Threatened by Russian attacks in a war that brought all football to a halt in Ukraine in February, the new league season kicks off in Kiev on Tuesday, aiming to restore some sense of normalcy.
The magnificent Olympic Stadium has hosted some of Europe’s biggest football matches over the past decade, although none were as spectacular as the opening day meeting between Shakhtar Donetsk and Metalist 1925 from Kharkiv – teams from eastern cities that fighting for its existence.
No fans will be allowed into the 65,000-capacity City Stadium starting at 1pm local time and players must be evacuated to bomb shelters if air raid sirens sound.
“We have rules in case of an alarm and we have to stay underground,” Shakhtar captain Taras Stepanenko said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press 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 the life of Ukraine and the will to win.”
The Ukrainian Premier League has returned with the blessing of the country’s leaders and in a week with meaning.
Tuesday is Ukraine’s National Flag Day and Wednesday – August 24 – marks the independence from Moscow’s control that the former Soviet republic declared in 1991.
“I talked to our president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, about how important football is,” Andriy Pavlko, president of the Ukrainian Football Federation, told the AP in June about the restart pledge. “We talked about it. How can football help us think about the future?”
No competitive football has been played in Ukraine since mid-December when the league was suspended for a mid-winter break. The games will resume on February 25, until the Russian military invasion began the day before.
The 16-team league resumes without Desna Chernihiv and Mariupol, teams from cities that have suffered wild losses.
All games will be played in Kiev and further west and will be shown at home, abroad and on YouTube in a deal with broadcaster Citadel that was agreed last week. A total of $16.2 million over three years is less than some of the English Premier League’s best players will earn this season.
The concept of home field advantage may be gone for many teams though simply playing on Ukrainian soil – the other games on Tuesday in Kyiv, Uzhhorod and Kovalivka – is worth noting.
In recent weeks, Ukrainian clubs have completed their matches in UEFA European competitions played in neighboring Poland and Slovakia or Sweden, to ensure the safety of opponents such as Benfica and Fenerbahce.
Shakhtar, who were top of the domestic standings when they were officially relegated last season, will host rivals Legia Warsaw when the Champions League group stage kicks off on September 6. Groups are formed on Thursdays.
Just 10 months ago, Stepanenko and Shakhtar faced eventual title winners Real Madrid in a Champions League match at the Olympic Stadium – the same ground where the Spanish side won the final in 2018.
Last season, Shakhtar was able to recruit the core of Brazilian players he became famous for, funded by billionaire businessman Renat Akhmatov, who also owns the Azostal steel mill in Mariupol.
Those star players have now departed Ukraine and Shakhtar will rely heavily on young, home-grown talent, starting against Dnipro-1 on Sunday, just like traditional rivals Dynamo Kyiv.
“Of course, this is a new team,” Stepanenko admitted, adding: “We feel confident because we are playing for our country and people.”