Marco Werman: Today, in news from Ukraine, Russia seemed to be trying to diffuse the crisis there. President Vladimir Putin said he was pulling Russian troops away from the Ukrainian border. He also asked pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine to delay referendum on secession that they're planning to hold this Sunday. It's not clear what effect Putin's words will have on a conflict that's been escalating rapidly in recent days. Since Ukraine's interim authorities launched what they call an "anti-terrorism operation" against the pro-Russian militants in the east last week, dozens have been killed.
As you can imagine, the conflict in Ukraine is overshadowing everything else that's happening in the country. For example, today the interim government in Kiev called for Ukraine's professional soccer teams to play their remaining games this season behind closed doors. In other words, no spectators, to avoid crowd trouble. The World's soccer editor, William Troop, is with me in the studio now. It's kind of surprising that in the middle of what's basically a civil war Ukraine is still holding a soccer tournament. Why this call to play games now without spectators?
William Troop: I know, you'd expect that they would've called it off by now. There has been crowd trouble at games recently in Ukraine, violence that has been stoked by the tensions over the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. But it's not exactly as you would expect because many of Ukraine's best soccer teams are from the east or Odessa or Crimea, places where there's a lot of pro-Russia sentiment, yet the fans from all of Ukrainian teams, whether they're in the east or in the west, are uniting before games to chant pro-Kiev, pro-united Ukraine chants. The trouble has come when these fans have been attacked by pro-Russia militants.
This happened actually last week in Odessa and we heard the news of trouble between the two sides in Odessa, pro-Russia-pro-Kiev clashing. It actually started from soccer fans who were chanting pro-united Ukraine chants and walking through the streets prior to a game. They were attacked by the militants that were on the pro-Russia side and that set in motion a whole series of clashes that eventually ended up at this building that was set on fire where more than 40 people died. Behind all of that was a soccer game.
Werman: Let me get this straight - some people on the streets are pro-Russia but when they get in the soccer stadium they're suddenly pro-unity, pro-Kiev?
Troop: Not exactly. All Ukrainian soccer teams, as it happens in other parts of Europe, have these hardcore fan sections called "Ultras." These ultras have a history in Ukrainian politics, that when all the unrest was happening in Kiev with protests against Yanukovych and in favor of the European Union pact, back then Ukrainian soccer fans became a protection force for the protesters. They were anti-government. They were seen also as leaning to the right. All of that has translated, as the conflict has gone on, into these fan sections being on the side of the interim authorities in Ukraine.
Werman: What happens now? How many more games in the tournament and how do players feel about playing in front of a lot of empty seats?
Troop: There's only a handful of games left now in the season. There's a World Cup coming up and usually most leagues around the world take a break at that point. It's going to happen in Ukraine, that's what was scheduled to happen in Ukraine anyway. Ukraine is not going to the World Cup and that may be a good thing because it's really an open question of whether Ukraine would be able to field a team in the World Cup. But I think what happens next is they're going to finish the season and they're going to have to make some decisions at that point.
For example, there's two teams in the Ukrainian league right now still playing their games that are based in Crimea. They have already signaled that they will probably join the Russian professional soccer league in the Summer. But the big question I think is what happens to Ukraine's most successful team right now, which is Shakhtar Donetsk, based in the eastern city of Donetsk. They're in a really tight spot. If eastern Ukraine moves to secede, they will no longer be based in the Ukrainian league. They have been very successful there, they have the support of an oligarch. If that happens, if they end up, for example, joining the Russian league, it's really an open question whether they would be allowed to participate in the top European competitions as they have been doing for the past few years.
Werman: Wild. As go politics and war, so goes soccer. The World's soccer guy, William Troop, thank you.
Troop: You're welcome.