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Ukraine pro soccer league begins new season despite Russian invasion

Despite Russia’s invasion, Ukraine has decided to push ahead with the new season in behind-closed-doors games to be played away from the front lines.

Football returns to Ukraine

The United States government on Tuesday issued a warning to all American nationals to leave Ukraine with immediate effect ahead of Independence Day in the war-torn country. On 24 August each year, Ukraine marks the anniversary of the signing of its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. This year, the annual holiday will be muted with the country partially occupied by Russian forces following the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine last February. On Tuesday 23 August, Ukraine’s Day of the National Flag, football will also resume when the 2022-23 Ukrainian Premier League kicks off, exactly six months after the previous season was suspended.

Shakhtar Donetsk and FC Metalist 1925 Kharkiv players draped with Ukrainian flags line up before the opening match of the season.
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Shakhtar Donetsk and FC Metalist 1925 Kharkiv players draped with Ukrainian flags line up before the opening match of the season. GLEB GARANICHREUTERS

“People at the front asked us start thinking about restarting football”

The return of football in itself represents a victory for Ukraine: had Russian battle plans drawn up at the beginning of the invasion not been met with such fierce and determined resistance, there would have been little of Ukraine remaining unoccupied in which to stage matches. The decision to play the 2022-23 season has met with some criticism, but for Ukrainians the opportunity to watch matches signals something of a return to normality, much as when sports around the world were resumed after the covid-19 pandemic. As Andriy Pavelko, head of the Ukrainian Football Association, told ABC: “Many people at the front lines asked us to start thinking about restarting football in our country.”

There are, of course, differing levels of normality and the new season will be subject to safeguards that underline Ukraine remains a country very much embroiled in a defensive war.

The warning issued by US authorities was based on concerns that Russia could launch indiscriminate attacks on Independence Day. Similar concerns about presenting the invading forces with targets means that games will be played behind closed doors. There are also protocols in place for players in case of air raids or artillery and missile strikes and every stadium much have a bomb shelter installed. While players in other European leagues take hydration breaks during one of the hottest summers on continental records, players in Ukraine must be ready to take shelter every time an air raid siren sounds during the 90 minutes.

Two sides that were in the top flight last season will not return: FC Mariupol have ceased to exist in the aftermath of the Russian siege of the city, which remains under the control of the invading forces, and FC Desna Chernihiv, whose stadium was destroyed during the successful defence of the city by Ukrainian forces.

Shakhtar and Dynamo Kiev adjust to lack of foreign stars

With the war still raging in eastern and southern Ukraine, matches will be staged in Kyiv and western regions. Those clubs forced to relocate will be designated temporary home stadiums. This is nothing especially new for some sides, including Ukraine’s richest club, Shakhtar Donetsk, who have played in Lviv, Kharkiv and Kyiv since Kremlin-backed separatists began operations in the Donbas region in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. Those clubs in European competition this season have played their preliminary stages fixtures in Poland, Slovakia and Sweden and Shakhtar will play their home Champions League games in Warsaw.

There will also be changes among the teams themselves after the vast majority of foreign players took advantage of a FIFA transfer extension to find clubs elsewhere. Shakhtar, for example, have become famous for a maintaining a core of expensively assembled Brazilian talent. This season, the first-team squad contains just three foreign players. Reigning champions Dynamo Kyiv, who hold the record for the most top-flight titles, have just one, Poland international Tomasz Kedziora.

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A genuine Ukrainian Premier League

All of Ukraine’s clubs will rely on homegrown talent, academy players and veterans this season. In an era when European clubs regularly field teams with two or three homegrown players representing them, the fact that the Ukrainian Premier League will be contested by sides almost exclusively consisting of Ukrainian players is another act of defiance, a timely reminder that historically, football in its purest form has always managed to rise from the ashes and provide a sense of unity under the darkest of circumstances. As Pavelko told ABC: “This will be a unique competition: It will happen during a war, during military aggression, during bombardments.”