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Ukrainian Premier League set to resume amid uncertainty

On Saturday Dynamo Kiev will face Tavria Simferopol, a club from the capital against a club from the hub of Crimea, as Ukrainian domestic football attempts to push forward as the country seeks stability.

Dynamo Kiev play at Valeriy Lobanovsky stadium, where they will kick off the resumption of the Ukrainian Premier League season on Saturday March 15, 2014. Sergei Supinsky / AFP
Dynamo Kiev play at Valeriy Lobanovsky stadium, where they will kick off the resumption of the Ukrainian Premier League season on Saturday March 15, 2014. Sergei Supinsky / AFP

Defying the political turmoil that has raised alarm about the country’s future, Ukraine’s football teams resume matches this week in the hope that sport can help unite a divided nation.

The events of the last months that have seen dozens of protesters killed in Kiev, president Viktor Yanukovych ousted and pro-Moscow forces occupy Crimea, have also left their mark on the Ukrainian football scene.

The Ukrainian football federation is beset by infighting.

At least one pro-Yanukovych club owner has now fled the country, foreign players are worried for their security and what is going to happen to football in Crimea remains a mystery.

Yet teams and football executives are united on one issue – the show must go on.

The football federation and sports ministry have decided that the season will resume on Saturday (March 15) – two weeks later than scheduled after the winter break because of the violence.

“As the minister and a Ukrainian citizen I’m ready do my best to restart the Premier league as soon as possible,” said Sports Minister Dmytro Bulatov.

“Our society’s vital need for a national football championship is the main reason for my position. Football is a sport of millions, it unites Ukraine. Let’s unite Ukraine.”

Bulatov rose to his job as post-Yanukovych sports minister after being a prominent activist in the protest movement against the former president. He was kidnapped and severely beaten in January.

Some of the many foreign footballers playing with Ukrainian club sides have decided to return home to wait until the unrest in the country is over.

“Frankly speaking I’m frightened a bit,” Swedish footballer Gustav Svensson, who plays for Tavria Simferopol in Crimea, told reporters.

“Ukraine currently isn’t a safe place. I decided to leave Ukraine and to wait and see what’s going to happen here.”

The capital’s flagship side Dynamo Kiev were forced to play their home Europa League match with Spanish side Valencia in Nicosia, Cyprus.

The lack of home crowd support contributed to Dynamo’s 2-0 defeat, which cost them a place in the next round.

Dynamo’s stadium in Kiev is on Grushevsky Street, one of the focal points of clashes between protesters and police.

Ukraine’s international friendly with the United States, which was also played in Cyprus, caused a serious falling-out between Ukrainian Football Federation (FFU) chief Anatoliy Konkov and his deputy Anatoliy Popov.

“In recent days Konkov withdrew from any kind of participation in FFU activity. He’s lost of control over the FFU completely,” said Popov.

Popov said Konkov had ordered the cancellation of the friendly with the USA and threatened the FFU executive board members after the ruling body decided to switch the match to Nicosia.

“Luckily, none of the board members were afraid and the encounter was played in Cyprus,” Popov added.

Meanwhile, some of the pro-Yanukovych Ukrainian tycoons who own clubs, mainly in the east of the country, are under huge pressure from the new authorities and the West over corruption allegations.

Sergiy Kurchenko, the owner of Metalist Kharkiv, who are second in the Ukrainian league behind Shakhtar Donetsk, is the target of an asset-freeze by the European Union along with the Yanukovych family and more than a dozen other ex-officials.

The situation has forced the businessman to seek sanctuary abroad – reportedly in Russia – leaving his club out of control.

“I’m an honest Ukrainian businessman, who alway invested into Ukraine, where almost all of my business facilities were concentrated,” Kurchenko’s press service quoted him as saying.

“Neither me personally, nor any of my companies were the objects of criminal investigation at any time.”

The owner of Ukraine’s top club Shakhkar Donetsk, the country’s richest man Rinat Akhmetov, however, seems to be seeking to find an accommodation with the new authorities after years of backing Yanukovych.

Akhmetov has spoken up against a split of Ukraine and told Russia to respect the country.

“The east of Ukraine, this is also Ukraine,” he said.

However managers, players and officials are now united in simply wanting matches to resume and hope this can somehow ease the trouble.

Mircea Lucescu, the Romanian manager of Shakhtar Donetsk, has voiced his confidence in the positive influence of the game in a “delicate” situation.

“I’m absolutely confident that football can help us all out of trouble,” Lucescu said, quoted by his club press service.

“By resuming the football season, Ukraine will show the world the country is living a normal life and keeping stability, which so many people need so much right now.”

The first match to be played on Saturday will be between Dynamo Kiev and Tavria Simferopol, the team from the main city of Crimea.

This was to have been a Tavria home game but the venue has been switched to the National Olympic Sports Complex in Kiev for security reasons.

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