Ukraine football season kicks off but there is more to it

The 2022-23 Ukrainian Premier League (UPL) season will begin in Kyiv with a match between Shakhtar and FC Metalist 1925 Kharkiv.

The games will be held behind closed doors and with heavy security, mostly in Kyiv and the west of the country, far from the front lines.

Officials have warned that Russia may intensify its attacks across Ukraine this week, as the country marks the six-month anniversary of the war and Independence Day on Wednesday.

Taras Stepanenko has played more than 200 times for the Ukrainian football club Shakhtar Donetsk, but Tuesday’s match will be the first that could be interrupted by air raids.

Stepanenko says the players are defiant.

“I think sport can help Ukraine tell our story to the world, and in Ukraine we can make people feel good,” he said. “For us now it’s very important.”

Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, two days before the UPL was scheduled to return from its winter break in 2021-22.

In February, as missiles fell on the capital, Stepanenko and his family took refuge in the basement of their home. His wife and three children have fled Ukraine in the early days of the war and are now in Spain.

Some Ukrainian players and coaches enlisted in the military or territorial defence forces, while clubs focused on humanitarian work and fundraising to help the war effort.

Some clubs relocated to the safer west of the country, while some of the country’s largest clubs left in the early days of the war to play fundraising friendlies or European qualifiers.

The resumption of the league was repeatedly postponed as the war unfolded and was officially cancelled in May without the title being awarded.

By June, the clubs had agreed that the new season had to begin, and while the possibility of holding games in Turkey or Poland was discussed, it was decided that all games would be held in Ukraine.

Lower-tier competitions in Ukrainian football, as well as the women’s league and youth competitions, are set to resume.

“I think the most important bit about it is showing continuity, survival, and defiance while Ukraine is at war with Russia,” said Andrew Todos, a journalist who runs Zorya Londonsk, an online platform about Ukrainian football.

“And I think that the fact they want to try and play it in Ukraine is another symbol that Ukraine can cope.”

Todos said the resumption of football and start of the new season were also vital for the survival of the clubs and the development of Ukrainian footballing talent.

“If football did not resume for an unspecified amount of time, it would have created a problem for the next generation of talent, there would have been a talent drain – which we’ve seen already, with a lot of youngsters moving abroad, going to different academies across Europe,” he said.

Sixteen teams will compete in the 2022-23 UPL season while two teams have been forced to withdraw: Desna Chernihiv, whose stadium was badly damaged by Russian attacks, and FC Mariupol, in the now Russian-occupied port city that has been devastated by some of the heaviest fighting of the war.