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26th Sep 2022

Feature

Defying Russian bombs, Ukraine football starts 2022 season

  • FC Shakhtar Donetsk (orange and black) playing Sevilla FC in Spain in 2016 (Photo: Aleksandr Osipov)
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Despite the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Premier League (UPL) is preparing for a new football season.

Given that martial law remains in place, matches will be held without fans, and stadiums will be equipped with shelters for any air-raid alerts.

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Frankly speaking, there is no part of the country that is safe from random Russian strikes.

Despite Russian attacks that are flattening Ukrainian cities and towns, sport remains one of the few universal medicines that can take people's minds off the war and give a glimmer of hope and joy, and the UPL is hoping to do just that, with the 2022-23 season, beginning 23 August.

Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, then further invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, and Ukrainian football was immediately put aside.

At the start of the last invasion, Shakhtar Donetsk were top of the table, two points ahead of Dynamo Kyiv. The season, however, was cut short.

Ukraine's footballing infrastructure has not been spared in the war and much of it has been severely damaged.

Many Ukrainian clubs will also be unable to compete in the upcoming season.

Other Ukrainian teams will be able to compete in Europe's prestigious continental competitions, but they will only play these matches outside of Ukraine.

Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv will compete in the Champions League, while FC Dnipro-1 will enter the Europa League play-off round, and Zorya Luhansk and Vorskla Poltava will compete in the Europa Conference League.

Vadym Gutsait, Ukraine's sports minister, stated that: "It is very important to restore big football, like other national championships, in Ukraine. We continue to compete and cheer. We continue to fight and win. Despite everything, Ukrainian sports and the will to win on all fronts cannot be stopped. We stand firmly on the sports front."

Andriy Pavelko, the president of Ukraine's football federation, added: "We spoke about how football has a very big power to help people think about the future because now people, of course, are not in a good mindset."

"They're in the worst mood. We spoke about how it would be possible that football could help us to think about the future," he said.

In this upcoming season, Shakhtar Donetsk will play in the UEFA Champions League, in their fifth different home stadium since 2014 due to Russia's war.

Clubs like Shakhtar Donetsk and Zorya Luhansk have been homeless since 2014 due to Russia's invasion of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

Shakhtar chief executive Sergei Palkin stated that every day they live in survival mode and, every day, it only gets harder

- the war has led to a massive exodus of foreign players, draining Ukraine's football clubs of top talent.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian football is a victim of greedy football agents who have been attempting to exploit the war in Ukraine for profit, according to Palkin.

The agents attempt to convince other clubs that all foreign players in Ukraine will become free agents and will eventually leave once their contracts run out.

Palkin, in an interview with The Athletic, said: "Some agents are destroying us. They are trying to steal players. They play games, contacting clubs, saying don't pay us and deals are being broken. You cannot imagine what is going on."

Shakhtar's director of football, Darijo Srna, remains defiant and said: "We will be a team of hungry Ukrainian players."

"Now is the time to survive, to be like a family and to make something nice for our people — we will not disappoint our fans or Ukraine, everything we are doing, we are doing for them," he added.

Talent drain

After losing many of their top foreign players, Shakhtar Donetsk also lost their Italian coach Roberto De Zerbi.

Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), football's world governing body, wanted to make it easy for foreign players to leave teams in Ukraine outside of the regular transfer window due to the war, by introducing temporary regulations that would allow the players to transfer elsewhere.

Apart from agents trying to tear apart Ukrainian clubs, FIFA previously allowed for foreign players and coaches based in Ukraine to suspend their contracts and move to others clubs until June 2023.

This will only further bleed out Ukrainian clubs and they will suffer extensive financial setbacks from the FIFA ruling, harming the positioning of Ukrainian football.

And this soft destabilisation in the field of popular culture just plays into Russia's plan to disrupt every aspect of normal life and demoralise Ukrainians into giving up.

Since 7 April, Ukraine's two biggest clubs — Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk — continue to partake in the "Global Tour for Peace", which is an ongoing European tour of international club friendlies, as the Ukrainian football league had to be suspended due to the 2022 Russian invasion.

The goal of this tour is to raise money for the Ukrainian refugees and also to try to help teams with match fitness and to help the players stay in shape.

With the upcoming season, in the most unprecedented of events in the world of football, Ukrainian football players will, in an act of defiance, take to the field once again.

They will give hope to a people shattered by death, destruction, and war, offering an escape from reality even for a brief moment to cheer on their football clubs.

They will show that no matter what Russia does, the Ukrainian people will rise above their circumstances and lift the spirit of the country.

Author bio

David Kirichenko is a freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe and an editor at Euromaidan Press.

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