The Football League at War. Stadiums, sirens and player shelters were bombed

The beautiful Olympic Stadium in Kyiv hosted the biggest European football games in the last decade. The opening of the first league match between Shakhtar Donetsk and Metalist Kharkiv started there today. They are two teams from cities near Russia fighting for their basic existence.

“The restart of football is a big step for the country,” Andriy Pavelko, head of the Ukrainian Football Association, told BBC Sport. “It’s a sign to the world that Ukraine can and will win. And it’s also a sign for our company that we have confidence.”

But the beginning of the league has strict safety rules. For the past two years, there have been no fans in stadiums around the world because of covid. However, no fans were allowed to enter Kyiv’s 65,000-capacity stadium in the city center during the midday kick-off for reasons other than epidemiological. Their lives are at stake. And if the sirens sound, the players must immediately flee from the rockets to the shelters under the stadium.

Restarting football is a big step for the country. This is a sign to the world that Ukraine can and will win. And this is also a sign in our society that we have confidence.

Head of the Ukrainian Football Association Andriy Pavelko

This is happening in a situation where, according to the secret services, Russia is planning new attacks against the Ukrainian civil infrastructure and the government after half a year of war.

“We have rules in case of an alarm, we must go underground,” Shakhtar captain Taras Stěpanenko said before the match in a telephone interview with the AP agency. “But I think the teams and the players will be proud of this game. We are ready, we are strong, and I think we will show the whole world the Ukrainian life and the will to win,” said the veteran of the national team.

His team had already spent eight years in exile because of the conflict when they were forced to leave the eastern city of Donetsk in 2014, where fighting broke out with pro-Russian separatists. Today, Donetsk is on the front line of the war with Russia.

No viewers yet

Meanwhile, discussions continue with the Ministry of Defense on how best to organize this season’s matches. As of now, spectators will not be able to participate in other matches either. Approved stadiums are equipped with anti-aircraft sirens and anti-aircraft shelters, but only players can fit there.

It is symbolic that the league is starting now. Half a year has passed since the brutal Russian invasion began. In addition, Tuesday is the day of the national flag of Ukraine, and the next day – Wednesday, August 24 – the celebration of independence from Moscow, which was declared by the former republic of the Soviet Union in 1991.

“I talked to President Volodymyr Zelensky about how important football is to distract people who are tired of war,” said Pavelko, head of Ukrainian football, according to Euronews. “We talked about how football can help us think about the future.”

Two teams are completely missing

No competitive football has been played in Ukraine since mid-December, when the league was suspended for a planned winter break. The competitions were supposed to start again on February 25, but the Russian invasion began.

This year, only 16 teams start in the top league, while there should be 18. Desna Chernihiv and FK Mariupol are yet to play. Their cities suffered brutal destruction. In the middle of the Yuri Gagarin stadium of the Desna team, which was last in the 7th table, today there is a crater after an artillery or rocket strike. Chernihiv was besieged day and night, and tens of thousands of people remained trapped there. The Russians retreated in early April, but rebuilding the city would require a large amount of work.

It is similar to the Metalist Kharkiv sports ground. “My heart hurts when I think of Kharkiv. The rocket hit our sports field, there is nothing left of the place where we played,” said goalkeeper Denys Sydorenko. Parts of Kharkiv were completely destroyed by the war and resembled the apocalypse.

It is played only in the west of Ukraine

Sydorenko himself and his girlfriend fled to western Ukraine at the beginning of the war. They got married soon after. “Our training today is difficult. We want to make our fans happy and win every game,” he told the BBC.

Due to the ongoing war, all matches will be played in Kyiv, its surroundings and in the west, where football teams from the east, such as Metalist, have also moved. Other matches on Tuesday were also played in Uzhhorod and Kovalivka. They are broadcast in Ukraine, abroad and on the YouTube channel under an agreement with the broadcasting company Setanta Sports. The total amount of around 15 million euros over three years of broadcasting is less than some of the elite players of the English Premier League earn in one season.

International matches in UEFA European competitions have been played in neighboring Poland, Slovakia or Sweden in recent weeks to ensure the safety of opponents from foreign countries.

Six months of war without football also meant the departure of international stars. Shakhtar, currently the top team in the league, is experiencing the worst situation right now. Last season, he built a major Brazilian player, financed by billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, who owns, among other things, the completely destroyed Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol (formerly Zhdanov).

However, the Brazilian stars left Ukraine and Shakhtar had to rely on young domestic talent. Also his traditional rivals Dynamo Kyiv, who will play against Dnipro-1 on Sunday.

“Of course, it’s a new team,” admitted Shakhtar captain Stěpanenko. “But we feel confident because we are playing for our country and for our people.”

Restarting football in Ukraine is certainly an act of courage. Ukrainians themselves are happy about this, but at the same time they are very worried.

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