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Are Ukrainians really boycotting the World Cup in Russia?

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Are Ukrainians really boycotting the World Cup in Russia?

Activists stage a performance in front of the Russian embassy in Kyiv
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REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
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As the 2018 FIFA World Cup kicked off in Russia, fans across the globe tuned in to support their teams and enjoy world-class football.

For many Ukrainians, the location of the competition evoked strong feelings thanks to a tumulous history with hosts Russia.

Russia annexed Ukraine's southern Crimea peninsula in 2014, sparking condemnation from many countries.

Both authorities and activists called for a complete boycott of the event, spurred on by the high-profile case of imprisoned filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who remained on hunger strike at the time of writing.

Ukraine also didn't qualify for the competition this year, just falling short of the top two spots when they placed third in their group.

Has this influenced supporters not to watch the beautiful game and how possible was it to watch matches in different parts of the country?

Impressive TV ratings for the opening match

The World Cup was not shown on Ukrainian National Public Television, instead, Inter Media Group was granted rights to broadcast the competition.

Interfax cited Inter as saying the opening ceremony, which saw Russia take on Saudi Arabia, saw impressive TV ratings at 16.6%.

As many as 3.8 million people watched on TV and 200,000 streamed the match on Inter's website, according to the provider — in a country of around 45 million, this represents a significant proportion of the population that watched the game.

'No evidence of a lack of search interest'

The popularity of a topic online is a good indication of how it resonates in a country.

Google Trends told Euronews that there was "no evidence of a lack of search interest in the 2018 World Cup in Ukraine".

Ukrainians were even more actively searching information surrounding the competition in 2018 compared to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, suggesting there was even an increased interest in the World Cup hosted by Russia.

Google Trends gave the 2018 World Cup an index value of 100 — the largest value possible in a data set — in the two weeks prior to and first two weeks of the event.

Over the equivalent period in 2014 (June 1-26) the search term concerning the Brazil competition gained a much lower value of 69.

Where are Ukrainians watching the football?

Tribuna.com described the question of whether or not to watch the games as "probably the most controversial issue for Ukrainians before the start of the World Cup in Russia".

Staff from the sports magazine went to bars across the country ahead of the opening game to observe the "mood of owners and their customers that are fans".

They found that the attitudes of owners and availability of screens showing matches varied, perhaps unsurprisingly, depending on the town's location.

In Lviv, Ukraine's western capital, it wasn't easy to find a pub showing the first match of the tournament, with some establishments point-blank refusing to air the game and others only showing it on a separate screen upon request.

"Today is the match Saudi Arabia vs Russia. Do you think, we will show it? Of course not!" one owner told Tribuna.com.

In Kyiv, bar owners were more relaxed but reported a lack of interest from customers and most said they had few reservations to watch the games.

'I do not pay attention to politics... I just watch football'

"I love to bet. When should I do this, if not now?" said one Lviv fan. "I do not pay attention to politics — yesterday I saw Kadyrov (Head of the Chechen Republic) with Salah (Egyptian professional footballer Mohamed Salah) and decided not to pay attention to it. I just watch football."

Despite history and politics, Ukrainians appear not to be completely boycotting the World Cup, perhaps football really can transcend barriers.