A season full of hope: Ukraine prepare for a remarkable return to league football | Soccer

FFive months ago, Ukrainian footballers could not afford to reflect on their sport. The horrors inflicted by the invading Russian forces left no one unscathed and staying alive, while ensuring the same for their loved ones, was all that mattered.

Many players have left their clubs for the west of the country, settling in relatively quiet places; some sheltered underground with their families and, in a number of cases, teammates, for days on end. For those who could envision their professional future, the idea of ​​a quick return to competition was unimaginative and generally even less appealing.

Wherever and whoever you are in Ukraine, these fundamental principles of security and protection of the country will continue to take precedence over everything else. But on August 23, unless there is a marked deterioration in the current security situation, something remarkable will happen. Whistles will sound in Kyiv, Lviv, Uzhhorod and perhaps Ternopil or Rivne; they will signify the start of a new football season in an act of defiance, cultural preservation and societal reconstruction that seemed unthinkable.

Last Monday, representatives from the Ukrainian FA, government ministries and the state emergency service met in Kyiv to discuss the protocols which, once signed, should allow the league to begin. “Organizing football competitions during the war is not just about sport,” said Andriy Pavelko, president of the football association. “It’s about demonstrating our people’s fearlessness, indomitable spirit and desire for inevitable victory. This is a unique initiative in the history of the world: football against war in conditions of war, football for peace.

A poster depicting Ukrainian national team players reads “We are stronger together” at a Kyiv metro station that doubles as a bomb shelter. Photography: Future Publishing/Getty Images

The order of play for the top flight has yet to be approved and, given the uncertainty on the pitch, may not be clear before kick-off. But the intention is for the usual 16-team format, with 10 teams intending to play home games in the Kyiv region and the rest further west. The matches will be played behind closed doors amid a heavy military presence. Among the questions to be resolved is the viability of continuing the game after the interruption by the anti-aircraft sirens, a state of affairs that seems inevitable. The second tier is expected to resume as well.

Early suggestions that the league would be played, at least in part, in Poland or some other neighboring country appear to have been brushed aside; it was thought to be the initial preference of several top clubs, who started European campaigns outside Ukraine. Among those who vehemently opposed the idea were Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s fiercely patriotic hometown club Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih, who pointed to the “powerful and positive informational effect” of playing at national level and asked how Premier League teams could look the country’s soldiers and volunteers in the eye if they left to compete overseas.

Feelings lean towards the positive but are nonetheless mixed. Footballers and coaches who spoke to the Guardian were unanimous in relishing a comeback, but the backdrop of danger is inescapable. “Everyone wants to play: it’s what we love, it’s our life,” said a player from a top six club. “But when the emotions subside and the mind turns to you, you realize it’s not safe and no one gives guarantees because there aren’t any except to play outside. Ukraine. Then it becomes difficult to know how to relate to the situation.

A crater at the entrance to a destroyed stadium in Ukraine.
A crater at the entrance to the destroyed Desna Chernihiv stadium. Photography: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

For some clubs, wartime staff turnover means that building a competitive squad will be a feat. But, in another sign, the tide is starting to turn, with some league outsiders trickling back. “An important step for all of Ukraine”, is how Yuriy Vernydub – the manager of Kryvbas, who coached Transnistrian team Sheriff Tiraspol in the Champions League last season before leaving to fight in the Ukrainian army – spoke about Croatian defender Dragan Lovric’s decision to rejoin the club. England winger Viv Solomon-Otabor, formerly of Birmingham and Wigan, is also back at Rukh Lviv for the season.

This is despite Fifa’s decision that foreign players can suspend their contracts with Ukrainian clubs until June 30, 2023, meaning they have the right to play elsewhere without being sold. Shakhtar Donetsk, whose squad is crammed with Brazilians, is seeking 50 million euros in damages to reflect potential loss of sales revenue and has submitted documents to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

There is an overwhelming sense of relief, however, that most clubs have survived. Of last season’s Premier League teams, only Desna Chernihiv and FC Mariupol will not compete; both have seen their local infrastructure ravaged and intend to return in times of peace. Others are relieved to be back in business and feel like they’ve been trickled down.

“We can’t afford to lose even a year, it will cause so much damage to Ukrainian football,” Veres Rivne chief executive Anton Nazaruk told The Guardian. “One year now equals 10 years of development. Our task is to unite our people in these difficult times and also to keep the sport alive. Life goes on: we want peace and we play for peace.

Friendly matches have been played across the country this month, with the obvious exception of areas close to active conflict, without any serious hitches. Each club will have their own story to tell in the upcoming campaign: it could be Metalist Kharkiv, who moved from their threatened hometown to the village of Shchaslyve just outside the capital; or there is the example of second-tier club Obolon Kyiv, who recently made an emotional return to their base in Bucha, where some of the most horrific atrocities known to have been perpetrated by the Russians took place, having suffered several rounds of mine clearance.

The best-laid plans could change in a second, but a visible demonstration of the transcendent power of football could be just weeks away. “Everyone has a great desire to show that we are alive and that we will achieve all the goals we set for ourselves,” Metalist executive director Andriy Nedelin said recently. “Everyone’s eyes are burning to go out on the pitch and show ordinary fans, ordinary Ukrainians, that everything in our country will only get better every day.”

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