It is December 2021, and Shakhtar Donetsk sit proudly at the top of the Ukrainian Premier League, two points ahead of fierce rivals Dynamo Kyiv. The final round of fixtures have been completed before the three-month winter shut down. Plans were then to be put into place for the resumption in March 2022, to recommence the intriguing battle through to its conclusion in the late spring. Then Mr Putin’s “special military operation” kicked in, when he sent in his troops for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, and all normality went out of the window, as people battled for REAL, this time to stay alive and protect loved ones.
Priorities take over and things like football simply cannot even be contemplated. The inevitable decision was made by the authorities in April to cancel the remainder of the 2021/22 season and many believed that it would be a very long time before any games were played on Ukrainian soil again, if indeed ever at all. Much of Ukraine’s football infrastructure, such as stadiums and training grounds, have been damaged by Russian bombing raids, some obliterated completely, and many foreign players have left their Ukrainian teams, for safety, sadly in most cases, probably never to return.
Incredibly though, one day short of six months after the war started, and the country are preparing to relaunch its domestic football competitions, on August 23, despite the obvious dangers and constant fears that this illegal conflict brings with it. Naturally, should there be a pronounced deterioration in the current security situation, then there would have to be a last minute re-think, but as things stand, the 2022/23 season will kick-off, in a wonderful act of defiance and cultural preservation, that did not seem even remotely possible, just a couple of months ago.
The 23rd was picked by president Volodymyr Zelensky, as it is Ukraine’s day of the National Flag. “Restarting football is a big step for the country,” says Andriy Pavelko, head of the Ukrainian Football Association. “It is a sign to the world that Ukraine can and will win this war. It is also a sign to society that we are confident of doing so.”
How will the logistics play out?
Since Russia’s invasion, many teams have relocated to cities such as Lviv, way over in the west of this vast country, where it is considered safer than other regions that have been more heavily targeted. Dynamo Kyiv however, are among those who plan to play on in the capital, or in some of the other teams cases, in its surrounding areas. Places such as Uzhhorod, Ternopil and Rivne are also preparing to stage matches.
Discussions are continuing with the Ministry of Defence over how best to hold matches throughout the season. For the moment spectators will not be able to attend and approved stadiums will be equipped with air-raid sirens and bomb shelters. There will be a 16-team format, with 10 sides intending to play home games in the Kyiv area and the rest further west. There will be a sizeable military presence at each match. The viability of continuing play after any interruptions by air-raid sirens, is among the issues to be resolved and may have to be decided literally on the extent of the threat.
There were initial suggestions that the league would, at least in part anyway, be played over the border in Poland, or perhaps another neighbouring country, but that appears to have been headed off, at least for now. Among those to vociferously oppose that idea of moving were Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih, Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s fiercely patriotic home-town club, who stressed the “powerful, positive informational effect” of playing domestically, and pointedly asked how Premier League teams could seriously look the country’s brave soldiers and volunteers firmly in the eye, if they left to compete on foreign soil.
Two absent friends
Whilst most clubs have survived, albeit in many cases to play in a city far from home, unfortunately two have been hit too hard and will not compete this season.
Desna Chernihiv were seventh in the table when the invading Russians arrived. Being located in the north of the country, quite close to the border with Belarus, Chernihiv was fairly rapidly surrounded on all sides by enemy troops. The city was besieged night and day, with tens of thousands of people trapped. Desna’s home ground – formerly known as the Yuri Gagarin Stadium and named after the famous Soviet cosmonaut – was badly damaged. Members of the coaching team took up arms and joined in the city’s defence, while the club helped raise funds for thermal imaging equipment and drones. The Russians did eventually withdraw, but the infrastructure needs a huge rebuild.
Mariupol has been left in ruins after almost three months of relentless assault and is now in Russian hands. Oleksandr Drambayev was playing for the city’s football team, on loan from Shakhtar when the winter break started, but was overseas when it was overrun and he was unable to return. Now on loan at Belgian side Zulte Waregem, he said with genuine feeling: “Mariupol FC doesn’t exist now. I miss Mariupol with all my heart; I had fallen in love with the city. We had a beautiful pitch, it was just recently done with new grass. I have brought my Mariupol shirt here and wear it with pride and great affection.”
Nothing new for club in continued exile
For all the chaos and disruption that the past six months have brought to Ukrainian clubs, one team already had a good idea of what to expect, having spent the past eight years in exile. Shakhtar were forced to leave their home city in the east of the country back in 2014, when fighting broke out with pro-Russian separatists. It is now on the very front line of the war.
Shakhtar’s director of football, Darijo Srna, remains defiant and said: “We will be a team of hungry Ukrainian players.” Their Chief Executive Sergei Palkin stated that every day they live in survival mode and, every day, it only gets harder. He added: “Now is the time to survive, to be like a family and to make something nice for our people; we will not disappoint our fans or Ukraine as a country, everything we are doing, we are doing for them.”
