Ukraine soccer league set for a title-deciding game in a remarkable, war-hit season
GENEVA (AP) — Two soccer teams exiled from cities in war-battered eastern Ukraine play each other Sunday in the safer western part of the country with the league title at stake.
The showdown between competition leader Shakhtar Donetsk and second-place Dnipro-1 at Arena Lviv can be decisive in a soccer season that is finishing on schedule in remarkable circumstances. The stadium was one of four in Ukraine, including Shakhtar's home in Donetsk, secure enough in 2012 from Russian aggression to co-host that year's European Championship with Poland.
Shakhtar leads by five points and needs just a draw this weekend to secure the title ahead of the last scheduled round on June 4.
“I think it will maybe be one of our best matches ever,” Ukrainian league chief executive Ievgen Dykyi told The Associated Press this week in a call from Kyiv. “Because the situation now is really hard and all the players understand about this.”
In Dnipro on Friday, the Russian military struck a medical clinic, killing at least two and injuring more than 20, including children.
Still, the soccer season continues with the blessing of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a bid to help keep some normalcy in daily life.
The kickoff at 2 p.m. in Lviv will open the 29th round of games in the 16-team league. All 224 previously scheduled games in the league season have been completed despite the relentless war. There are now 16 games left.
That looked to be an unlikely achievement in Lviv back on Aug. 24 last year when air raid alerts were disrupting the second day of games.
It was also a national holiday, celebrating Ukraine’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and the game between Lviv club Rukh Vynnyky and Metalist took 4-1/2 hours to complete after the teams stopped play four times to find shelter.
League officials had weighed starting the league season in Poland or Turkey but decided it was their “moral obligation” to stay in Ukraine. They relied on financial help from their fellow members of the 29-nation European Leagues group.
“It was like a symbol of sport to our people and our warriors,” said Dykyi, adding that soldiers connected with the league by sending video clips of them watching games online from the frontline. “They sent their really deepest ‘Thankyous’ that the championship can be played.”
In these conditions, fans have been almost entirely excluded. A limit of 280 people on site was imposed for each game.
“At this moment we have not the opportunity to bring back the supporters to the stadium because of the issues about safety and shelter,” said Dykyi, who worked in Kyiv for the past year.
He said his family shelters in their bathroom during air raid alerts.
“Now we have maybe, unfortunately, got used to this,” he said.
Fans around Europe also got used to seeing Ukrainian soccer teams in international competitions while Russian teams remain suspended by FIFA and UEFA.
The national team is playing in Euro 2024 qualifying and in September will face defending champion Italy in Milan, then will take on England at a neutral venue yet to be announced.
Shakhtar and Dnipro-1 advanced to knockout rounds in UEFA competitions this year, and a place in the group stage of the Champions League next season is the likely reward for winning the Ukrainian title.
The millions of dollars in UEFA prize money from European competition is even more important income for clubs which have seen so many sponsors and customers shut down during the war.
“A lot of teams are suffering a lot,” Dykyi said. “A lot of businesses of the club owners were destroyed.”
Shakhtar owner Rinat Akhmetov’s business included the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol that one year ago was a powerful symbol of resistance in the city devastated by Russian attacks.
Mariupol’s soccer club could not continue, though a place in the top league is held open for its return. The league made the same offer to the Desna Chernihiv club.
Dykyi becomes emotional telling the story of one Mariupol club official’s escape from the city last year on roads peppered with mines: “Mariupol is a terrible story.”
The uncertainty and insecurity for Ukrainian soccer because of the war meant Shakhtar last year lost its Italian coach, Roberto de Zerbi, who went on to be an acclaimed success in England with Brighton.
Shakhtar then hired the Croatian Igor Jovićević from Dnipro-1, which then appointed Oleksandr Kucher. He played at Shakhtar for 11 years and played in its storied 2009 UEFA Cup-winning team.
The close coaching ties add another layer to a game Sunday that is a kind of victory for all Ukraine.
“In the first months (of the war) it was a really scary situation,” Dykyi said. “We couldn’t imagine in this situation we can play our championship.”
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Graham Dunbar, The Associated Press