Ukraine plans to resume competitive football in the country in August despite being under attack by Russia after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave approval.
Andriy Pavelko, the president of Ukraine's football federation, revealed details to The Associated Press about his talks with Zelenskyy and the heads of FIFA and UEFA about finding a safe way of playing men's and women's matches on home soil.
Ukraine was forced to abandon its leagues in February when Russia began an invasion that, according to Zelenskyy, has led to “at least tens of thousands" of Ukrainian civilians dying and large swaths of many cities and towns being bombed into rubble.
But as Russian forces have been redeployed to the east and south, fighting has subsided in the area near the capital Kyiv and elsewhere. There is optimism sport can resume to lift the spirits of the nation, which is trying to qualify for the World Cup on Sunday by winning away at Wales.
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“I spoke with our president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, about how important football is to distract,” Pavelko said in an interview with the AP, surrounded by Ukraine jerseys and a tactics board in the team meeting room in Cardiff. "From the children to the old people, everyone is focused on the war. Every day they receive information about deaths, about the impact of the war.
“We spoke about how football has a very big power to help people think about the future because now people, of course, are not in a good mindset. They’re in the worst mood. We spoke about how it would be possible that football could help us to think about the future.”
That is a future with players being able to take to the field again in Ukraine to provide uplifting sports moments of joy.
“So we took the decision with the president that we would resume the Ukrainian championship in August,” Pavelko said through a translator. “In Ukraine we will play on every level. So the Premier League, and the first and second professional divisions, and women’s championship.
"At all levels we will start in August. The decision was taken with the president of Ukraine.”
Pavelko met Zelenskyy before leaving Ukraine for Glasgow to see the World Cup playoff semifinal win over Scotland on Wednesday. Pavelko then went on to see FIFA President Gianni Infantino in Paris and UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
“I informed them that we will resume the championships in the war time in Ukraine ... under the bombs and we count on their support," Pavelko said. “We are discussing the details.”
The government prohibits men from 18 to 60 from leaving Ukraine to keep them available for war duties, although footballers have been allowed abroad to play for teams, and Pavelko has flown to key meetings. But he did broadcast live to the UEFA Congress in Vienna last month via his phone from a stadium in Chernihiv that had been attacked by Russia, to show the damage inflicted.
It is not yet clear which parts of the country will be used for league matches.
“We will speak with our military board and the government to discuss how to organize it safely,” Pavelko added.
Shakhtar Donetsk was leading the standings when the season was suspended in February and then officially declared over in April, giving it a place in the lucrative group stage of the Champions League next season.
Shakhtar has been living with uncertainty in exile for eight years. The team has not played in Donetsk since 2014 when forced out by a Russian-backed conflict in its home region of eastern Ukraine, which remains the scene of intense fighting.