Football returns to Ukraine 6 months after Russian invasion
With two teams playing in an empty stadium hundreds of miles from their hometown, Ukraine’s soccer league kicked off its new season on Tuesday after a poignant ceremony honoring those who fought in the war with Russia.
The opening match at Kyiv’s 65,500-seat Olympic Stadium – where spectators were not allowed – saw two war-torn teams from the east of the country, Shakhtar Donetsk and Metalist 1925, play out a 0 -0. The result, however, was always going to be an afterthought.
It was the first top-flight football match played in the country since the Russian invasion in February, and the decision to restart the league was hailed as a defiant sign that Ukrainians are ready to regain some sense of normal life. Although this game is far from normal.
Ukraine remains under martial law and large public gatherings have been banned in the capital ahead of the Independence Day holiday on Wednesday due to fears of a potential Russian bombardment.
Police stood guard outside the turnstiles, where weeds grew after stadiums closed six months ago, but no fans showed up in the arena. Three more league matches were scheduled for later on Tuesday.
“It’s a job…to show the world that life in Ukraine doesn’t stop but goes on,” Shakhtar coach Igor Jovicevic said ahead of the opening game. “Football is something that can move the whole country and the people who fight for all of us. Football is therefore essential for us individually, as a team, not only for Shakhtar but also for the entire Ukrainian Premier League. It helps to keep going and shows the world that football goes on.
Players from both teams entered the pitch with blue and yellow Ukrainian national flags draped over their shoulders and observed a minute’s silence as the names of Ukrainian towns where people had died during the war were displayed on a large screen .
The players hoisted a Ukrainian flag in the stadium that once belonged to Danylo Myhal, a Canadian of Ukrainian descent. At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Myhal ran onto the field carrying the flag during a game between the Soviet Union and East Germany. Dressed in an embroidered shirt, he danced a Ukrainian folk dance before being detained.
“(Myhal) always dreamed of bringing his flag to Ukraine and today it finally happened,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a televised address before kick-off. “It is lifted today at the opening of the Ukrainian football championship.”