Russia are set to face Ukraine in the semi-final of the Futsal Euro 2022 competition Friday in what is set to be a heated match between the pair.
The miniature 5-a-side football format will see the two nations — who have been deliberately kept apart by the UEFA since Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea — face each other in a major football tournament for the first time in 14 years.
"The political background of this match cannot be ignored," said Emil Aliyev, the president of the Russian futsal association. "We have been kept apart for a long time, even at this European Championship, to ensure we don't play each other before the semi-finals.”
The match between Russia, who rank second in the world futsal rankings, and Ukraine, who are placed 11th, will kick off at Amsterdam's Ziggo Dome at 7 p.m. Moscow time.
It comes amid extreme tensions between the two countries as Russia’s buildup of troops near the Ukrainian border has raised fears of a potential offensive by Moscow on its westerly neighbor.
But it’s not the first time that sport could be co-opted as a battleground for political provocation between the two nations.
Prior to last year's Euro 2020 football tournament, Ukraine’s national team sparked outrage from Moscow by featuring an outline of Ukraine that included annexed Crimea, as well as political slogans that alluded to the ousting of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president in 2014, on their kit.
Ukraine will sport a reworked kit at Friday’s match after being forced to remove the shirts’ “political” messaging by the UEFA. In response to the change, sports publication Tribuna Ukraine tweeted: "In the next match we will remind once and for all that Crimea is Ukraine” alongside a photo of player Ihor Cherniavski.
Any suspense surrounding the match should concern the length of time since the two nations played each other, rather than the geopolitical backdrop, Aliyev said.
"This is the nature of sports, in particular futsal — it is removed from politics," he said.
"It would be better if everyone sorted out their relationships — who is stronger or faster — on the sports field.”