Ukrainian football remains an emblem of optimism amidst a backdrop of widespread loss, devastation, and conflict, affording a fleeting respite from the harsh realities of the ongoing war, David Kirichenko writes.
Imagine a European football club that has won the national league and the country's cup competition over a dozen times each and reached continental heights by winning the UEFA League in 2009.
Now imagine that same club having to endure almost a decade of war, being forced to leave its home stadium to play in a city 1,000 kilometres away from its fans, then relocate again to a place only somewhat closer than that.
Then try to picture an entire country experiencing a relentless war of aggression for nearly a year and a half, destroying towns, cities, and entire regions in its wake, displacing millions, and wreaking havoc on any semblance of normal life that existed before.
Yet, it was Shakhtar Donetsk that rose from the ashes once again to become Ukraine’s wartime champion as the club secured the first championship title following the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Its victory goes to show that despite the Russian forces' constant, brutal onslaught, the power of sport endures as a universal remedy, offering respite from the ravages of war and instilling a flicker of hope in the hearts of the people.
'We continue to fight and win'
When the full-scale war broke out, Shakhtar Donetsk held the top position in the 2021/22 season, leading Dynamo Kyiv by a margin of two points. However, the conflict abruptly halted their momentum.
Ukraine's football infrastructure fell victim to the war's devastation, suffering severe damage.
Highly-regarded Ukrainian clubs like FC Mariupol and Desna Chernihiv were compelled to withdraw from the Ukrainian Premier League.
On top of that, Ukrainian teams participating in Europe's renowned continental tournaments were forced to play their "home" matches outside the borders of Ukraine.
However, Ukraine was determined to continue playing sports even in wartime.
Vadym Gutsait, Ukraine's sports minister, said in 2022, "We continue to compete and cheer. We continue to fight and win. Despite everything, Ukrainian sports and the will to win on all fronts cannot be stopped. We stand firmly on the sports front."
In an effort to maintain a sense of normalcy in daily life, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy granted his blessing for football to resume in the country.
Playing home games on foreign soil and massive talent drain
Over the past year, a series of unique circumstances unfolded, leaving a distinct impact on both the playing field and beyond.
The Ukrainian national team showcased impressive talent, narrowly missing out on World Cup qualification. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Premier League faced a considerable challenge with a prolonged nine-month shutdown.
Adding to the complexity, Ukrainian teams had to adapt to compete in European competitions on foreign soil, like Poland.
The league experienced a significant talent drain due to the ongoing war, providing an opportunity for promising local players to step up and shine.
Notably, Shakhtar, once renowned for its Brazilian players like Alex Texeira and Willian, began fielding a team composed almost entirely of Ukrainians.
European competition prize money keeping the clubs afloat
Shakhtar Donetsk, like other Ukrainian clubs, faced the challenge of playing in the UEFA Champions League abroad. Due to Russia's war, they had to adapt to their fifth home stadium since 2014.
Despite the option to start the league season abroad, they chose to stay in Ukraine, considering it their moral obligation.
The UEFA prize money derived from European competitions has become crucial for struggling clubs in Ukraine, grappling with the repercussions of closed sponsors and a shrinking customer base during the war.
Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's wealthiest person and owner of Shakhtar Donetsk, has endured substantial personal losses.
Among them is Azovstal, his steel plant in Mariupol, which holds the distinction of being one of Europe's largest.
This plant became a symbol of bravery, endurance, and the unwavering spirit of the Ukrainian people as Ukrainian fighters defiantly withstood weeks of Russian bombardment before the city ultimately fell in May 2022.
Valiant performance under fire
In addition to reviving the league, Ukrainian teams have valiantly participated in European competitions this year.
Despite the challenging circumstances, two teams, Shakhtar and Dnipro, have performed admirably.
Notably, Shakhtar secured a spot in the round of 16 in the Europa League by triumphing over Rennes in a penalty shootout.
The players, due to the ongoing war restricting civilian flights in Ukrainian airspace, have been compelled to endure arduous ten-hour bus journeys across the border into Poland before and after European matches.
This perhaps puts the Ukrainian club’s performance into perspective.
Domestically, Dnipro-1 delivered an astonishing surprise with their fierce pursuit of the title, engaging in a gripping battle that unfolded until the penultimate game of the season.
However, the decisive match saw Shakhtar claim a commanding 3-0 victory, securing the coveted championship.
In a season filled with surprises, even Shakhtar's rivals, Dynamo Kyiv, unexpectedly finished in 4th place, failing to emerge as serious contenders for the title.
A reminder of what Ukrainians are fighting for
Notably, the last time a club other than Dynamo Kyiv or Shakhtar Donetsk triumphed in the league was in 1992 when Tavriya Simferopol made history as the inaugural champions of independent Ukraine.
Since then, both Dynamo and Shakhtar have held a steadfast grip on the league titles, forming an enduring oligopoly. Dnipro-1 came so close to breaking that oligopoly as shocking contenders but came short in the end.
Nonetheless, an engaging football season was of crucial importance to Ukrainian society as it provided entertainment and a sense of camaraderie.
Even for soldiers on the front line, who keep following national team matches on their phones or small TVs in the trenches, it served as a reminder of what they are fighting for – the freedom for people to live their lives with at least a taste of normalcy.
For Ukrainians, this year, football brought a ray of hope and became a shared experience that united people across the nation.
Football keeps spirits high, despite being a fleeting respite
Yet, the war is an ever-present theme that has permeated Ukrainian football.
Matches often begin with a moment of silence to honour those who have fallen. At times, games are temporarily paused due to air raid alarms.
Shakhtar Donetsk, in a heartfelt gesture, expressed gratitude towards the Ukrainian Armed Forces for making it possible for Ukrainian football to be played in the country.
Sceptics frequently downplay the relevance of sports in shaping a nation and its citizenry.
Nevertheless, within the seemingly uncomplicated realm of a football match lies the inherent capacity for deep-rooted connections and a wellspring of national sentiment.
Ukrainian football remains an emblem of optimism amidst a backdrop of widespread loss, devastation, and conflict, affording a fleeting respite from the harsh realities while engendering collective support for Ukrainian sports.
David Kirichenko is a freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe and an editor at Euromaidan Press.
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