Ukraine league finally defies Russian war to begin season

Soccer Football - Euro 2020 - Fans gather in Kyiv ahead of Ukraine v England - Kyiv, Ukraine - July 3, 2021.  [Reuters]

Under the threat of Russian attacks in a war that stopped all football in Ukraine in February, a new league season began Tuesday in Kyiv with the goal of restoring some sense of normal life.

The elegant Olympic Stadium has staged the biggest European football games in the past decade though none as poignant as the opening-day meeting of Shakhtar Donetsk and Metalist 1925 from Kharkiv — teams from eastern cities that are fighting for their very existence.

No fans were allowed in the 65,000-capacity downtown stadium.

“We have rules in case of an alarm and we should go to be underground,” Shakhtar captain Taras Stepanenko said. “But I think the teams, the players will be proud of this event.”

“We are ready, we are strong and I think we will show to all the world Ukrainian life and will to win,” the national-team veteran said.

The Ukrainian Premier League returns with the blessing of the nation’s leaders and in a week heavy with meaning.

Tuesday was Ukraine’s national flag day and today is the celebration of independence from control by Moscow that the former Soviet Union republic declared in 1991.

“I spoke with our president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, about how important football is to distract,” Ukraine football federation president Andriy Pavelko said in June about the commitment to restart. “We spoke about how it would be possible that football could help us to think about the future.”

No competitive football has been played in Ukraine since mid-December when the league paused for a scheduled midwinter break. Games were due to resume on February 25, until the Russian military invasion started one day earlier.

The 16-team league restarts without Desna Chernihiv and Mariupol, teams from cities that have suffered brutal destruction.

All games will be played in and around Kyiv and further west and will be shown domestically, abroad and on YouTube in a deal with broadcaster Setanta agreed last week.

The concept of home-field advantage may have gone for most teams though.

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