Two football teams exiled from war-torn eastern Ukrainian cities played in the country’s safer west on Sunday for the league title.
The match between Ukrainian Premier League leaders Shakhtar Donetsk and second-placed Dnipro-1 at the Lviv Arena could be decisive for a football season that ends on schedule under exceptional circumstances.
The stadium, one of four in Ukraine, including home to Shakhtar Donetsk, was safe enough from Russian aggression in 2012 to co-host that year’s European Championship with Poland.
Shakhtar are five points ahead and need only a draw this weekend to seal the title ahead of the final round on 4 June.
“I think it’s probably one of the best games we’ve ever played,” Ukrainian league chief executive Ievgen Dykyi told The Associated Press by phone from Kiev this week. “Because it’s a really tough situation right now and all the players understand that.”
Russian military raided a medical clinic in Dnipro on Friday, killing at least two people and wounding more than 20, including children.
Still, the football season continues with the blessing of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to help maintain some normalcy in everyday life.
Kick-off in Lviv at 2pm on Sunday kicks off the 29th round of the 16-team league. Despite the flames of war, all 224 games scheduled before the league season were completed. There are now 16 games left.
That looked an unlikely success in Lviv last August 24 when air raid sirens disrupted the next day’s game.
It was also a national holiday celebrating Ukraine’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and the match between Lviv club Rukh Vynnyky and Metalist took four and a half hours to finish after the team was suspended four times to find shelter.
League officials weighed starting the league season in Poland or Turkey, but decided it was their “moral duty” to stay in Ukraine. They rely on financial help from other members of the 29-nation European Union bloc.
“It’s like a symbol of sport for our people and our warriors,” Dykyi said, adding that soldiers have connected with the league by sending video clips of games they watch online from the front lines. “They sent their deepest ‘thank you’ champions for being able to attend.”
In this case, fans are almost completely excluded. The number of people on site per game is limited to 280 people.
“Because of security and shelter issues, at the moment we don’t have the opportunity to bring supporters back to the stadium,” said Daiki, who worked in Kiev for the last year.
He said his family hid in the bathroom during the air raid siren.
“Unfortunately by now we’ve probably gotten used to that,” he said.
Fans across Europe are also used to seeing the Ukrainian football team in international matches, while the Russian team remains suspended by FIFA and UEFA.
The national team will take part in Euro 2024 qualifiers, taking on defending champions Italy in Milan in September before taking on England at a yet-to-be-announced neutral venue.
Shakhtar and Dnipro-1 advanced to the knockout stages of this year’s UEFA competition and a place in the group stage of next season’s Champions League could be the reward for winning Ukraine.
The multimillion-dollar UEFA prize money from European competitions was an even more significant income for clubs that saw so many sponsors and clients collapse during the war.
“A lot of teams have suffered a lot,” Dykyi said. “A lot of business for club owners has been destroyed.”
Shakhtar owner Rinat Akhmetov’s business includes the Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol, which a year ago became a powerful symbol of the resistance in the city under Russian attack.
Mariupol’s football club could not continue, although a place in the top flight was open for its return. The league made the same offer to the Desna Chernihiv club.
Dykyi became emotional as he told the story of a Mariupol club official who fled the city last year on a mine-strewn road. “Mariupol is a horrible story.”
Uncertainty and insecurity in Ukrainian football due to the war meant Shakhtar lost Italian coach Roberto De Zerby last year, who enjoyed acclaimed success with England’s Brighton.
Shakhtar then hired Croatian Igor Jovićević from Dnipro-1, who then appointed Oleksandr Kucher. He spent 11 years with Shakhtar and was part of their legendary 2009 UEFA Cup winning team.
A close coaching relationship added an extra layer of color to Sunday’s game, which was a win for Ukraine as a whole.
“In the first few months[(of the war] It’s a very dire situation,” Dykyi said. “We can’t imagine we can play our champions in this situation. “