(Reuters) – Shakhtar Donetsk and Metalist 1925 played out a 0-0 draw in Kyiv’s empty Olympic Stadium on Tuesday as competitive football returned to war-torn Ukraine with the start of the country’s new Premier League season.
The opening matches of the campaign have been timed to coincide with Ukraine’s Day of the National Flag and provide a further show of resistance following Russia’s February invasion that brought a premature end to last season’s championship.
But it also comes as the U.S. Embassy in the capital warned of the increased possibility of Russian military strikes on Ukraine, and Kyiv banned public celebrations in the capital on the anniversary of independence from Soviet rule on Wednesday.
It was a first competitive fixture in nine months for both teams and, while there were obvious signs of rust, they provided an entertaining contest in which Shakhtar came closest to winning when Mykhailo Mudryk struck the crossbar.
The game was, at least, not interrupted by air-raid sirens, still a daily occurrence.
So tenuous is the situation that only certain venues with bomb shelters will be used for UPL games. No fans are allowed into the stadium, with fixtures mostly centred around Kyiv for now.
The return of the 16-team local league provides a distraction for 90 minutes away from the bloodshed and ravages of a war that Russia calls a ‘special operation’.
“This is our job, and we perceive it as a very big responsibility to show the world that life in Ukraine does not stop but continues,” Shakhtar’s Croatian coach Igor Jovicevic told reporters ahead of Tuesday’s game.
“Football is one of the factors that gives emotions to the whole country and people who fight for all of us. This is very important for us, not only Shakhtar but also for the entire UPL, to continue life.”
His thoughts were echoed by midfielder Mudryk, who added, “they (the watching world) should remember what events are happening in Ukraine, because a lot of time passes and perhaps the world forgets about it.
“Our goal is to use the games to remind the whole world that nothing is over and of the atrocities that are happening here in Ukraine.”
Shakhtar qualified automatically for the group stages of this season’s Champions League, having been top of the table when the 2021-22 UPL campaign was suspended.
They now await Thursday’s draw and will play their home games in Poland.
The club had been using their website to give daily updates on the war from Ukraine’s Defence Ministry but can, for now at least, return to the more mundane team news and match reports.
That may seem like a small thing to many, but for the defiant people of Ukraine it means a lot.
(Reporting by Nick Said; Editing by Ken Ferris)