For the first time since November 2013, the France team will play a match in Ukraine. At the time, the country was not at war. Ukrainian football has continued to adapt to this unique situation for the past seven years.
In the streets of Kiev, at nightfall, life continues its course. No curfew, restaurants remain open and normality takes over as the Covid-19 epidemic has been globally contained in the country since mid-May. In the Ukrainian capital where the French team will play its qualifying match for the 2022 World Cup on Saturday 4 September against Zbirna, the local selection, no visible trace of the conflict raging in the Donbass, more than 700 kilometers away. ballast.
Far from the region where loyalists and separatists clash – the latter are supported by Russia – the inhabitants of Kiev like to point out: not a day goes by without a touching thought for the soldiers present on the road. forehead does not cross their minds. Since the start of the conflict in 2014, 13,000 people have died, including 45 Ukrainian soldiers, since the beginning of the year.
Football, in all of this, is only a minor concern. But last June, at the Euro, the selection made the Ukrainians proud by advancing to the quarter-finals of the competition. The best result in the history of Zbirna in an international competition, with the performance achieved at the 2006 World Cup. A sweet start to summer for the Ukrainians, which continued with the celebration of 30 years of the independence, on August 24.
Ten days later, 45,000 spectators will be able to support their selection against the French team in the Olympic stadium in Kiev. “The national team is very important for the Ukrainians, it unites a whole people,” said Oleksandr Glyvynskyy, Zbirna press officer. For the past seven years, the selection has evolved into a symbol of Ukrainian nationalism.
Before the Euro kicked off, the dispute between Ukraine and Russia was a resounding reminder. The inscription on the jersey of the Ukrainian national team of the motto “Glory to the Heroes” and of the map of Ukraine including Crimea, had provoked a strong Russian reaction. One event among many which shows that, since the start of the conflict in 2014, Ukrainian football has been going through tormented moments.
One of the biggest clubs in the country, Shakhtar Donetsk – who recently knocked out AS Monaco in Champions League play-offs – had to move seven years ago as the city of Donetsk was too close to conflict zones . The same goes for Olimpik Donetsk, who plays in the second division. Now, Shakhtar play their home games in the capital, where their big rival, Dynamo Kiev resides. Both clubs have won 29 of the 30 league editions since Premier Liga was formed in 1992.
But for other clubs in the country, the war had serious consequences. “The majority of clubs have lost a lot of income. Some have lost their sponsors, others have even said goodbye to their owners,” said Oleksandr Glyvynskyy. Metalist Kharkov and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, two historic clubs in the Ukrainian league, have thus sunk into local football limbo.
Even today, Ukrainian football suffers from the war and its consequences: at half-mast TV rights revenues, dwindling sponsorship deals and an audience that is losing interest in club football. Dynamo Kiev’s matches draw fewer than 10,000 spectators in an Olympic stadium capable of accommodating seven times as many. “All of this pushed foreign players to leave the country,” regrets Glyvynskyy.
In 2013, 174 foreign players played in the Premier Liga, the local top division, compared to just 78 today. “It hurts when you think about what football was like before. We were booming, Ukrainian football was having its best period. Right after the Euro co-hosted by Ukraine in 2012, we could not imagine that it was going to happen “, laments the press secretary of the national team.
If club football suffers from the situation, the selection is not left out. During his five-year tenure as national coach – he stepped down after the Euro – Andriy Shevchenko was often the target of criticism for speaking Russian. The conflict with its cumbersome neighbor has also caused Ukraine to dispense with the services of defender Yaroslav Rakitskiy.
Rakitskiy’s last selection dates back to October 2018, three months before his signing for the Russian club Zenith Saint Petersburg. A passage through the enemy little appreciated in Ukraine. “I hoped to be called but football has become too political. The players are now selected with the fear of doing wrong. The level of play is no longer a priority”, regretted the defender in a message posted on his social networks in November 2019.
Like Rakitskiy, other Ukrainian players have left the country to try their luck elsewhere and in countries less sensitive than Russia. “Only Shakhtar and Dynamo managed to maintain decent salaries. So that pushed the players to continue their careers at European clubs. If nothing had changed, they would have continued to play with a good level of income in Ukraine. “, explains Oleksandr Glyvynskyy.
Among them, Roman Yaremchuk or captain Andriy Yarmolenko, who will be the two great offensive dangers on Saturday night for the Blues of Didier Deschamps. “They fought to continue their career abroad. They progressed and they give back to the selection”, underlines the press officer of Zbirna, who wants to believe that other young Ukrainians will follow the same path and will take over overseas leadership in the years to come.
While the Ukraine team have still failed to win in these World Cup qualifiers, the elevation of the team’s level of play in recent seasons may be one of the only bright spots. to remember for a football which is gradually rebuilding itself, but whose history does not cease crossing that of the conflict which opposes Ukraine to Russia.
Another cause for hope: the Premier Liga has once again been contested with sixteen teams since the start of the 2021-2022 season. Due to the war and the difficulties of some clubs, the league had been reduced to 14 teams in 2014 and then to 12 in 2016. “It is encouraging. But football will continue to suffer, like the whole country, as long as the war continues. will not be finished, ”concludes Oleksandr Glyvynskyy.
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