The players ran onto the field draped in Ukrainian flags and then stood side by side as President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered an impassioned address by video. They sang the national anthem, paused for a moment of silence to honour the war dead, and gathered around a banner that said, “We are of one courage.”
This was the first game of the season for the Ukrainian Premier League, the country’s top echelon of soccer, which abruptly shut down last April because of the war. It was also an act of resistance and a collective shout at the Russians that life here can carry on despite Moscow’s invasion and the constant threat of missile attacks.
At any other time, Tuesday’s match between Shakhtar Donetsk and Metalist 1925 would have been a perfect start to the season. The weather was gorgeous and sunshine poured into the national Olympic stadium in Kyiv. An injured soldier, and ardent Shakhtar fan, did a ceremonial kickoff and left the field thrilled at finally having a chance to meet his favourite players.
The game ended in a goalless draw, although Shakhtar dominated throughout and had most of the best scoring chances. But on this day, the final result was an afterthought given the harsh reality outside.
The war will enter its seventh month on Aug. 24, when Ukrainians traditionally celebrate the country’s Independence Day. All celebrations have been cancelled this year and officials are bracing for an escalation of attacks by Russia.
That gave Tuesday’s game even more meaning for the players and the coaches.
“We showed people that Ukraine wants to show the world that we are back and don’t forget us,” Shakhtar’s coach, Igor Jovicevic, said after the game. “At the moment, soldiers fight for us and we are grateful for that and we must suffer this period. We must be patient and have a strong mentality.”
Mr. Jovicevic is from Croatia, but he has spent much of his managing career in Ukraine. “I love Ukraine. I respect Ukraine,” he said. “But in this time, this is not a normal situation. We play football and they are fighting to win freedom.”
While the game on the field looked normal as players fought for the ball and coaches screamed instructions from the sidelines, nothing else was the same.
Security concerns meant that no fans were allowed into the stadium, which can hold 65,000 spectators, and military officials were on hand to stop the game and herd everyone to a bomb shelter in case an air-raid siren sounded.
The league, too, has had to change. Two teams have withdrawn from the UPL: FC Mariupol and Desna Chernihiv, which is close to the border with Belarus and had its stadium blown apart by Russian missiles. Most of the other teams have relocated to Kyiv or Lviv in western Ukraine, where nearly all of the games will be played.
Shakhtar Donetsk has been experiencing a nomadic existence since 2014, when the club was forced to leave its namesake city in eastern Ukraine because of fighting between the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed separatists. The club moved to Lviv, then Kharkiv and now Kyiv. Metalist 1925 has also left its home ground in Kharkiv, which has been under intense Russian bombardment.
Despite the challenges, Shakhtar has traditionally been among the UPL’s dominant teams, and it led the league when the season ended in April. The club is owned by Rinat Akhmetov, one of Ukraine’s richest men, and for years it had a roster stacked with Brazilians and other foreign players.
But the club, and others in the UPL, has been crippled by a decision of the International Association Football Federation, the soccer’s world governing body. Because of the war, the federation, also known as FIFA, has allowed foreign players in Ukraine to suspend their contracts until June, 2023. As a result, many have been picked up by clubs across Europe and it’s unclear whether they’ll ever return.
Shakhtar officials understood that most of the team’s 14 foreign players would want to leave, but the club was hoping to negotiate transfer fees. Instead most have left for nothing. The club has launched a lawsuit against FIFA seeking €50-million ($65-million) in compensation. “Everyone believes we are one football family,” Shakhtar chief executive officer Sergei Palkin told The Athletic. “This decision just crossed out this slogan. We are not one football family because nobody cares about Ukrainian clubs.”
But Tuesday wasn’t a time for griping over player contracts or other restrictions. There have been far bigger sacrifices in Ukraine’s football community since Russia invaded in February. Vitalii Sapylo, a 21-year-old goalkeeper with Karpaty Lviv, joined the military shortly after the war started and died in the battle for Kyiv last March.
Tuesday was also National Flag Day in Ukraine, and Mr. Zelensky said the country was ready to defend its blue and yellow emblem. “We will never recognize foreign colours on our land and in our sky,” he said.
He also noted a Canadian connection to the flag that was raised in the stadium just before kickoff. It had been donated by Danylo Myhal, a Ukrainian-Canadian from Thunder Bay who made headlines during the 1976 Olympics in Montreal by running onto the field with a Ukrainian flag during the semi-final soccer match between East Germany and the USSR. Mr. Myhal shouted “Freedom to Ukraine” before being corralled by police.
Mr. Myhal “always dreamed of transferring this flag to Ukraine,” Mr. Zelensky said. “Today it finally happened.”
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