Denys Sydorenko was goalkeeper for Metalist 1925 Kharkiv, he said: “A missile hit our training ground, there is nothing left of where we used to play. When the players met up again we talked about everything, where everyone was when the war started, what they were doing. My heart aches when I think of Kharkiv; but now we are working hard at training. We want to make our fans happy and win every match.”
Anna Myronchuk,who plays for Dynamo Kyiv’s women’s side, says her team is thrilled by the prospect of football returning. She says it helps takes their minds off the war, even if only for a short while anyway. “For every player it is a big joy to get back on the field, to play, to score a goal, to win” she says. “But then we get back to our phones, look at the news and see what has happened.”
After Russia’s invasion, a number of Myronchuk’s team-mates were forced to live in a bunker for two weeks. “No-one knew what would happen to football,” says Dynamo’s women’s coach Volodymyr Petrenko. “But our director did not abandon us, he paid us our wage. We had lessons on Zoom and gave the players individual tasks. We had a yoga teacher, but of course training alone is not the same.”
National team united country
A great boost for the club sides was delivered by the national side, who demonstrated the power of sport to unite a nation during wartime, when in June they played a series of World Cup qualification ties that pulled the Ukrainian fans together and at the same time captured the imagination and hearts of the watching world.
Star players such as Andriy Yarmolenko and Oleksandr Zinchenko used the games to act as sporting ambassadors and remind global audiences of the horrors taking place in their home country, as a result of Russia’s invasion and the reaction was incredible, with huge displays of solidarity.
Demonstration of togetherness
Every club will have their own story to tell over the coming campaign. It could be Metalist Kharkiv, who have left their endangered home city to be based in the village of Shchaslyve just outside the capital; or there is the example of second-tier club Obolon Kyiv, who recently made an emotional return to their base in Bucha, where some of the most horrifying atrocities known to have been perpetrated by the Russians, took place.
“Holding football competitions during the war is not only about sports,” said Andriy Pavelko, the football association president. “It is about demonstrating the fearlessness of our people, the indomitable spirit and desire for inevitable victory. This is a unique initiative in world history: football against war in conditions of war, football for the sake of peace.” It was a powerful statement that struck a chord with the entire nation, and the watching world.
By resuming top flight matches, the authorities hope to send a message of strength, whilst at the same time also providing the Ukrainian public with some welcome entertainment and distraction from the horrors around them.
Messages from senior figures
Vadym Gutsait, Ukraine’s sports minister, posted a statement: “It is very important to restore big football, like other national championships, in Ukraine. We continue to compete and cheer. We continue to fight and win. Despite everything, Ukrainian sports and the will to win on all fronts, cannot be stopped. We stand firmly on the sports front.”
Andriy Pavelko, the president of Ukraine’s football federation, further added: “We spoke about how football has a very big power to help people think about the future because now people, of course, are not in a good mindset. They are in the worst mood. We spoke about how it would be possible that football could help us to think about the future, more positively.”
It is bigger than safety
It goes without saying that in times of war, there is a huge risk in undertaking this step to allow football to return. Some might see it as foolhardy, but the bigger picture completely overrides that fact. Needless to say, security will be the top priority once the new season gets underway and because of the state of mind of the Russian leader, it seems almost inevitable that he will order some sort of strikes to try and destroy the obvious spirit that he had not reckoned with, when he arrogantly sent in his forces, back in February.
In all probability, there is no part of the country that is safe from random Russian strikes, even way over in the west, but these citizens are made of stern stuff. They have faced severe heartache and almost constant anguish over the past six months. There towns and cities have in many cases, been turned to rubble. However, despite all that, sport remains one of the few universal treatments which can take people away from it all, even just for ninety minutes, and give a gleam of hope moving forward.
For that reason alone, the UPL should be roundly applauded for taking this chance. Football has that power, it is not understood by all, but a great many do see this as a necessity and a real risk and reward situation. It will show that no matter what the Russians do, the Ukrainian people will rise above their circumstances and stay strong and fight for their country.
Matches are to be streamed online and broadcast live on Ukrainian TV. The very act of playing top flight football matches on Ukrainian soil will serve as a powerful symbol of Ukraine’s never-say-die attitude to life and the country’s resilience. Putin has made it clear that he wants to extinguish Ukraine’s identity; but six months on from his scandalous invasion, his forces haven’t been able to do so, and now with admirable defiance, the Ukrainians are setting out on a determined mission to show the Russian dictator that he cannot even prevent them from playing football.
Sometimes in life danger is a good thing, and some actions are worth carrying out, regardless of any safety implications. Russia may have taken an early lead, but Ukraine equalized some time ago, and now they have deservedly taken the lead!.