'Life does not stop': Ukraine's football league kicks off for first time since Russian invasion

The behind-closed-doors match marks the first played since Russia invaded Ukraine six months ago. Credit: Shakhtar FC

Ukraine has kick-started its football league's season with a poignant 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 past decades' biggest European football games - but none have been as poignant as the opening-day meeting between the two teams from the war-torn east of the country.

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

But the result will be somewhat of an afterthought as 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.

A contingency plan was in place to rush players to bomb shelters should air-raid sirens ring out. Credit: Shakhtar FC

The game was still far from normal, however, as spectators were not allowed in to watch the game at the 65,500-seat stadium because the country remains under martial law.

Contingency plans were also in place to rush players to bomb shelters if the air-raid sirens were to sound out mid-match.

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.”

The teams drew 0-0. Credit: Shakhtar FC

Players raised a Ukrainian flag that belonged to Danylo Myhal, a Canadian of Ukrainian descent, who during the 1976 Montreal Olympics ran onto the field carrying the flag during a match between the Soviet Union and East Germany.

Wearing an embroidered shirt, he danced a Ukrainian folk dance before being detained.

“(Myhal) always dreamed of bringing his flag to Ukraine and today it’s finally happened," said President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a televised address before kickoff.

The Ukrainian Premier League returns with the blessing of the nation’s leaders and in a week heavy with meaning.

The poignant opening ceremony paid tribute to those fighting on the frontline. Credit: FC Shakhtar

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 Wednesday due to fears of potential Russian bombardment.

Three more league games were scheduled for later on Tuesday.

“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.”

No competitive football has been played in Ukraine since mid-December when the league paused for a scheduled midwinter break.

Games were due to resume on February 25, until the Russian military invasion started one day earlier. The 16-team league restarts without Desna Chernihiv and Mariupol, teams from cities that have suffered brutal destruction.

All games will be played in and around Kyiv and further west and will be shown domestically, abroad and on YouTube in a deal with broadcaster Setanta agreed last week.

The total value of £13.77 million over three years is less than some elite English Premier League players will earn this season.

Ukrainian clubs fulfilling their games in UEFA's European competitions in recent weeks played in neighbouring Poland and Slovakia, or Sweden, to ensure the safety of opponents like Benfica and Fenerbahçe.

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Shakhtar, which was top of the domestic standings when last season was formally abandoned, will host opponents at Legia Warsaw’s stadium when the Champions League group stage starts September 6. The groups are drawn on Thursday.

Just 10 months ago, Stepanenko and Shakhtar faced eventual title winner Real Madrid in a Champions League game at the Olympic Stadium - the same field where the storied Spanish team won the final in 2018.

Last season, Shakhtar could field the core of Brazilian players it became famous for, funded by billionaire businessman Rinat Akhmetov who also owns the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol.

Those star players have now left Ukraine and Shakhtar will rely more on young, homegrown talent, just like its traditional rival Dynamo Kyiv, which starts Sunday against Dnipro-1.

“Of course, it’s a new team,” Stepanenko acknowledged, adding: “We feel confident because we play for our country and for our people.”