Ukrainian far-right party upstages FIFA with visit to Zurich headquarters

The international soccer federation FIFA has criticized a PR stunt by the extreme-right Ukrainian party Svoboda, some of whose leaders visited FIFA headquarters in Switzerland. "We fully regret any attempts by [Svoboda] to manipulate or link their political ideas to FIFA within the scope of an informal visit," a spokesman for FIFA told the news agency AFP. A delegation from Svoboda including lawmaker Ihor Miroshnychenko -- known for a recent anti-Semitic outburst against Ukrainian-born Hollywood star Mila Kunis -- visited FIFA's Zurich headquarters earlier this month.

He and a fellow lawmaker had their photograph taken with Walter De Gregorio, FIFA's communications and public affairs chief, which FIFA said had not been planned. The two politicians also posed inside FIFA's building with a large red-and-black flag. The flag, whose colors stand for blood and soil, is commonly used by Ukrainian far-right and nationalist groups and is in the spotlight of match monitors from the Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) network.

FARE was mandated by European football's governing body UEFA to draw up a list of xenophobic and offensive symbols in the run-up to Euro 2012, hosted by Ukraine and neighboring Poland, and the flag was among them. "Governing bodies such as FIFA, as well as national federations, have a responsibility not to let football become a tool for legitimizing extremism," Rafal Pankowski of Poland's Never Again Association, part of FARE, told AFP. "We put a lot of effort into eliminating racist and far-right behavior from Polish and Ukrainian stadiums before, during and after Euro 2012. It would be a shame if the racist extremists are allowed a foothold in Eastern European football again," he added.

The flag was the banner of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA), which during World War II massacred Poles and Jews and allied with Nazi Germany. However, Svoboda and others claim history has been slanted against the UIA, which also fought the Soviets in a vain effort to win independence, and say honoring its memory in stadiums and elsewhere is legitimate.

Svoboda, whose supporters range from neo-Nazis and hardcore nationalists to mainstream voters weary of political horse-trading and corruption, is now the fourth-largest party in Ukraine's parliament. In a statement, it said it had visited FIFA headquarters to hand over a dossier on the UIA's history and defend the flag against a potential ban.

The visit came ahead of Ukraine's home World Cup qualifier against Poland on October 11 in Kharkiv, where fans' flags sparked outrage. "People can have different views on the history of Ukraine, but to display such flags at a game against Poland is clearly hostile," said Pankowski. The incident came after monkey chants against Brazilian-born Ukraine player Edmar by his own fans during a September 6 home qualifier against San Marino, plus Nazi salutes and the display of SS symbols.

FIFA ordered Ukraine to play their next qualifier behind closed doors and imposed a five-year ban on international matches in Lviv, the western city which is the hub of the nationalist movement. The sanction was suspended when Ukraine appealed, and the case will not be heard before the World Cup playoffs on 15 ans 19 November, FIFA said.

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