In Ukraine, football is rising in the west / Other leagues / Ukraine /

Thirty Ukrainian clubs, mostly amateurs, hosted the first football tournament in Ukraine since the start of the war in Ivano-Frankivsk, in the west of the country, last weekend. Report.


A minute of silence, followed by a slogan dear to Ukrainians: “Slava Ukrayini! Heroyam slava! † “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” in VF). The Mikulichin and the Beskid Nadvirna take to the lawn, ready to play the quarterfinals of this charity tournament, in support of the National Armed Forces. An initiative of clubs – 30 in total – mostly amateurs, but for some also professionals. Contested between Saturday 16 and Sunday 17 April, this championship will thus open its final stage at the Naftovik Stadium, in the Nadvirna district, belonging to the Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast (region) in the west of the country. The first revival of football, after 52 days of war.

Snow, mud and exile

It also starts snowing at Naftovik, a fence near an oil rig, with natural and muddy grass. And the ball barely rolls, it stops for a moment dry, slowed down by this black and damp earth, reminiscent of the vast Ukrainian plains, just as dark and fertile. Snow and mud: this brings us back to the football of the past, that of wartime.

The holder of the Auto Plus Kolomiya.

Mikulichin’s goalkeeper is constantly brushing his crampons against the posts. He is Denys Dyakov, 25 years old. In reality, he does not belong to this team: no, he plays for FC Kramatorsk, formerly Avangard Kramatorsk – in Donetsk Oblast – then in D2, until the Russian invasion. Forced into exile, he declares: “My family is still in Kharkov and at the moment it is very difficult for them. † On the field he also cashes in on the 1-0, the result of a long ball that goes over the entire surface, without a defender being able to get it away. Denys returns to wipe off his crampons.

From left to right: Maxym Yermolenko, Arsentiy Doroshenko and Denys Dyakov, players at FC Kramatorsk.

In the process, equalization of the Mikulichin. Denys celebrates her in her cages and continues her cleaning session. But he is not the only FC Kramatorsk player: 24-year-old striker Maxym Yermolenko and 21-year-old midfielder Arsentiy Doroshenko also fled the Donetsk region. Last year Yermolenko was one of the top scorers in the second division. “When the war started, we took refuge in an apartment before fleeing here. As far as I’m concerned, my family came along. † The players then lived in Kramatorsk city center, where civilian and military apartments were mixed. The start of the bombing did not help, the whole team had to leave the area. And unlike Dionysius, Maxym and Arsentiy managed to reach the Ivano-Frankivsk region together with their relatives. All are now refugees in the small community of Yaremche. Back in the game, Denys cashed in at 2-1, with a heel that couldn’t even stop the mud, sealing the final result. The doorman curses, again only able to clean his shoes. Sad, Denys, Maxym and Arseniy say goodbye to the tournament with, despite everything, the joy of finally becoming a footballer again.

Not far from there, Skelia FC and Dzvynyach face each other. Same minute of silence, same slogan. One by one, the Dzvynyach coach blesses his players, helped by a bottle brush. Placed on the shoulders of these young men, the religious relic should bring the necessary luck: they will thus win 3-0.

Gloves posed at Naftovik stadium.

An initiative of the players, aided by the regional federations

“The war will have a huge impact on football. This tournament should make it possible to maintain a certain sporting spirit. War can end everything, the Russians can fire their bombs, but one thing is certain: they will have this will.” don’t kill.” For Taras Klym, vice president of the Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast Football Federation (IFFF), despite the cessation of sports activities, the soul and desire of the athletes remain intact. It must be said that the IFFF has more than 100 affiliated teams, including those from Kolomiya district, Nadvirna and Kalush district. The only obligation to integrate the federation is to pay a commission of 1500 Ukrainian hryvnias (50 euros), as support for the armed forces. In the Kolomiya district alone, 100,000 hryvnias were collected, or just over 3,000 euros. “It’s the players’ idea: there has been no consultation with the federation upstream. All we’ve done at the federal level is organize the calendar to clear dates and find arbitrators. The leagues that are being discontinued, from the professional groups to the regional ones, as long as we have not beaten the Russians, we will continue. And once we win, normal life can resume, with sports in mind. continues Klym.

Naftovik stadium seats. The stands are made of stone and only the main stand has seats, painted in blue and yellow, the colors of Ukraine.

