The Ukrainian Premier League is targeting August 20 for the return of the competition, despite the ongoing war and Russia targeting two of the three cities expected to host matches with missile strikes.
In yet another brave show of defiance from Ukraine, the top flight has pressed on with plans to run a 16-team competition, starting in just under eight weeks and it has appealed to other European clubs for support.
But Russian attacks on civilian targets in Kyiv and Lviv, and yesterday’s attack on a shopping centre in Kremenchuk killing at least 18 people, will raise concern over current plans.
Ukrainian Premier League set to return from August 20 after it was abandoned last season
As President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the leaders of the G7 countries via video link in Germany on Monday, pleading for more weapons, Ukrainian football teams continued to return for pre-season training.
The Premier League has committed to restarting the competition, after it was suspended and then abandoned last season following the Russian invasion on February 24.
But while it has made an unambiguous decision to go ahead in August, the details of how the league will run and where matches will be played are yet to be finalised.
There has been disagreement about whether to allow clubs to play league games outside Ukraine, but according to local media the cities of Kyiv (north central Ukraine), Lviv (west) and Uzhgorod (south west, by the Slovakia border) have been selected to host the teams in behind-closed-doors matches.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has refused to be intimidated by Russian agression
He appeared via video link at a G7 leaders’ meeting on Monday after missile strikes in Kyiv
Ukrainian sports website, SportsArena, also suggests the new stadium at Rivne (in the north of the country) could be used once it is completed.
However, Kyiv and Lviv were hit by Russian missies on Sunday, some of which were launched from Tupolev bombers over the Caspian Sea, 900 miles away in an apparent attempt to intimidate Ukraine before Zelenskyy met G7 leaders.
That was followed by the shopping centre attack on Monday afternoon, which G7 leaders immediately condemned as a ‘war crime’.
‘We have not had information about what happens if an air raid siren goes off during the game,’ Ukraine football journalist, Andrew Todos, told Sportsmail. ‘But everyone is gearing up for the August 20 weekend.
‘The shelling in Kyiv at the weekend is still relatively rare over the last few months, but the risk is always there,’ admitted Todos, who runs the London-based Ukraine football site, Zorya Londonsk. Shortly after Todos spoke to Sportsmail, Kremenchuk was targeted, underlining the ever-present danger.
Despite the war, the risks anf the most extraordinary circumstances, there is an appetite to play.
Yuriy Vernydub has been appointed as the manager of FC Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih this season (Facebook/ FC Krybas)
Verbnydub will continue to serve with Ukraine armed forces while running the top flight side (Facebook/ FC Krybas)
In the city of Kryvyi Rih in central Ukraine, the home town of the president himself, the coach of FC Kryvbas will split his time between military service and managing the club on its return to the Premier League.
Yuriy Vernydub managed Sheriff Tiraspol last season, winning the Moldovan league and progressing to the group stages of the Champions League, which included a stunning 2-1 win at Real Madrid in the Santiago Bernabeu.
Vernydub famously resigned from his job at Sheriff, with his side still involved in Europa League competition, after the Russian invasion. He has been fighting to protect his homeland ever since.
The Ukraine defence ministry has transferred Vernydub to Kryvyi Rih and given him a special dispensation to combine military service with football coaching.
Vernydub left former club Sheriff Tiraspol mid season to join up with the Ukraine armed forces
Following the transfer, he was unveiled as the manager of newly-promoted FC Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih last week, wearing military fatigues.
‘After a five-six-month pause, I got the opportunity to work as a coach again in Kryvbas…,’ explained Vernydub.
‘I received an offer to lead Kryvbas with the opportunity to combine work and military service. I’m happy that I can do what I want again, work with the team.
Vernydub said he believes Kryvbas can upset ‘the elite’ of Ukrainian football and the infrastructure at his new club is of a high quality. However, he has acknowledged it is difficult to create an elite team during a war, especially one that needs to strengthen following promotion.
Vernydub was the manager of Sheriff Tirsapol when they beat Shakhtar Donetsk last season
FC Kryvbas have been back in pre-seasin training close to the front line in the conflict (Facebook/ FC Krybas)
‘There are some problems,’ he told the club’s Facebook page. ‘We will form a new team. There is a war in Ukraine, it is very difficult to assemble a team. But time will tell: we will look, we will choose the players we need for the tasks and goals we will set for ourselves.’
The bizarre, tragic and sad reality of preparing for Premier League football in a war zone is underlined on a daily basis.
On Monday, FC Kryvbas posted pictures familiar to every football fan showing the players in pre-season training, working with their coach.
But mixed in with the workouts and drills was also a post about Ruslan Maidannik, a young FC Kryvbas supporter, who has been serving with the army and was recently killed in action. There was an appeal to send money to his mother.
At the same time, the Ukraine media reported the southern part of the city had been struck by multiple Russian rockets destroying homes, while 24 enemy soldiers had been killed and tanks destroyed in a counter offensive.
FC Kryvbas have been posting a mixture of pre season news and heart-rending information about the war, including the death of fan Ruslan Maidannik (Facebook/ FC Krybas)
Kryvyi Rih is close to the fighting, just 50km behind the front lines, and it’s hospital receives casulaties from the neraby conflict zone.
