Ukraine kicks off its football league season in empty stadium for first time since Russian invasion (photos)


Ukraine kicks off its football league season in empty stadium for first time since Russian invasion (photos)

Ukraine has kick-started its football league’s season, with a ceremony paying tribute to those killed in the war and the soldiers who remain on the frontline.

The opening-day game between Shakhtar Donetsk and Metalist 1925 from Kharkiv marked the first top-level football match played in the country since Russia’s invasion in February.

Kyiv’s Olympic Stadium has staged some of the biggest games in European football but never in an empty stadium and Tuesday’s match featured two teams from the war-torn east of the country – one from Donetsk and one from Kharkiv.

The teams, playing hundreds of miles away from their hometowns, came to a 0-0 draw.

The decision to restart the league – on Ukraine’s 31st Independence Day has been hailed as a defiant sign that Ukrainians are ready to restore some sense of normal life even though a contingency plan was put in place to rush players to bomb shelters should air-raid sirens ring out.

Spectators were not allowed in to watch the game at the 65,500-seat stadium because the country remains under martial law.

Players from both teams entered the field with their country’s national flag draped over their shoulders before observing a minute of silence while the names of Ukrainian cities where people have died in the war were displayed on a large screen.

Police stood guard in front of the turnstiles, where weeds have grown after stadiums were closed six months ago, but no fans showed up to the arena.

Shakhtar coach Igor Jovicevic said before the opening game that the match will “show the world that life in Ukraine does not stop”.

“Football is something that can move the emotions of the whole country and the people who fight for all of us,” he said.

“So football is essential for us individually, as a team – not only for Shakhtar – but also for the entire Ukrainian Premier League.

“It helps to continue living and shows the world that football goes on.”

Tuesday is Ukraine’s national flag day and Wednesday – August 24 – is the celebration of independence from control by Moscow the former Soviet Union republic declared in 1991.

Large public gatherings have been banned in the capital ahead of the Independence Day holiday due to fears of potential Russian bombardment.

“I spoke with our president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, about how important football is to distract,” Ukraine soccer federation president Andriy Pavelko said in June about the commitment to restart.

“We spoke about how it would be possible that football could help us to think about the future.”

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