Yaroslav Rakitskiy, the Ukrainian defender let go by the national team for having joined a Russian club

As the geopolitical crisis in Eastern Europe grows every day, Ukraine decided to react on Wednesday, February 23. Under the threat of a Russian invasion, finally effective this Thursday, the country announced the mobilization of its reservists and called on its three million nationals who live and work in Russia to leave the country. Thursday, February 24, one of them will be in the south of Spain, to play a return match of the Europa League play-offs.

Yaroslav Rakitskiy, 32-year-old Ukrainian defender, is due to face Betis Sevilla on Thursday evening with his Zenit Saint Petersburg team, a week after losing in the first leg against the Andalusians (2-3). During this meeting, Rakitskiy did not seem on his plate: guilty on the first goal of Betis, he is not irreproachable either on the last goal scored by the Spaniards.

Was it because of the lack of rhythm – the Zenith resumed competition after a two-month break -, or because of the increasingly tense geopolitical situation between his native country, Ukraine, and his adopted country? , Russia ? If there is a football player more concerned than the others by the current tensions, it is indeed Yaroslav Rakitskiy. In 2019, after leaving Ukraine to join the Russian club Zenith, he was dismissed from the Ukrainian selection. A symbol.

Because he experienced the start of the conflict with his Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk very closely, because he was suspected of supporting pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region, because he was called a a traitor when signing for a Russian club, Rakitskiy provoked strong reactions and created a case law for any Ukrainian football player wishing to continue his career with the cumbersome neighbor.

Before the start of the conflict, Rakitskiy proved to be a very talented central defender at a very young age. Tough on the man, but skilled with the ball at the foot. A valuable profile in modern football which opened the doors to the Ukrainian selection in October 2009, at the age of 20. With Zbirna – the nickname of the Ukrainian selection -, Rakitskiy saw disillusionment at the Stade de France in 2013 with Mamadou Sakho’s double which qualified the Blues for the World Cup in Brazil, but also Euro 2016.

At the same time, the defender has established himself as an essential element of Shakhtar Donetsk, the club with which he won the Ukrainian title eight times. But when war broke out in 2015 and pro-Russian separatists attacked Donbass, Shakhtar was forced to abandon Donetsk to survive between Kiev and Lviv. This is when the ambiguous relationship between Rakitskiy and the separatists begins.

Yaroslav Rakitskiy against Blaise Matuidi during the match between the France team and Ukraine at the Stade de France, November 19, 2013.   (JEAN MARIE HERVIO / DPPI MEDIA)

« Not a day goes by when I don’t think of the people of Donetsk« , says the one who has become very attached to the city. In 2016, Rakitskiy maintains doubt by « liking » a video of the separatist army parading in Donetsk. The fact that he does not sing the Ukrainian anthem before Zbirna matches does not help. The nationalist camp attacks him, even more so when a fake interview shared by Russia Today in 2014 lent him pro-Russian remarks: « Donbass was, is and will remain a region linked to Russia. »

When Rakitskiy signed for Zenit in January 2019, the red line was crossed for many Ukrainian football fans. In the wake of his departure for Russia, a survey published by the site grandstand reveals that 57% of those who participated in the consultation refuse to see the defender wear the colors of the Ukrainian selection again.

Other footballers target him. « Now it will be difficult for Yaroslav to be called up to the national team again, but I think he knows why“, says Ruslan Rotan, the coach of the Espoirs selection.Whatever happens, you have to respect the people and their country. I don’t have the wordsregrets for his part Artem Fedetskyi, ex-teammate of Rakitskiy at Shakhtar and in selection. I think it will be very difficult for Shevchenko to select him again.« 

Andriy Shevchenko, who remained in office until 2021, decided to do without Rakitskiy. The defender knows his last selection with Ukraine in October 2018. After his signing in January 2019 at the Zénith, he is ignored by his coach during the rallies in March, September and October. In November, Rakitskiy stopped the charges and announced his international retirement in a post on Instagram: « I would like to be called up but football has become too political. Players are now selected with the fear of doing wrong.« 

It must be said that Rakitskiy chose to continue his career in the most symbolic club in Russia: the Zenith, close to Vladimir Putin, who cut his teeth in politics on the side of Saint Petersburg, and a club sponsored by Gazprom, the power-controlled gas giant. Since then, the central defender has continued his career in Russia, without officially taking a position as the situation gradually degenerates.

Like the other four Ukrainian players (Ivan Ordets, Dmytro Ivanisenya, Artem Polyarus, Denys Kulakov) who play in the Russian championship, Rakitskiy is content to continue his football activity in a very particular context. On the lawn of Betis Sevilla on Thursday evening, it is to overthrow the Andalusian club that the 32-year-old Ukrainian will have to work, after a badly negotiated first leg match by the Zenith.

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