The club’s Facebook feed notes some new signings and also records the donation of a ‘high quality surgical aspirator’ to the hospital, a specialist piece of kit that improves the survival chances of wonded soldiers.
Despite the proximity of the fighting, Vernydub, who has signed a three-year contract, vowed his side will be based in Kryvyi Rih for the duration of the season, which means the players and staff will remain within easy reach of Russian forces – and will face journeys of up to 1600km for matches.
The Yuri Gagarin Stadium was destroyed in an air-strike by Russian forces in April this year
Russia has targeted the Ukraine capital Kyiv, hitting a busy shopping centre in the city
On Sunday missile strikes hit a kindergarten destroying a playground and a classroom
Last season, the Ukrainian Premier League was suspended following the Russian invasion in February and was later abandoned on April 27. At the time, Shakhtar Donetsk were leading the competition on 47 points, two points ahead of Dynamo Kyiv, but no league title was awarded.
Desperate scenes ensued with foreign players trapped in the country until heroic efforts from club officials, with the support of UEFA, managed to find them a passage out.
Shakhtar had 50 players, family and staff holed up in a hotel owned by the club’s owner Rinat Akhmetov before they could be evacuated.
This season the Ukraine competition will be cut by two teams, from 18 to 16.
FC Mariupol will not compete after the city was devastated by Russian forces following months of siege, with an appalling loss of life.
In addition, FC Desna will also miss out after the club’s stadium was laid waste by Russian bombs in April. While matches would not have been played at the ground, the devastation has also damaged the club’s finances and its ability to field a team.
However, other clubs are pushing on. Dynamo Kyiv are in Switzerland at a training camp and have a full preseason planned, including a friendly against Lyon, ahead of their Champions League, second-qualifying round encounter with Fenerbahçe.
Sheriff Tiraspol had a run in the Champions League, where they played Inter Milan (pictured)
The ‘home’ leg on July 19 will be played in Lodz, Poland with the return match in neighbouring Turkey on July 27.
Another newly promoted team, Metalist Kharkiv, which represents Ukraine’s second largest city, will take their place in the Premier League despite Moscow’s relentless shelling.
Kharkiv is one of the cities to have borne the brunt of Russian brutality. The football team is currently training in Bulgaria.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian top flight made a desperate plea a week ago for the support of other clubs as they seek to finalise their arrangements, ‘with the support of the Ukrainian government’.
‘We have taken the unanimous decision… to organise next year’s competition from the upcoming month of August,’ Executive Director Ievgen Dykyi told a meeting of the European Leagues in Amsterdam, through a video address.
‘Our ambition is to organise our 2022-23 championship in Ukraine.
‘We know the challenge is a huge one and we have a lot of safety issues… [with the government] we are developing security protocols and to provide safe venues where matches will be played. We will have operational and logistics issues to accommodate clubs and their players and staff across the country.
‘We are ready to embrace this challenge in a responsible manner because we know what football represents for our society and people,’ Dykyi added.
‘[And] football has incredible power to generate attention and media interest here in Ukrain and also across the whole international community.’
‘What is at stake is much more than an act of hope… Ukrainian football will represent… resilience and a restart for our people.’
But he warned: ‘We can’t achieve this by ourselves.’
Dykyi asked for help from clubs and leagues around Europe. He hopes for direct financial contributions, but also assistance in connecting to sponsors and other commercial opportunities.
FC Shakhtar Donetsk Executive Director Sergei Palkin fears his club is exploited by agents
Inevitably, Ukrainian clubs have been badly hit financially. Coming hard on the heels of the Covid pandemic, the war saw all matches cease last season. In addition, FIFA allowed overseas players to suspend contracts and play elsewhere, a move expected to be repeated in this campaign.
Some clubs that have been reliant on international stars, such as Shakhtar, have complained that the value of these players is diminishing as contracts run down, leaving them in an even worse financial positions, while at the same time it is alleged, they are at the mercy of unscrupulous agents.
‘First of all, I think 95 per cent of Ukrainian players we will keep; foreigners, I do not know yet, chief executive Sergei Palkin, told The Athletic.
‘There are difficult negotiations. Some agents are destroying us. They are trying to steal players. They play games, contacting clubs, saying don’t pay us (Shakhtar) and deals are being broken. You cannot imagine what is going on.’
Brazilian Dodo (R), of Ukranian team Shakhtar Donetsk, was one of the players evacuated
He added: ‘Agents are arriving to clubs and saying, ‘Don’t pay Shakhtar, the players will become free, just pay me (the agent) €10m and forget about the club’.’
Shakhtar currently have a squad of 24 players, plus two on loan, according to Transfermarkt, with 11 of those from overseas, including nine from Brazil.
Last season, right winger, Tete, joined Lyon on loan but no agreement has been reached over a permanent transfer.
In a statement to Sportsmail, FIFA said it had consulted widely on its decision to allow contracts to be suspended ‘with the aim of effectively assisting players, clubs and coaches impacted by the war in Ukraine as the provisions give players and coaches the opportunity to train, play and receive a salary, while protecting Ukrainian clubs’.
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