Ruslan Nesteruk, tournament organizer and member of the Nadvirna Football Federation, is also optimistic about the embargo affecting Ukrainian football: “Everything is frozen because of a dramatic situation. We are trying to restart the activities by creating these different competitions to give people back a little bit of joie de vivre. The training will be open again next week. Above all, we want our athletes to get back on their feet. †

Referees: Regional League Veterans and War Volunteers

Mykola, 61, tournament referee.

There are no head referees during this tournament. Only two linesmen are used. On the left half of the field, Mykola, 61, poses as the most classic officer: yellow jersey, shorts and black socks. Brought into action by a lack of hand in the surface, the sixty-year-old pays no attention to it, however too busy chatting with onlookers. On the other hand, his sidekick seems more concerned: he made a mistake in a hastily awarded corner, suffered the wrath of angry players, forcing him to apologize flatly.

The goalkeeper of FK Olymp Tatariv, during the penalty shootout of the halves against Auto Plus Kolomiya.

“I have been working as a regional referee for four years now. it’s a hobby” for his part, specifies Viktor, 30, working in the building, presenting himself today as an army volunteer since the Russian invasion. “Right now I’m here, but if they need me elsewhere, I’ll go forward. †

Viktor, 30, spent four years as a referee in the Ivano-Frakivsk region before joining the army as a volunteer.

Dmytro, 61, “secretary” of the tournament, records every score. He was also a regional referee in another life: “Every team should play with blue and yellow jerseys (the colors of the Ukrainian flag) stating the phrase “Death to Russian soldiers!” † he jokes. For fun, Dmytro does not hesitate to exchange his pen for a cigarette, because yes, he smokes a lot. And before sitting on the sidelines again, this time he picks up a bottle of brandy to take a few sips down his throat.

The emptiness that war brings

It’s pause everywhere. In between each of these games, the lawns are emptied and there is silence over the grounds for several minutes. The latter are far from short, but seem to last an eternity. They are ubiquitous everywhere in the stadium: in the goals, in the dressing rooms, in the stands. This silence enforced by the war symbolizes the memory of those who died there. Such is the case for FC Cherniatin, in the Kolomiya district, which refused to participate in the tournament after the death of one of its players – a soldier who was sent to the front line. The whole team went to his funeral. As for Gorgany Zelena, we played Saturday without entering the final stage the following day. Not for nothing did the team play without Vasil Shpinta, 28, whose funeral took place this Sunday.

A balloon in the Ukrainian sky. For the first time since the beginning of the war, we were able to play football again, despite the amateurish and unofficial nature of this competition.

The final: penalties in the sun and anthem in the snow

The Ukrainian national anthem sounds from the sound system. We finally turned the volume down so as not to disturb the players and immediately turned it off to watch the penalty shootout between Auto Plus Kolomiya and Beskid Nadvirna, who didn’t know how to decide during regular time. The final is therefore played with penalties and a shining sun appears as a symbol, more favorable for the Mediterranean coasts than for eastern Europe. The cold and snow are finally gone. During the session, Beskid Nadvirna faltered and gave the victory to Auto Plus Kolomiya, the local “Wolfsburg”. The victors rush to their keeper and carry him triumphantly like a hero. From the hands of the organizer, Ruslan Nesteruk, president of the Nadvirna Football Association, they receive the trophy, and at the end of the ceremony, the same Nesteruk starts a radio cassette that he had brought earlier.

The Auto Plus Kolomiya celebrates its last win, waiting for the trophy.

From this we can clearly hear the Ukrainian national anthem, which is recorded in unison by the protagonists: players, referees, managers and spectators. Men, women, children, the elderly, their hands on their hearts, their gaze fixed on the national flag, hoisted in this Naftovik stadium. The few snowflakes return, stronger, turned into a storm aimed at those present. These shout to the beat of a glorified hymn, as if the Russian troops were standing before them. Immune to this persistent cold, everyone then waits motionless for the national melody to stop, despite the violence of these white falls. From a single man, is then taken over the “Sláva Ukrayini!, Heróyam slava! † So football is coming to an end. The storms continue.

Empty targets in Naftovik Stadium. There is silence between games.

By Sergi Llamas, in Ivano-Frankivsky

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