Football restarts in Ukraine: Bomb shelters, soldiers & an empty stadium

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Shakhtar Donestsk players, as well their opposition Metalist Kharkiv, lined up in the Ukraine flag
In an empty Olympic Stadium, with bomb shelters prepared and Russia’s threat still looming, top-flight football returned to Ukraine on Tuesday.

Shakhtar Donetsk and Metalist Kharkiv drew 0-0 as the Ukraine Premier League restarted six months after it stopped.

Initially matches will only be played in Kiev, its outskirts and two western provinces near the border.

President Volodymyr Zelensky encouraged the return of top-flight football as a morale-boosting show of defiance.

Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, a day before the second half of the 2021-22 season was scheduled to begin.

That season was eventually cancelled as the death toll rose on both sides of the conflict.

Shakhtar have since played friendlies around the world in an attempt to campaign for peace.

LISTEN: Ukraine Premier League prepares to resume – World Football podcast
READ: ‘An act of bravery’ – football returns amid invasion
Shakhtar Donetsk and Metalist Kharkiv
Shakhtar (in orange) had led the Ukraine Premier League’s 2021-22 season before it was cancelled because of the Russian invasion
However their draw against Metalist marked the first day of the domestic 2022-23 season and coincided with Ukraine’s Day of the National Flag.

The possibility of Russia intensifying its attacks has also been raised by a car bombing that killed the daughter of a key ultra-nationalist political figure on the outskirts of Moscow.

The symbolism of the match in Kyiv was clear well before kick-off.

Shakhtar and Metalist’s players, along with the match officials, came out of the tunnel draped in Ukraine flags before lining up to hear an address from President Zelensky on the stadium’s big screen.

A Ukrainian soldier ceremonially kicked off the match and some players were in tears before the action got fully underway.

Military officials, as will be the case at every game in the new season, were in attendance ready to evacuate players and officials to shelters if air-raid sirens were heard.

In fact, the match passed off uninterrupted, with Shakhtar dominating for the most part.

Midfielder Mykhailo Mudryk hit the crossbar for the 13-time champions, but they were also thankful for a superb first-half save from goalkeeper Anatoliy Trubin to keep them from falling beyond.

Following the game, Shakhtar captain Taras Stepanenko said: “For 90 minutes, I turned off and just enjoyed playing football, very good emotions, very warm emotions, and I feel proud because of that.

“I have waited for this day since the day we started preparation for the championship and I was a little bit nervous.

“But when I heard our anthem, when I saw my team-mates, the opponents, I was proud of my country and I was happy that we started our championship because it’s important for our country and for our people.

“We already have had a war for six months and I don’t know, maybe tomorrow it will stop, but maybe it could be one year. I don’t know.

“But I pray every day and I hope that my country and our people will win this war and our families come back to our homes. It’s very important, it’s my dream and I pray for this every day.”

Players line up before kick-off before Shakhtar Donetsk against Metalist Kharkiv
The players stood for the national anthem and a video address from president Volodymyr Zelensky before the match
Many of Shakhtar’s overseas players have moved away after rules were relaxed over transfers out of Ukraine. However, others, such as Burkina Faso striker Lassina Traore, have stayed.

Brazilian defender Lucas Taylor has even headed the other way, taking his place in the starting line-up after signing on loan from Greek club Paok on Monday.

Kyiv’s Olympic Stadium, which hosted the Euro 2012 final, displayed a large banner in support of Ukraine’s United 24 fundraising drive, with the players warming up in T-shirts dedicated to a new ‘Pitch In For Ukraine’ campaign aimed at sports fans around the world.

The 16-team league will restart without Desna Chernihiv and Mariupol FC.

Chernihiv, close to the border with Belarus, has been badly damaged after a siege lasting nearly six weeks, while Mariupol lies in ruins and Russian hands.

“We are living for this moment,” Shakhtar football director and former Croatia right-back Darijo Srna told BBC’s World Football podcast.

“These people deserve to be happy. They are not bad, they are not jealous, they don’t want nothing that is not theirs. They’re just fighting for themselves, for their children and for their land.”

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