Bringing Ukrainian football traditions to Britain, Interview with Oleksandr Saliy

June 9, 2015 • Articles • Views: 1479

10465274_970526342977621_6327544087506217277_o Ukrainian Events in London have met with Oleksandr Saliy, the first foreign-born English football league linesman, the executive director of the first professional futsal team in England – Baku United, and the founder of the Lobanovskiy Cup. The tournament will be held at the Norwegian Playing Fields in Barking on Sunday, June 14. Read on to find out why this event is special and who it is for, and what Ukrainians need to do to succeed as a nation.

The 21st  Lobanovskiy Cup in London

What Oleksandr Saliy had in mind when founding the Lobanovskiy Cup, was more than another futsal tournament in Great Britain. Volodymyr V. Lobanovskiy was a world famous Ukrainian coach and football manager, a figure particularly well remembered by the fans from the former Soviet republics. The tournament is aiming to bring together the teams primarily of the Eastern European and Commonwealth of Independent States’ background. They come down for a day in London from all over England and abroad, bring their families, friends, picnic blankets, and enjoy good game and the relaxing atmosphere. It is a nice family day out – with the barbeque, wine glasses tinkling, live music playing, and children chasing the ball.

It is a nice family day out – with the barbeque, wine glasses tinkling, live music playing, and children chasing the ball.


The upcoming tournament is the 21st in fifteen years. In the recent years, it became so popular that it was run twice during the season. It started with 11 teams in 2001, and since then it hosts 20 to 30 teams each time, with the 42 teams at its busiest. Sometimes it takes place on Baku United home ground – Copper Box Arena in East London, which during the 2012 Olympics became known as “the box that rocks”. But it’s the open air that most teams favoured this year – or perhaps it was their families’ choice.

“This tournament is taking place in one day, everything is scheduled, we are playing on four fields,” says Oleksandr. “It is called 5-a-side. The rules are different from those of the English League, as this one is our league, our Lobanovskiy Cup.  I improved the rules a bit just to let people enjoy themselves more, take the most from the game. The registration is between 9 and 10 o’clock in the morning, and from 10:00AM we start the games. Subgroups are playing until 3:00PM, and after that we proceed by the method of Olympic medal table. Even those who lose will get to play for the Fair Play Cup. And of course, those who get to the semi-finals and the final will get the Cup and the prizes.”

Lobanovsky-CUp-1-724x1024The entry is free for the spectators, only the teams pay their registration fee. Among the sponsors of the event, International Ukrainian Airlines is the long-standing and devoted supporter. This year’s proceeds from the tournament Oleksandr decided to donate to Ukrainian cause. “I am very busy with my work, and besides I am a father of four, so unfortunately it’s been hard for me to find time for the charitable work. I am a loner in this, doing what I can, but would be happy if other volunteers and organisations come and support our tournament. All, absolutely everybody who wants to support Ukraine, are welcome.”

 “It’s all changed after Crimea”

Just a few years ago, the Russian embassy was the main sponsor of Lobanovskiy Cup. Oleksadr Saliy recalls: “In those times Russia was taking the role of the Soviet Union’s successor and later <of the leader> of the Commonwealth of the Independent States. The Russian Embassy reached out to me with the offer of cooperation. And there was no problem, everything was fine. The direction in which the cooperation took wasn’t Russian, but of all the nations of the Commonwealth, even further – Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Poland, Slovakia, every country where people could understand Russian language, I worked with them all. It’s carried on from the Soviet times. And this cooperation ended up with Crimea.”

According to Oleksandr Saliy, the Ukrainian Embassy hasn’t been as pro-active in establishing the connections with him in the past 15 years since he relocated to the UK. “I did knock on their door and offered my help, but nothing came out of it”. Russia, on the other hand, has been spending a great deal of time and resources on supporting the Diaspora, and not only Russian by their former nationality, but also by their ethnicity or mother tongue. “My job was to work with the community, and I was quite successful in it. There is an organisation called Coordinating Council of the Russian compatriots. Well, it used to be called Russian-speaking, but it’s changed to just Russian two years ago. Every year we had a forum of the delegates from the Russian-speaking organisations from the entire Great Britain and I was always elected by the people to take high positions in the Council. But it all changed after they invaded Crimea. Then I quit.”

