Ukrainian Premier League to restart: “An act of bravery, but I’m worried”

A crater from an artillery or missile attack in the middle of the path of Desna
Desna Chernihiv was seventh in the table when last season was cancelled

– My heart aches when I think of Kharkiv, says goalkeeper Denys Sydorenko. “A missile hit our training ground – there is nothing left of where we used to play.”

On February 22, Sydorenko’s team, Metalist 1925 Kharkiv, took part in a regular training session during the Ukrainian Premier League’s winter break. Two days later everything stopped. Russia had invaded.

Now, six months into the war, Ukraine is preparing to resume its domestic football competitions – despite the constant danger posed by the ongoing conflict.

The decision to cancel the rest of the 2021-22 football season was finally made in April. Shakhtar Donetsk led by two points with just over half the games played.

In July, it was announced that the new campaign would begin on August 23 – Ukraine’s National Flag Day – by order of President Volodymyr Zelensky.

– Starting football again is a big step for the country, says Andriy Pavelko, head of the Ukrainian Football Association.

“It is a sign to the world that Ukraine can and will win. It is also a sign to society that we are safe.”

Since Russia’s invasion, many teams have moved to cities such as Lviv in the west of the country – considered safer than other regions that have been more heavily targeted. Dynamo Kyiv is among those planning to play in the capital or its surroundings.

Sydorenko’s team has been training in Uzhhorod, on the border with Slovakia, about 1,300 km from the city they call home. Parts of Kharkiv have been totally destroyed by the war, with residents comparing it to Chernobyl.

– When the players met again, we talked about everything – where everyone was when the war started, what they were doing, says Sydorenko (33), who fled to western Ukraine in February with his girlfriend. They married soon after.

“Now we work hard in training. We want to make our fans happy and win every game.”

Ukrainian FA president Pavelko says discussions are continuing with the Ministry of Defense on how best to hold matches this season. At the moment it is expected that spectators will not be able to participate. Approved stadiums will be equipped with air raid sirens and bomb bays.

“It’s good that all leagues will play. This will lift everyone’s spirits,” he says.

Anna Myronchuk, who plays for Dynamo Kyiv’s women’s side, says her team is excited by the prospect of football’s return. She says it helps to take their minds off the war – if only for a while.

“For every player, it’s a great joy to get back on the pitch, to play, to score a goal, to win,” she says.

“But then we get back to our phones, watch the news and see what’s happened.”

Desna's shell-damaged football stadium
Two of the teams that played in the canceled campaign last season will be unable to compete in 2022-23

After Russia’s invasion, a number of Myronchuk’s teammates were forced to live in a bunker for two weeks.

“Nobody knew what would happen with football,” says Dynamo women’s coach Volodymyr Petrenko.

“But our director didn’t leave us, he paid us our salary. We had lessons on Zoom and gave the players individual tasks. We had a yoga teacher, but of course training alone is not the same.”

In the months that followed, Dynamo’s men’s team – plus Shakhtar and the national side – played a series of friendlies outside the country to raise aid money in a “Global Tour for Peace”.

“During the first games, some of us cried after the national anthem,” says Shakhtar goalkeeper Anatoily Trubin, who has played twice for Ukraine.

“Shakhtar raised me. I’m always happy when I put on the Shakhtar shirt.”

Shakhtar have already spent eight years in exile due to conflict, having been forced to leave the eastern city of Donetsk when fighting broke out with pro-Russian separatists in 2014. Donetsk is now on the frontline of the war with Russia.

Since they were leading the league table when last season was called off, Shakhtar have already earned a place in the group stage of this year’s Champions League, with Dynamo hoping to join them, while SC Dnipro-1 have a chance to reach the Europa League.

Uefa demands that the Ukrainian teams’ home games in European competition be held outside the country – Dynamo will play the first leg of the qualifying game against Benfica in Poland on Wednesday.

But while some teams are already back at the bottom of it, two of last year’s top clubs are unlikely to return any time soon.

Desna Chernihiv was seventh in the table when Russia invaded in February. A city in northern Ukraine near the border with Belarus, Chernihiv had by March been completely encircled by Russian troops.

The city was besieged night and day, with tens of thousands of people trapped. Some described civilian buildings and residential areas as being consciously targeted.

Desna’s home ground – formerly known as Yuri Gagarin Stadium after the famous Soviet cosmonaut – was badly damaged. Members of the coaching staff took up arms and joined the city’s defense, while the club helped raise funds for thermal imaging equipment and drones. The Russians withdrew in early April, but there is much work to be done to rebuild.

Oleksandr Drambayev was playing for Mariupol FC when the invasion occurred. The city was left in ruins after almost three months of relentless attacks and is now in Russian hands.

“Mariupol FC does not exist now,” says the 21-year-old defender, who was on loan from Shakhtar.

Drambayev was abroad when Russian tanks first rolled across the border in February. Just 15 minutes before boarding a plane back to Ukraine, he was told his country had been invaded.

Other teammates began sending messages saying missiles had hit buildings near their homes. Reality hit. He didn’t want to go back. He was told to find a new team and is now on loan at Belgian side Zulte Waregem. But he still thinks fondly of his former club.

“I miss Mariupol with all my heart,” he says.

“I had fallen in love with the city. We had a beautiful pitch, it was recently finished with new grass. I brought my Mariupol shirt here and wore it.

“It is an act of bravery to restart football in Ukraine. I am happy about it, but at the same time I am very worried.”

Additional reporting by Svitlana Libet

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