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Football returns to Ukraine in escape from war ravaged life

There were no goals and no fans when the Ukraine Premier League season kicked off but the momentous occasion was not lost on those involved.

August 24, 2022
By Derek Gatopoulos and Adam Pemble
24 August 2022

With two teams playing in an empty stadium hundreds of miles away from their hometowns, the Ukrainian Premier League kicked off its new season after a poignant ceremony paying tribute to those fighting in the war with Russia.

The opening match at Kyiv’s 65,500-seat Olympic stadium — behind closed doors with no fans — saw two teams from the war-torn east of the country, Shaktar Donetsk and Metalist 1925, play out a 0-0 draw.

“For 90 minutes, I forgot about the war.”

Shakhtar Donetsk captain Taras Stepanenko

The result, though, was always going to be an afterthought.

It was the first top-level football match played in the country this year, and since Russia’s invasion in February.

“For 90 minutes, I forgot about the war,” Shakhtar captain Taras Stepanenko told PA.

“After the first half, I sat in the locker room and thought, ‘We have already played 45 minutes, very nice, I didn’t hear the alarm in the city’.

“For 90 minutes, I turned off and just enjoyed playing football, very good emotions, very warm emotions, and I feel proud because of that.”

The decision to restart the league has been hailed as a defiant sign that Ukrainians are ready to restore some sense of normal life.

Although this game felt far from normal.

Ukraine remains under martial law and large public gatherings have been banned in the capital before the Independence Day holiday Wednesday due to fears of potential Russian bombardment.

The game was played behind closed doors with the clubs allowed to advertise the kick-off time, but on military instructions, not the venue in advance, and the players, staff and officials all had access to air-raid shelters in the event that sirens sounded.

“I have waited for this day since the day we started preparation for the championship and I was a little bit nervous,” Stepanenko said.

“But when I heard our anthem, when I saw my teammates, the opponents, I was proud of my country and I was happy that we started our championship because it’s important for our country and for our people.

“We already have had a war for six months and I don’t know, maybe tomorrow it will stop, but maybe it could be one year. I don’t know.

“But I pray every day and I hope that my country and our people will win this war and our families come back to our homes.

“It’s very important, it’s my dream and I pray for this every day.”

The return of the UPL is a significant moment in Ukraine.

“This is work … to show the world that life in Ukraine does not stop but continues,” Shakhtar coach Igor Jovicevic said before the opening game.

“Football is something that can move the emotions of the whole country and the people who fight for all of us.

“So football is essential for us individually, as a team, not only for Shakhtar but also for the entire Ukrainian Premier League.

“It helps to continue living and shows the world that football goes on.”

Players from the two teams entered the field with blue and yellow Ukrainian national flags draped over their shoulders and observed a minute of silence while the names of Ukrainian cities where people had died in the war were displayed on a large screen.

Players raised a Ukrainian flag at the stadium that once belonged to Danylo Myhal, a Canadian of Ukrainian descent.

At the Montreal Olympics in 1976, Myhal ran onto the field carrying the flag during a match between the Soviet Union and East Germany. Wearing an embroidered shirt, he danced a Ukrainian folk dance before being detained.

“(Myhal) always dreamed of bringing his flag to Ukraine and today it’s finally happened,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a televised address before kick off.

“It’s being raised today at the opening of the Ukrainian soccer championship.”

With PA

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