We are a friendly nation until somebody goes to war with us

Since then Oleksandr has been fighting in the information war. “I was using my social media accounts to express my political views. I am Ukrainian, and I never forget it. We are a friendly nation until somebody goes to war with us. My opponents tried to defame me, hacked my email accounts, and started blocking me on many directions.”

His strong political views made Oleksandr part with his relatives in Russia.”I simply started calling them a herd, all those Russians who support their government’s policies. Some people turned away from me, and I’m telling them – you don’t understand that they lie to you, but you know who I am, and it’s up to you who to believe.”

But Oleksandr is happy that not all the Russians support their government and that Russian-speaking Ukrainians show patriotism and loyalty to Ukraine. Russia’s conflict with Ukraine also didn’t stop Oleksandr Saliy’s work in the Russian-speaking and ex-Soviet community. The previous year’s Lobanovskiy Cup hosted 24 teams, and it was promoted as the tournament in support of Ukraine. “I was pleased to see how many people supported us. There was even a team with the Russian shirts, and it is so heart-warming to see there are adequate people there. And the winner was the Russian-speaking team from the Lithuanian town that is historically populated by Russians.”

Tournament in support of Ukraine

Oleksandr helps spreading information about what is going on in Ukraine among his almost 4K subscribers on Facebook. “I wanted to join the fight as I hold the intelligence service rank back from the Soviet army, which could be very useful. But my wife persuaded me otherwise. Instead, I’m helping with money. Last winter I bought the Jeep for the Donbas battalion, and drove it myself to Ukraine to personally hand the keys over to the boys.”  Oleksandr have been working together with the International Christian Church of Faith in London to send humanitarian aid to 150 children from Mariupol Foster Home “Piligrim”, as well as to the voluntary organisations “Power of Help” and the Protestant Church in Donetsk and Kharkiv, that distribute it among the people affected by war. “I would like also support Ukraine Aid and Euromaidan, and we will arrange for some collection of donations the day of the tournament. But I would like to encourage the readers to donate to their bank accounts”.

“There are so many Ukrainians here in London,” continues Oleksandr. “I would say too many. Those young people that are coming here now, are avoiding the deployment to the army and escape to England, and this is very sad.”

The reason for this, Oleksandr believes, is that the Maidan-inspired surge of patriotism has gone down when the war, fuelled by Russia, dragged on for too long. It became apparent that Europe also is not going to help as much as Ukraine had hoped. He compares Ukrainian situation to Serbia and Bosnia. “When I travelled there, I saw buildings battered by heavy shelling, they are still standing. And Serbians, although some say they are pro-Russians, have long realised that no one will stand up for them. They say “We are by ourselves”.  And that’s what awaits us too – to be by ourselves.”

Looking back at the past year events, Oleksandr ponders if they were preventable.  “Yanukovych needed to go. Perhaps, it was better to wait for another year till the next election, perhaps the revolution was not timely, perhaps, Crimea could have stayed and the war in Donbas hadn’t started – it’s difficult to judge now, when it’s happened already.” In his words, the direction that Ukraine is taking now, towards Europe, is the right choice, but Ukraine should remember that European Union is in a dire state itself, and isn’t interested in another member. What Ukraine should do, say Saliy, is to take example of Saakashvili’s Georgia.

If we keep singing Ukrainian anthem, something will change in our heads.

“Our people need to change. And my biggest request for our people is to sing our Ukrainian anthem more often and think about it, about the words they are singing. If we keep singing Ukrainian anthem, something will change in our heads. We learned from the past times how to live in the prison of mind. It’s passing, but slowly. Living here for many years, I have met with many people from the simplest folks to the lords, and I came to think that we are yet too far from Europe. As much as I love my nation, my native city of Ternopil – we need to learn from them. And to learn means not to reject our own culture, but to pick the best from other cultures.”

Written by Karyna Silina

P.S. If you want to play mini-football, but don’t have a team, Oleksandr Saliy is happy to recommend you to the existing teams. Everyone is welcome. Or you could organise your own team together with your friends or co-workers. There are teams where players come from the same home town or even village, but there are plenty of international teams where Poles, Belarusians, Russians, Georgians, Tadjiks play side-by-side. Read more about the upcoming tournament here.

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