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With military in the stands, Ukrainian championship returns amid war

For the first time since Russia’s invasion of the country, the football stars Ukrainian will be in the field in the restart of the Ukrainian Premier League (UPL, for its acronym in English).

On Tuesday (23), Shakhtar Donetsk and Metalist 1925 Kharkiv started the new season with a 0-0 draw in Kiev, at the Olympic National Sports Complex, in the Ukrainian capital.

Although the stadium has a capacity of around 70,000 fans, none were present – ​​the league has taken security measures to protect its civilians from the ongoing attacks from Russia.

Playing without an audience is one of the many precautions implemented to try to keep players and staff as safe as possible. There are also bomb shelters and sirens that will warn of air strikes.

Forced to cancel last season’s championship on February 24 due to the Russian invasion, the return is a breath of normalcy for the cloistered Ukrainian population.

“This will be a unique competition: it will take place during a war, during the military onslaught, during bombings,” Andriy Pavelko, head of the Ukrainian Football Association, told Reuters.

Pavelko also explained that many on the front lines of the Ukrainian armed forces, including the country’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, were the main driving force behind the push for football’s return.

Ukrainian football journalist Andrew Todos attended the opening game in Kiev, describing the atmosphere as “surreal” and “more relaxed” than the games he has been to during the Covid-19 pandemic.

He also explained that as the season begins, winning is an idea “very much on people’s minds” at the moment.

“Mainly based on the fact that the reason for the return of the UPL and football in Ukraine in general is to show a sign of defiance and that Ukraine continues,” Todos told Amanda Davies of CNN Sport.

“Surviving everyday life and the things they set out to do so that people can enjoy and watch professional sports, just as people in Russia continue to do so because they don’t have the imminent threat of missiles and that sort of thing that they launch in Ukraine daily. Fortunately, in the stadium today, there were no air raid sirens, so the game really went on smoothly.”

Ukrainian football icon Andriy Shevchenko says the sport has an important role to play in uniting the people behind his country.

“It is very important for people, for the rest of the world. We can send the message that Ukraine is there,” Shevchenko told CNN Sport about the prospect of football’s return.

“Even if we are at war within the country, we will fight because we also want to live like normal countries, normal lives.”

players on the pitch hold a minute of silence on the pitch

Back to Game

In the absence of football in Ukraine, teams have played charity matches across Europe, although the selection stages for European competitions have started in recent weeks, in which Dynamo Kyiv, SC Dnipro-1, Zorya Luhansk and Vorskla Poltava have all participated.

The return of the Ukrainian Premier League comes a day before the six-month mark of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of the country. It also comes the day before Ukraine’s Independence Day, celebrated on Wednesday, although celebrations have been banned in the country’s capital, Kiev, and its second-largest city, Kharkiv.

When the players took to the field, the mood looked very different from previous years.

Pavelko told Reuters that every time an air raid siren sounds – a daily occurrence in some regions – the game will be stopped, and players and officials must enter the stadiums’ bomb shelters until everything is cleared.

Military officials will be in the stadiums during the game, and if an air raid warning continues for more than an hour, between them and the referees, the military will decide whether or not the game will be postponed.

Shakhtar midfielder Taras Stepanenko says he is a little worried about long breaks in games and possible muscle injuries as a result.

“It will be difficult to last more than an hour. Maybe they should build some (training) bikes for us,” Stepanenko said.

orange players walk across the field

At the start of the new season, games will be played in Kiev and neighboring regions, according to Pavelko.

The structure of the teams involved also had to be changed. Desna Chernihiv and FC Mariupol, two of last season’s Premier League teams, had to be replaced because their stadiums were destroyed by the war.

The invasion has also caused a dramatic change in the players taking to the field in the new season.

One of the most successful clubs in Ukrainian football, Shakhtar, has historically had a strong core of Brazilian players. However, after the invasion of Russia, many chose to leave the country, meaning the team is now more focused on young local talent.

And on the eve of the new season, new coach Igor Jovicevic said he had to rebuild quickly.

“For a long time, there was a Brazilian Shakhtar, a top team,” said Jovicevic. “But now we have to forget about that and prepare a new team as soon as possible.”

While football’s return to Ukraine is a boon for many, Pavelko lamented the war’s long-term implications for the country’s football prospects.

“It’s not just about losing stadiums. It is about a whole generation of footballers who will not be able to develop”.

Source: CNN Brasil

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