Football to ‘remember why we died’ at the start of the season in Ukraine | Football

meIn a sense, Andriy Pavelko feels ready for the moment when Shakhtar Donetsk and Metalist 1925 kick off a new football season on Tuesday. “When our national team played Scotland in June, I cried as soon as the anthem started playing, I just couldn’t believe it,” says the president of the Ukrainian Federation. “And it’s going to be the same this time. Football will be the breath of fresh air that will remind people why we are fighting and dying.”

Only last Wednesday Pavelko felt sure that the sport would return on the date, one day before the celebration of Ukraine’s independence, which he had indicated. It was then that the security protocols were finally signed after exhaustive conversations that were not always easy. Should fans be allowed in? That question was easy enough to answer during the war. Should the exact time and place of the games be kept secret? That was the subject of discussion, but was ultimately rejected. What will happen if the air raid sirens interrupt the game? No one can be entirely sure how it will feel, but games can be abandoned if they play for more than an hour. The arbitrators will consult with military advisers to make that decision.

The list of considerations is extensive. This is new territory, hardly any precedent, and adjustments are expected along the way. “It has been a great challenge in my life,” says Pavelko, speaking animatedly at the FA headquarters. The work there never really stopped: as soon as Russia invaded, there were ongoing efforts to evacuate teams, players, referees and coaches; Efforts to help on the humanitarian front followed quickly and then came the matter of getting back on track.

Top clubs were unanimous in trying, but two meetings with Volodymyr Zelenskiy in late May were instrumental in building the political will. “I asked the question and heard a firm ‘Yes,'” he says. “They were conversations about what our society needs right now. You need a strong signal. The president was prepared to give us everything we needed to let the world know. Ukraine It is a strong country and we trust in our victory”.

Pavelko spends the next half hour giving a dizzying recap of visits (he has traveled to every region of Ukraine at least twice since February) and personal stories that convinced him that football was central to the country’s resilience and recovery. . He lands on one in particular who made it very clear what job was asked of him. In a hospital in Zaporizhzhia, the city that received thousands of evacuees from Mariupol, he met a boy who had suffered 18 bone fractures along with shrapnel wounds to his head and chest.

The 12-year-old’s blood pressure had dropped to the point that he was barely alive when he arrived and his survival is yet another story of the heroic work of local doctors amid impossible conditions. Pavelko claimed that he had been playing soccer shortly before his evacuation and that his favorite player was Oleksandr Zinchenko. He immediately called the vice captain of Ukraine and the boy, unable to move and full of tears, made a video call with his idol. “He was a hair’s breadth from death, like the rest of Ukraine,” says Pavelko. Fortunately, his treatment has continued in Germany and he is learning to walk again.

These stories of kinship, bravery and sometimes tragedy could fill numerous books, and Pavelko says he would be willing to write one when the Ukraine has finally prevailed. People like the boy from Mariupol inadvertently conveyed the message he had been trying to articulate: that far from being mere frivolity in times of unimaginable horror, football has its place.

Andriy Pavelko, president of the Ukrainian Football Federation.
Andriy Pavelko, president of the Ukrainian Football Federation. Photograph: Rob Harris/AP

For the premiere, it will be Kyiv’s Olympiyskiy Stadium, which hosted the Euro 2012 final and the 2018 Champions League final. In a week in which Zelenskiy was among those warning of possible Russian attacks around the independence day, inevitably held his breath. Attendees must ensure that, if instructed, they will move to the ground bomb shelter. It will be surreal and perhaps disconcerting, but Pavelko makes no apologies.

“We are a brave nation,” he says. “This is an important step in raising the morale of civilian and military personnel: reminding them that they have a future. I met with our referees recently and gave them a simple message: that every participant in this will go down in world football history. It is a monumental achievement that they will be able to share with their grandchildren, and the grandchildren will brag about it to their peers.”

It is also a fair achievement that the 16-member top flight has lost only FC Mariupol and Desna Chernihiv, whose operations are suspended. But the postponement of FC Lviv’s first match against Minaj, amid suggestions that they will struggle to make it to the matches, indicates that the quest to keep Ukrainian football on rails is not yet won. Further down the leagues, the story is bleaker: At least two dozen teams have been forced to go on hiatus or disband. The second division restarts on Saturday but, below those above, uncertainty still prevails.

However, the hope is that Tuesday will send a wave of optimism across the country. Pavelko draws parallels with the famous “match to the death” which was played when Ukraine was under German occupation in 1942, although in some quarters it is believed to have been mythologized, with one key difference. “Our tournament is not a story of death but of life.”

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