Ukrainian Premier League to start again: ‘An act of courage, but I’m worried’

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An artillery or missile strike crater in the middle of Desna's field
Desna Chernihiv was seventh in the ranking when last season was canceled

“My heart aches when I think about Kharkov,” said goalkeeper Denys Sydorenko. “A rocket hit our training ground – there’s nothing left of where we used to play.”

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

Now, six months after 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 2021-2022 football season was finally taken in April. Shakhtar Donetsk led with a two-point lead in just over half of the games played.

In July, news came that the new campaign would continue from August 23 – Ukraine’s National Flag Day – following an order from President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“Restarting football is a big step for the country,” said Andriy Pavelko, head of the Football Federation of Ukraine.

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

Since the invasion of Russia, many teams have moved to cities such as Lviv in the west of the country – which are considered safer than other regions that have been hit harder. Dynamo Kiev is among those who plan to play in the capital or the surrounding area.

Sydorenko’s team trained in Uzhhorod, on the border with Slovakia, about 1,300 km from the city they call home. Parts of Kharkov have been totally destroyed by the war, with inhabitants compare to Chernobyl.

“When the players met again, we talked about everything – where everyone was when the war started, what they were doing,” said Sydorenko, 33, who fled to western Ukraine with his girlfriend in February. They married shortly afterwards.

“Now we are working hard on training. We want to make our fans happy and win every game.”

Ukraine’s FA president Pavelko says talks with the defense ministry are continuing on the best way to host matches this season. For the time being, spectators are not expected to be able to attend. Approved stadiums will be equipped with air raid sirens and air raid shelters.

“It’s good that all competitions are playing. This will cheer everyone up,” he says.

Anna Myronchuk, who plays for Dynamo Kyiv women’s team, says her team is elated at the prospect of football’s return. She says it helps take their minds off the war, if only for a moment.

“It’s a great pleasure for any player to get back on the pitch, play, score a goal and win,” she says.

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

Desna's grenade-damaged football stadium
Two of the teams that played in the canceled campaign last season will not be able to compete in 2022-23

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shakhtar has already spent eight years in conflict exile after he was 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.

As they topped the rankings when last season was canceled, Shakhtar has already earned a place in this year’s Champions League group stage, with Dynamo hoping to join them, while SC Dnipro-1 has a shot at the Europa League. to achieve.

UEFA requires the home games of Ukrainian teams in European competition to be held outside the country – Dynamo will play the first leg of their qualifying play-off against Benfica in Poland on Wednesday.

But while some teams are already in the middle of it, two of last year’s top clubs are unlikely to return anytime soon.

Desna Chernihiv was seventh in the ranking when Russia invaded in February. Chernihiv, a city in northern Ukraine close to the border with Belarus, was completed in March, surrounded by Russian troops.

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

Desna’s home ground – formerly known as Yuri Gagarin Stadium after the famous Soviet cosmonaut – was badly damaged. Members of the coaching team took up arms and joined the defense of the city, while the club helped raise money for thermal imaging equipment and drones. The Russians withdrew at the beginning of April, but there is still a lot of work to be done for the reconstruction.

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

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

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

Other teammates began sending messages that missiles had hit buildings near their homes. Reality hit. He wouldn’t go back. He was told that he had to find a new team and is now loaned to the Belgian Zulte Waregem. But he still thinks fondly of his old club.

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

“I had fallen in love with the city. We had a beautiful field, it was only recently done with new grass. I brought my Mariupol shirt here and wear it.

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

Additional reporting by Svitlana Libet

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