In Ukraine, football resumes its rights in empty stadiums and prepares for Russian raids

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Interrupted by the start of the invasion of Russia, the Ukrainian football championship had a new start on Tuesday with a match between Shakhtar Donetsk and Metalist1925 of Kharkiv. Stadiums behind closed doors, air-raid shelters, sirens… Matches are ready to be interrupted at the slightest warning.

The match ended in a sportingly sad 0-0. But the stake was not there, Tuesday August 23, for the meeting between Chakhtar Donetsk and Metalist 1925 of Kharkiv. On the eve of Ukraine’s Independence Day and the six-month invasion of the country by Russia, the resumption of the Ukrainian championship acted above all as a symbol of the resilience of Ukrainians in the face of the war .

A symbolically symbolic match

“For the moment, the teams are not thinking about victory. This resumption of the Ukrainian championship is simply a challenge launched and a reminder that Ukraine continues to exist”, explains journalist Andrew Todos, on CNN. This British-Ukrainian made the trip to kyiv to cover the opening match of the season.


“It will be a unique competition: it will take place during a war, during military aggression, during bombardments,” Andriy Pavelko, head of the Ukrainian football federation, told Reuters, determined in passing that many people on the front line of the Ukrainian army as well as President Zelensky campaigned for the return of football matches.

Authorities did not skimp on symbols during the day. Before kick-off, the players of both teams and the referees entered the lawn wrapped in Ukrainian flags and unfurled a banner reading: “We have the same courage”.

Players from Shakhtar, whose hometown Donetsk has been under the control of pro-Russian separatists since 2014, wore T-shirts with the words: “Ukraine will win”. Those of Kharkiv, the second city of the country regularly bombarded by the Russian army, wore a similar jersey. The Metalist 1925 was also added on his jersey to the emblem of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, instead of the traditional sponsor logo.


Players observed a minute of silence as the names of Ukrainian towns where people died during the war were displayed on a large screen. The kick-off was given by a member of the Azov Battalion. They also waved a special Ukrainian flag, the story of which was told by President Volodymyr Zelensky in a televised address.


This object belonged to Danylo Myhal, a Canadian of Ukrainian origin. During the Montreal Olympics in 1976, the latter had run on the field carrying the flag during a match between the Soviet Union and East Germany. Dressed in an embroidered shirt, he had danced a Ukrainian folk dance before being arrested.

“(Myhal) has always dreamed of bringing his flag to Ukraine and today it finally happened,” the president said before kick-off. “He is now hoisted to the opening of the Ukrainian football championship.”

Drastic security measures

If the objective was to show that life goes on for Ukraine in a semblance of normality, the atmosphere was however far from “normal” for this match. Ukraine remains under martial law and large public gatherings have been banned in the capital over fears of Russian bombardment ahead of Independence Day.

In the huge Olympic stadium in kyiv, the stands, designed to accommodate 65,000 people, were empty. Spectators are not allowed to attend the matches to limit the risks. Each meeting must be approved in advance by the military administrations.

“The presence of representatives of local military administrations, medical teams and the state emergency service is mandatory,” said Vadym Gutzeit, Minister of Youth and Sports, during the presentation of the protocol.

The matches will also all take place in the kyiv region and in western Ukraine, which are the places furthest from the front line. The stadiums will have to have air-raid shelters capable of accommodating the players, their staff and the referees in the event of air raids. If the inaugural match took place without the maintenance of the sirens, that between Rukh Lviv and FC Metalist of Kharkiv Wednesday August 24 was interrupted before it even started, the players taking refuge in the bunkers.


Absentees

Two elite clubs will not return to competition immediately, with the agreement of the authorities: Desna Tchernihiv, which notably participated in the Europa League in 2020-2021, refrains from returning to the league, its stadium having was completely destroyed by bombardment. FC Mariupol will not be there either: the port of Mariupol on the Black Sea was conquered in May by Russian forces at the cost of much destruction.

Other absentees: foreign players. Fifa having given the possibility to foreign players and coaches playing in Ukraine and Russia to sign contracts elsewhere without waiting for the official transfer period, few of them will return to the country to contest the championship. According to Zorya Londonsk, the Ukrainian football news site founded by Andrew Todos, only 18 foreign players had returned to their Ukrainian clubs as of July 17. Chaktar, with its tradition of contingent Brazilian players, is particularly affected.

Even if the matches are held behind closed doors, this sporting dynamic remains essential in the eyes of the Ukrainians who testified to AFP: “It shows that the war does not stop us”, explained Maksym Scherbyna, 35, a fan of Dynamo Kyiv. Another supporter, Denys Lazarenko, 41, assured that Ukraine “much needs football”, which “unites people”.




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