After the joy and elation of boxer Oleksandr Usyk’s success at the weekend, Ukrainian sports fans were looking forward to iconic Ukrainian soccer club Dynamo Kyiv giving them and the whole country a boost on the eve of Ukrainian Independence Day.
The club’s mission was to qualify for the group stages of the UEFA Champions League tournament, the most prestigious and lucrative club football tournament on the globe. It had to overturn a two-goal advantage held by Portuguese side Benfica FC from the first game played in the Polish city of Lodz. Dynamo plays its home European games there because of Putin’s war on Ukraine.
Sadly, the dream disappeared on the evening of August 23, as Benfica scored three goals in 15 minutes in the first half. Dynamo did not crumble and managed to not concede any more goals, thereby losing by three goals on the night and by five goals on aggregate.
It means that Dynamo Kyiv will now play games in the Europa League, the poorer cousin of the Champions League, while its arch rival, Shakhtar Donetsk, can look forward to playing in the Champions League group stage. The draw for the group stage will be made in Istanbul on the evening of August 25.
But Dynamo Kyiv did well to get this far, having beaten Turkish club Fenerbahce and Austria’s Sturm Graz in the two earlier qualifying rounds. Benfica were just too strong and punished Kyiv by taking advantage of defensive errors. Ukrainian players have played few competitive games since November 2021, when the traditional winter break began. Some Dynamo players played for the Ukrainian national team in May and June, but they are clearly rusty and off the pace.
Dynamo will play its first game in the new domestic Ukrainian football season on Sunday, August 28. The season actually kicked off on Tuesday, August 23 with a game at the Olympic Stadium between Shakhtar and Metalist Kharkiv. The Ukrainian Premier League kicked off in an empty Olympic Stadium, as mass events are currently banned.
Shakhtar and Metalist players, along with the match officials, came out of the tunnel draped in Ukrainian national flags before lining up to hear an address on the stadium’s big screen from President Zelensky. A Ukrainian soldier ceremonially kicked off the match and some players were in tears before the action got fully under way. Military officials, as will be the case at every game in the new season, were in attendance ready to evacuate players and officials to shelters if air-raid sirens were heard.
The match passed off without any such hostile interruptions. Midfielder Mykhaylo Mudryk, the subject of summer transfer rumours, hit the crossbar for the 13-time champions, but they were also thankful for a superb first-half save from goalkeeper Anatoliy Trubin to keep them from falling beyond.
So, the season began defiantly, with bomb shelters at the ready and Russia’s threat still looming. Though Shakhtar dominated, the game ended goalless.
Initially matches will only be played in Kyiv, its outskirts and two western provinces near the border. President Volodymyr Zelensky encouraged the return of top-flight football as a morale-boosting show of defiance. Three more games were played on August 23, and more are slated for the weekend.
TV company Setanta will show most domestic games. The football channels owned and run by magnate Renat Akhmetov, who owns Shakhtar Donetsk, have been liquidated. But football has clearly seen better days.
Many of Shakhtar’s overseas players have moved away after rules were relaxed over transfers out of Ukraine. However, others, like Burkina Faso striker Lassina Traore, have stayed. Brazilian defender Lucas Taylor has even headed the other way, taking his place in the starting line-up after signing on loan for Shakhtar from Greek club Paok.
The Olympic Stadium, which hosted the Euro 2012 final, displayed a large banner in support of Ukraine’s United 24 fundraising drive, with the players warming up in T-shirts dedicated to a new “Pitch In For Ukraine” campaign aimed at sports fans around the world.
But Russia’s war has hit football too.
The 16-club Premier League will restart without Desna Chernihiv and Mariupol FC. The northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, close to the border with Belarus, and its football stadium were badly damaged after a siege lasting nearly six weeks at the start of Russia’s war, while Mariupol lies in ruins and is currently in Russian hands.
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