into the stadium, no tifo banners unfurled by the ultras across the seats, and no flares set off. According to one of the men in charge of organizing the Kiev ultras, though, the absence of such pageantry had in and of itself been coordinated.

"We don't want the rest of the world to think that we are radicals with huge banners or marches," a 42-year-old Kiev resident named Denis said. "We're afraid that the Western audience would misinterpret that. We had a rule that we would not use pyrotechnics at this game. First of all we don't want to scare anyone and second of all, pyro is money: It's better to donate this money to Azov Battalion."

Denis explained all of this while doing some fundraising of his own. An hour before the match, he and a few dozen fellow Dynamo Kiev ultras were selling nationalist t-shirts for $11 in front of a prominent fountain near the stadium, having already publicized the sale on social media. The money (all of which was off the books) would be going to Azov and similar battalions fighting in the East to buy weapons and military supplies, he said.

Back inside the stadium for the game, Denis and a few hundred other ultras stood in their designated corner of the field waving Ukrainian flags as well as the flag of the controversial WWII-era Ukrainian Insurgent Army, all while leading the 42,000-strong crowd in song throughout the match. Some of the evening's biggest hits were, unsurprisingly, anti-Russian, including "The Putin Song" (sample lyrics: "Putin is a dickhead la-la-la-la-la-la-la") and a tune that got everyone in the stadium off their feet, literally, "Those Who Don't Jump are Rude Russians."

"Before, we used to sing these songs about Russians, but they were jokes and nothing serious," Denis said. "Now they are serious."

WIth nationalism riding so high in the country, Ukrainian players admitted after the game—a 1-0 loss to the Slovaks, who had never before defeated the Yellow-Blues—that they were especially disappointed to have lost in front of such a boisterous crowd.

"It was so pleasant to be so warmly supported despite the situation in the country," said midfielder Taras Stepanenko, who plays for Ukraine's famed Shakhtar Donetsk club team and is from the eastern Donetsk region. "I can only apologize to the fans, because we could not justify their expectations today."

"I know our victories bring at least some confidence to our people," goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov said. "It's a real shame that we could not win for our country."

That's not to say that the whole night was a failure for every Ukraine supporter. While some fans exited their seats with middle fingers held aloft at the referees for calling off a late equalizer—Pyatov, the goalkeeper, improbably almost scored—the Azov men quietly left the stadium. Their boxes were full.