Dear Mr President,
We write regarding recent statements made by your colleagues, Ukraine’s Sport Minister Mr Ihor Zhdanov and Foreign Minister Mr Pavlo Klimkin. Mr Zhdanov and Mr Klimkin have made public statements equated the football players of the Karpatalya representative football team with terrorists and labelled them separatists. The government of Ukraine has also recently banned certain players from the Karpatalya team from entering the territory of Ukraine for life, while the Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU) has banned certain players from playing domestic football or life.
The Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA) is a non-profit charity registered in Sweden. CONIFA is strictly politically neutral and takes no position on the political status of its members, which range from United Nations member states such as Tuvalu, contested territories such as Somaliland and ethnic minority groups such as the United Koreans of Japan. CONIFA’s simple ethos is that everyone should be able to play football, regardless of borders, politics etc.
The Karpatalya representative football team has been a member of CONIFA since 2016. It represents the approximately 151,000 members of the Hungarian minority within the Zakarpattia Oblast of Ukraine. The team members strongly identify as “Karpatalyans” in a way that they see themselves as a binding element between their Hungarian heritage and their Ukrainian home. To reflect that loyalty to both countries, the team adopted a badge incorporating the outline of Zarpattia Oblast, yellow-blue stripes and the bear of the Coat of Arms of the Oblast, along with the flag and Coat of Arms of Hungary. Similarly, the team plays their matches either in the Hungarian red-white-green dress or in a Ukrainian yellow-blue outfit. The intention is to strongly demonstrate to spectators and followers within both countries and beyond that Ukraine and Hungarian roots do not have to be contradictory, but that the Hungarian population of Zakarpattia Oblast feels both Ukrainian and “Karpatalyan”. To the best of our knowledge, no player or administrator associated with the Karpatalya representative football team has ever publicly expressed any separatist sentiments.
After Karpatalya’s debut participation at a CONIFA event, the 2017 European Football Cup in Northern Cyprus, the team qualified for CONIFA’s most significant global tournament – the 2018 Paddy Power World Football Cup. This event brought together sportsmen from 16 different represented entities from across the world in London, United Kingdom. The tournament received glowing coverage in international press, including in The Guardian, The New York Times, BBC, Le Monde, El Pais, AP, CNN, South China Morning Post, Deutsche Welle and Yahoo. All players in the tournament were released by their clubs for the tournament, and not a single player – with the exception of what follows – has been sanctioned by their national federation or club for their participation. To the contrary, many received a heroes’ welcome upon their return.
The Karpatalya team is the sad exception. After winning the 2018 Paddy Power World Football Cup, the team faced a harsh welcome in their homeland. In June 2018, Sports Minister Mr Zhdanov wrote on his Facebook account:
Separatism has no place in Ukrainian sports! It does not matter who it is funded and fuelled by, either from Russia or other countries. Excited by the participation of the so-called football team “Karpatalya” (“Transcarpathia” – Hungarian) in the self-proclaimed World Championship among unrecognized and partially recognized countries. […] I call on the Security Service of Ukraine to respond appropriately to such a frank act of sporting separatism. It is necessary to interrogate the players of the team, as well as to analyse in detail the activities of the deputy organizer of the “Carpathian” for the purpose of encroachment on the territorial integrity of Ukraine and ties with terrorist and separatist groups.
With respect, we completely reject Sports Minister Mr Zhdanov’s characterisation of the tournament and the Karpatalya team’s participation. Playing football is no act of separatism. It is a sporting activity first and foremost, and an expression and promotion of the heritage of the teams – the Karpatalyan heritage, as described above. All CONIFA members have to agreed prior to participating that they will not make political statements during the tournament, and Karpatalya have never sought to politicise CONIFA’s tournaments. To reiterate: CONIFA is about the freedom to play football, not about politics or separatism or other such matters.
We were shocked by Sports Minister Mr Zhdanov’s claims that the team might have “ties with terrorists and separatist groups”. The team is affiliated with CONIFA only and meets other of our members on the football pitch. None of the teams participating in the 2018 Paddy Power World Football Cup are separatist groups or terrorists, but are athletes of different backgrounds. We want to emphasise that the United Kingdom, were the tournament was played, has very strict anti-terrorism laws. It goes without saying therefore that “terrorists” would never be able to travel to London to participate in a public tournament. Similarly, Foreign Minister Mr Klimkin publicly posted criticism of the Karpatalya team on Facebook, stating euphemistically that he hoped the team “is met by a ‘friendly’ welcome in the motherland”.
Moreover, in mid-October, the Ukraine national news agency published a report that all players of the Karpatalya squad that have a Ukrainian passport and live in Ukraine will be banned from all football activities for lifetime by the FFU. Vadim Kostyuchenko, Vice President of the FFU, explained that the participation of the Karpatalya team in the CONIFA World Football Cup 2018 in London had a negative impact on the authority and the reputation of the FFU. Denouncing and punishing a group of Ukrainian football players in such a way, in our opinion, violates the statutes of Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), of which the FFU is a member. Relevantly, Article 4 states that “discrimination of any kind against […] a group of people on account of […] ethnic or national origin, […], political opinion or any other opinion, […] or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.” We intend to provide a copy of this correspondence to FIFA, and request that FIFA take disciplinary action against the FFU unless the ban is overturned.
In the same news item, it was reported that “organisers and members of the Karpatalya team, which are a citizen of Hungary, are banned from entering the territory of Ukraine”. In fact, the majority of the players do have a Hungarian passport, although they originate from and were born in Zakarpattia Oblast, Ukraine. The overwhelming majority of those players have family and friends in Ukraine. Others, like the coach Istvan Sandor, can now never again visit the graves of their parents and, in his case, his brother. Mr. Sandor is also quoted by several Hungarian newspaper claiming that the team “brought victory (in the World Football Cup 2018) to Karpatalya and the whole of Ukraine”.
CONIFA is currently investigating how the decision to ban Hungarian citizens that were born in Ukraine and with a Ukrainian passport violates the Human Right of Return, which Ukraine has ratified by signing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1973. We are seeking legal advice on the steps that players affected by this ban might take to vindicate their rights under this and other international instruments to which Ukraine is a party.
CONIFA respectfully urges you to address these issues. We ask you to condemn the statements by the Sports Minister Mr Zhdanov and Foreign Minister Mr Klimkin. We urge you to ensure Ukraine remains committed to human rights and welcoming of all people living in Ukraine, regardless of their ethnic heritage. We urge you to take all steps within your authority to ensure that statements and actions that contravene Ukrainian and international law are condemned and, if necessary, nullified. Finally, we urge you to ensure that players and administrators from the Karpatalya team are permitted ordinary access to Ukraine, to permit them to visit their families, the graves of their forefathers, and their homes. CONIFA would welcome the opportunity to discuss any of the above with you. Thank you for your time.
Confederation of Independent Football Associations