OLEKSANDR ZINCHENKO will be watching as football resumes in Ukraine today – proud, defiant, but also a little worried.
Arsenal star Zinchenko believes staging matches in his homeland for the first time since the Russian invasion in February will send an important message.
But he acknowledges the danger that his compatriots will face simply by stepping on to the pitch.
Ukraine international Zinchenko said: “It’s difficult for me to imagine how it’s going to be.
“If there are air-raid sirens, they are going to have to stop, so it’s going to be difficult.
“People are still suffering. We need to fight every single day.
“I will be watching as many games as possible on TV.
“It’s so important to show to the rest of the world that the Ukrainian people don’t give up, that in any situation they carry on.”
No fans will be allowed and at least half of the 16 top-flight clubs in Ukraine will be unable to play at home, in some cases sharing stadiums in “safer” cities.
But wherever they play, regulations require there to be an air-raid shelter for players, staff and match officials to escape to in the event of an attack.
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And that is a very real danger: today is Ukraine’s National Flag Day and Russia is believed to be planning military action on such a symbolic occasion.
Shakhtar Donetsk players are accustomed to being away from Donetsk. The club has been exiled from the eastern city since pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region proclaimed independence in 2014.
But the current situation is on a new, horrifying level as the club prepares to contest the opening match of the new season against Metalist 1925 in the Olimpiyskiy Stadium in Kyiv. at 11am UK time.
Shakhtar striker Lassina Traore, a Burkina Faso international and cousin of Aston Villa forward Bertrand, is one of only two overseas players not to have left the club since the war began.
Sometimes we were under shelling. Certainly, it was terrifying
Traore said: “Of course, I worry like everyone else, no one knows what is going to happen in the future.
“Now it is a little bit calm compared to the beginning, but the war is still going on.”
No-one knows that better than Yuriy Vernydub, head coach of Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih.
This time last year Vernydub was about to lead Moldovan side Sheriff Tiraspol into the Champions League group stage for the first time.
His side would go on to pull off one of the competition’s great shocks by beating Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
But when Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Vernydub left his team preparing for a Europa League match in Portugal to return home and join the army.
Vernydub was sent to an artillery unit on the frontline in the south of Ukraine.
He said: “It was tough work from dusk till dawn.
“Sometimes we were under shelling. Certainly, it was terrifying, especially the first several times, but as time went on it became commonplace.
“Currently I combine serving in the army and coaching.
“But If I receive an order to go back, I will immediately do it.”
Overseas football has shown solidarity with Ukraine, with foreign-based players like Zinchenko receiving strong support from crowds.
And the resumption of the game in the country itself will make a powerful statement at home and abroad.
Dynamo Kyiv vice captain Viktor Tsygankov said: “As football players, we have to accept the risk of playing when any minute a missile can be launched by Russian forces and land anywhere.
“At the same time, I know that thousands of Ukrainian soldiers at the front line are football fans. They protect our lives at the expense of their health, their lives, therefore we have to support them from our side.
“I’ll be happy if football becomes the thing that helps the Ukrainian people to forget even for a couple of hours about the terrible things that are happening in our country.
“People in other countries are also struggling because of the consequences of this war.
“We must remind them that we are fighting not only for our freedom, which nobody can take from us, but probably for their future, too.”