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.
The game in Kyiv, between Shakhtar and FC Metalist 1925 Kharkiv, will kick off the 2022-23 Ukrainian Premier League (UPL) season, and the 33-year-old midfielder, who has more than 70 caps for the national team, says that, despite the threats, he hopes football can give people some respite from the relentless news of death and destruction.
“When I play football, I don’t think about the war,” Stepanenko told Al Jazeera from Kyiv. “We should [play] for our country. It’s our obligation.”
The games will be played behind closed doors and amid heavy security, mostly in stadiums in Kyiv and the west of the country, far from the front lines.
But officials have warned that Russia could intensify its attacks across the country this week, as Ukraine marks the six-month anniversary of the war and the country’s Independence Day on Wednesday.
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.”
Shakhtar Donetsk’s players train at the NSC Olimpiyskiy stadium in Kyiv before the first match of the new season [Gleb Garanich/Reuters]
‘Continuity, survival, defiance’
On February 24, two days before the UPL was set to return from its 2021-22 winter break, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Stepanenko and his family were living near Kyiv, where Shakhtar played in exile having left their home city of Donetsk, in the eastern Donbas region, when war broke out there in 2014.
As missiles fell on the capital in February, Stepanenko and his family sheltered in the basement of their house. His wife and three children are now in Spain, having left Ukraine in the early days of the war.
Some Ukrainian players and coaches joined the military or the territorial defence forces, and clubs shifted to humanitarian work and fundraising to support the war effort.
Shakhtar transformed a stadium in the western city of Lviv into a refugee shelter.
Some clubs relocated to the safer west of the country, while some of the biggest clubs left the country in the first days of the war to play fundraising friendlies or European qualifiers.
Shakhtar have been largely based in Warsaw, Poland, while Dynamo Kyiv was mostly in the Polish city of Lodz. Most foreign players left their clubs under a FIFA ruling that allowed them to suspend their contracts.
In areas of Ukraine where fighting raged, Russian missiles hit stadiums and training grounds, leaving shattered stands and cratered pitches.
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 premier league clubs agreed that the new season had to start and, although the option of holding matches in Turkey or Poland was discussed, it was decided that the games should all take place in Ukraine.
Ukrainian football’s lower tiers, the women’s league, and youth competitions are also 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.
‘Football can still make people happy’
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.
The biggest teams with the most foreigner players have also faced upheaval, not least reigning champions Shakhtar with its sizeable Brazilian contingent, all of whom have left the country – leaving the club heavily reliant on academy players. Shakhtar is now seeking millions of dollars in damages from FIFA over lost transfer revenue.
Kateryna Yavorska, sports marketing manager at UPL club FC Rukh Lviv, told Al Jazeera that the challenges could make the league – usually dominated by Shakhtar and Dynamo Kyiv – more unpredictable and competitive.
She said the fans’ excitement over the new season was palpable. When the club held an event for fans on Friday they expected 300 to turn up. Instead, there were more than 1,500.
“I think now people are even more into football because they can’t leave the country, there is not that much entertainment because you can’t go to parties, you can’t stay for a late dinner because of the [nighttime curfew], the cinemas don’t have a lot of new movies, and football is one of the things that can still make people happy,” she said.
The club intends to sell tickets to fans to watch screenings of the matches, with the proceeds donated to the war effort – the club has so far raised about 500,000 euros [$497,000] to support displaced children, local hospitals and wounded soldiers.
“Fans feel they are contributing to the Ukrainian forces and it’s a moment of unity for all of us on the match day,” she said.
But the threat of Russian attacks hangs over the games, even in relatively peaceful western Ukraine.
Stadiums hosting matches are required to have air shelters, and the referee must halt the match if an air raid siren sounds. If the break lasts more than an hour, the match will be postponed and resumed from the point it was stopped in the following days – late abandonments could produce particularly strange scenarios.
Sergii Filonenko, a 33-year-old video game designer and fan of Dynamo Kyiv, says that although life often appears normal in Kyiv now, air raid sirens still go off several times a day – some lasting minutes, others for hours – and that many fans are concerned over how the season will play out.
“Of course, most people will be happy to have the league back, but at the same time everyone is very much aware of the dangers that poses, and the potential problems that might be encountered along the way,” he said.
Nevertheless, he says football has a role to play.
“Football is a big part of everyday life for many people here and [it’s important] having that bit of normalcy, that bit of defiance: ‘You can bomb us all you want but we’re still going to play and watch the game’,” he said.
“Even on the front line, with artillery shells going off a couple of hundred metres from them, soldiers are still going to tune in and watch the games.”
Stepanenko, meanwhile, recently returned to his home near Kyiv for the first time in months, where he had reminisced over how his children used to run around, play football and swim in the river.
He said the war has changed his perspective on life.
“Before, like all football players, I was always thinking about the [matches], the opponents, what I should do on the pitch. I was upset when I lost and happy when I won,” he said.
“But these six months changed my life, because now the first thing in my head is the victory of Ukraine in this war and peace in my country.”
He said the match on Tuesday will be very emotional and that he was honoured to play to bolster Ukraine amid the war.
“I think this day will be in my heart and my mind all my life,” he said.
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