On Tuesday, Shakhtar Donetsk and Metalist 1925 Kharkiv inaugurated the new season with a 0-0 draw in Kyiv at the Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex.
Although the stadium has a capacity of around 70,000 spectators, no fans were in attendance as the league takes security measures to protect its civilians from ongoing Russian attacks.
It’s one of many precautions put in place to try and keep players and staff as safe as possible, including bomb shelters and air raid sirens.
But, having been forced to cancel last season’s league campaign on February 24 due to the invasion, it’s a bit of normalcy for the beleaguered Ukrainian population.
“This will be a unique competition: it will happen during a war, during military aggression, during bombings,” Andriy Pavelko, director of the Ukrainian Football Association, told Reuters.
Pavelko also explained that many on the front lines of the Ukrainian military, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, were a key driving force behind the push for the return of football to the country.
Ukrainian football journalist Andrew Todos attended the opening match in Kyiv, describing the atmosphere as “surreal” and “calmer” than the matches he attended during the covid-19 pandemic.
He also explained that as the season begins, winning is “very much in the back of people’s minds” right now.
“Mainly based on the fact that the goal of the return of the UPL and football in Ukraine in general is the fact of showing a sign of defiance and the fact that Ukraine continues,” said Todos. CNN SportIt’s Amanda Davis.
“Surviving on a day-to-day basis and the things that they can do so that people can enjoy watching professional sports, just like people in Russia continue to do because they don’t have the imminent threat of missiles and all these kinds of things that put in Ukraine daily. Fortunately, there were no air-raid sirens in the stadium today, so the game went smoothly.”
Ukrainian football icon Andriy Shevchenko says sport has an important role to play in uniting people behind their country.
“It is very important for the people, for the rest of the world: we can send the message that Ukraine is there”, Shevchenko told CNN Sport about the possibility of national football returning.
“Although we are at war within the country, we are going to fight because we also want to live as normal countries, normal lives.”
Given the lack of football in Ukraine, the teams have played charity matches throughout Europe, although in recent weeks the qualifying phases for the European competition have begun, something in which Dynamo Kyiv, SC Dnipro-1, Zorya Luhansk have been participating and Vorskla Poltava.
The return of the Ukrainian Premier League comes a day shy of six months since Russia’s unprovoked invasion of the country. It also takes place a day before Ukraine’s Independence Day on Wednesday, although the celebrations have been forbidden in the capital of the country of Kyiv and its second largest city, Kharkiv.
And when the players entered the field, it looked very different from previous years.
Pavelko told Reuters that every time an air-raid siren sounds, something that happens daily in some regions, play will be stopped and players and officials will take shelter in stadium bomb shelters until the go-ahead is given.
Military officials will be in the stadiums during the game, and if an air raid warning continues for more than an hour, they and match officials will decide whether the game is postponed.
For Shakhtar midfielder Taras Stepanenko, he says he is a bit worried about the long breaks in matches and possible muscle injuries as a result.
“It will be difficult if it lasts more than an hour. Maybe they should set up some (training) bikes for us,” Stepanenko said.
At the beginning of the new season, the games will be played in Kyiv and surrounding regions, according to Pavelko.
It has also had to change the structure of the teams involved. Desna Chernihiv and FC Mariupol, two of last season’s Premier League teams, have had to be substituted because their stadiums have been destroyed by the war.
The Invasion has also seen a dramatic change in the players that will take to the field in the new season.
One of the most successful clubs in Ukrainian football, Shakhtar have historically had a strong core of Brazilian players. However, in the wake of the Russian invasion, many chose to leave the country, meaning the team now focuses more predominantly on young local talent.
And on the eve of the new campaign, new head coach Igor Jovicevic said he had to quickly rebuild.
“For a long time, there was a Brazilian Shakhtar, a top team,” Jovicevic said. “But now we have to forget about this and prepare the new (team) as quickly as possible.”
Although the return of football to Ukraine will be a boon to many, Pavelko lamented the long-term implications of the war on the country’s football prospects.
“It’s not just about losing stadiums. It is about a whole generation of footballers who will not be able to develop.