Ukrainian Premier League set to start amid ongoing war with Russia

Under the threat of Russian attacks in a war that halted all football in Ukraine in February, a new league season kicks off in Kyiv on Tuesday in a bid to restore some sense of normal life.

The elegant Olympic Stadium has hosted the biggest European football matches of the past decade, but none are as poignant as the opening encounter of Shakhtar Donetsk and Metalist 1925 Kharkiv – teams from eastern cities that fight for their very existence.

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No fans will be allowed in the 65,000-capacity City Center Stadium for the 1 p.m. local time kick-off, and players must be rushed to bomb shelters if the sirens aerial sound.

“We have rules in case of an alarm and we should go underground,” Shakhtar captain Taras Stepanenko said in a phone interview on Monday. “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 the whole world Ukrainian life and will to win.”

The Ukrainian Premier League returns with the blessing of the country’s leaders and in a meaningful week.

Tuesday is Ukraine’s National Flag Day and Wednesday, August 24 is the celebration of independence from Moscow’s control which the former republic of the Soviet Union declared in 1991.

“I spoke with our president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, about the importance of football as a distraction,” Ukraine FA president Andriy Pavelko said in June of the restart commitment. “We talked about how it would be possible for football to help us think about the future.”

No competitive matches have been played in Ukraine since mid-December, when the league halted for a scheduled mid-winter break. Games were scheduled to resume on February 25, until the Russian military invasion began a day earlier. The season was canceled soon after the invasion.

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

All matches will be played in and around Kyiv and further west and will be shown domestically, abroad and on YouTube under a deal with broadcaster Setanta struck last week. The total value of $16.2 million over three years is less than some elite English Premier League players will earn this season.

The concept of home advantage has perhaps been embraced by most teams, although just playing on Ukrainian soil – Tuesday’s other matches are in Kyiv, Uzhhorod and Kovalivka – is remarkable.

Ukrainian clubs that have played their matches in UEFA European competitions in recent weeks have played in neighboring Poland and Slovakia, or Sweden, to provide security for opponents such as Benfica and Fenerbahçe.

Shakhtar, who topped the domestic table when last season was officially scrapped, will host their opponents at the Legia Warsaw stadium when the Champions League group stage begins on September 6. Groups will be drawn on Thursday.

Just 10 months ago, Stepanenko and Shakhtar faced eventual title winners Real Madrid in a Champions League game at the Olympic Stadium – the same ground where the famed Spanish side won the final in 2018.

Last season, Shakhtar could field the core of Brazilian players for which they became famous, funded by billionaire businessman Rinat Akhmetov, who also owns the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol.

Those star players have now left Ukraine and Shakhtar will rely more on young local talent, much like traditional rivals Dynamo Kyiv, who start against Dnipro-1 on Sunday.

“Of course, it’s a new team,” acknowledged Stepanenko. “We are confident because we are playing for our country and for our people.”

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