Germany welcomes the Ukraine in the 1000th international match – also as a sign of solidarity with the invaded country. Football should give Ukraine back faith in the future. Can this work?
In the shadow of the ongoing Russian war of aggression, the football season in Ukraine ended last weekend with an insignificant defeat by Shakhtar Donetsk.
A win over second-placed Dnipro 1 saw the national team-packed Shakhtar clinch the title on the penultimate round – their 14th since Ukraine’s independence.
And yet it became clear even before kick-off that football in the country is currently at best a marginal phenomenon. The game began with a minute’s silence for the victims of the war, but even during the lively kick-off there was hardly a sound to be heard from the stands. Shakhtar won the title-bringing 3-0 win over Dnipro 1 in front of empty stands in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Taras Stepanenko, who is also expected to play a key role for the Ukrainian national team in the international match against Germany on Monday (6:00 p.m. / ZDF) in Bremen, finished the game.
Shakhtar used to the stranger
Shakhtar is used to playing abroad. Oligarch Rinat Akhmetov’s team has been traveling almost constantly since 2014, after the pro-Russian separatists seized power in the eastern Ukrainian industrial metropolis Donetsk. The kickers train and live in Kiev. The club alternately played its “home games” in Lviv, Kharkiv and Kiev. This season Uzhhorod, Minai and Rivne were added as venues. In the European Cup, Shakhtar had to compete in Poland’s capital, Warsaw; a journey of hundreds of kilometers.
In contrast to previous years, however, Shakhtar is not the only club on the road. East of Kiev practically could not be played. Thirteen of the 16 Premier League teams have had to play “home games” outside their own region at least once. The fact that the fans stay away is understandable given the many problems that people in the war in Ukraine have under Russian rocket and drone terror.
And yet the season is a huge success. In May 2022, pictures of the association’s president, Andriy Pavelko, went around the world. The 46-year-old stood in a protective vest in the destroyed stadium in Chernihiv, a city in northern Ukraine. The grandstands collapsed after Russian bombing raids, the lawn was damaged, as were the training rooms and the sports medicine department.
The season had long since been canceled at the time, and many players fled abroad. The decision to resume gaming operations was made at the top level. “I spoke to President (Volodymyr) Zelenskyy about the importance of football as a distraction,” Pavelko said in the summer. Everyone is focused on the war, but football has the power to restore people’s faith in the future, said the football official.
“Match for Peace. Stop the War”
The clubs were preparing for the new season in Europe – and on the side collecting money for war victims, Ukrainian children who lost their parents. Record champion Dynamo Kiev organized a tour “Match for Peace. Stop the War”.
When Shakhtar sold Mykhailo Mudryk to Chelsea for a record €100m during the winter break, club boss Akhmetov donated a quarter of that amount to a fund to support the Mariupol defenders. The city in the south of the Donbass region was destroyed and conquered by the Russians last spring after bloody fighting. The last defenders at the Azovstal Steelworks held out for months and are revered as heroes in Ukraine. Akhmetov’s donation is to be used for medical treatment, psychological care, prostheses and the like.
In doing so, the billionaire also wanted to clear himself of the general suspicion of political unreliability. For a long time he was considered the gray eminence behind the corrupt President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the country in 2014. Akhmetov’s patriotism was questioned, as he repeatedly negotiated with the separatists who had seized power in the region where he had made his fortune. But that stopped after the war began – and Akhmetov has now also clearly committed himself to Kiev.
In a way, the homeless Shakhtar has become a symbol of the new patriotism in Ukraine. Even the name has been changed from the Russian-speaking Shakhtar (miner) to Shakhtar. The club presents the country to the outside world, with fans all over the country cheering for its international appearances as well as for national team games.
Rebrow celebrates its debut
And sporting successes are important for the war and crisis-plagued country, which only failed at the last hurdle in qualifying for the World Cup in Qatar. Now the former Dynamo legend Serhij Rebrow is to lead the team to new successes as national coach. The new head coach installed on Wednesday celebrates his debut on the sidelines against Germany.
Kiev also has high hopes for the 2030 World Cup, for which Ukraine has applied to co-host. Many people still fondly remember the EM 2012, which Ukraine hosted together with Poland and which meant a big push for the modernization of the country and the expansion of the infrastructure.
However, the chances have worsened due to a corruption scandal in which, among other things, the head of the association, Pawelko, is involved. Spain and Portugal, who initially invited Ukraine as co-hosts, have now presented Morocco as another host country. Officially, however, Ukraine is still the fourth organizer in the application. The Ukrainian President Zelenskyi had repeatedly promised a more rigorous fight against corruption, also with a view to the country’s hoped-for EU accession.
I am Pierce Boyd, a driven and ambitious professional working in the news industry. I have been writing for 24 Hours Worlds for over five years, specializing in sports section coverage. During my tenure at the publication, I have built an impressive portfolio of articles that has earned me a reputation as an experienced journalist and content creator.