Ukraine set to restart national football league as war rages on

As soon as the air raid sirens had stopped, Shakhtar Donetsk’s players ran out onto the pitch for their final training session on Monday before Ukraine begins an extraordinary new season of its national soccer league.

As Ukrainian soldiers battle Russian forces in the east and south, Shakhtar are due to play Metalist 1925, from Kharkiv, in the opening game at 1000 GMT (8pm AEST) on Tuesday.

The match in Kyiv kicks off a day before Ukraine marks six months since Russia invaded, starting a war that has killed thousands of people and displaced millions.

“This will be a unique competition: It will happen during a war, during military aggression, during bombardments,” Andriy Pavelko, head of the Ukrainian Association of Football said .

Matches will be played without fans due to the risk of bombs and missiles. Two top-flight clubs — Desna Chernihiv and FC Mariupol — are being replaced in the 16-team league after their stadiums were destroyed.

FC Mariupol’s whole future has been thrown into question after Russia captured the club’s home city in a brutal three-month siege that Ukraine says killed over 20,000 residents.

Pavelko said much of the impetus to restart the season in the fraught circumstances had come from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian army, who hope the league will help lift national morale.

“Many people at the front lines asked us to start thinking about restarting football in our country,” Pavelko said.

He toured Ukraine in March and April to convince club presidents not to let their teams wither away, and to prepare them for a new season, he said.

Exiled from Donetsk

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