Russia destroyed their stadium, but Mariupol’s exiled footballers vow to rise from the ashes | The Telegraph

Matches are played with no fans and some grounds have been destroyed, but the Ukrainian Premier League has restarted

by UKCHP_Admin

For the month before Andriy Sanin escaped the siege of Mariupol, the 48-year-old football club vice president was reduced to melting snow and scrounging food to keep his family alive.

On the other side of the city, 10 miles away, the stadium in which his football club played was being destroyed.

“When your life’s work, into which you poured your heart and soul is destroyed before your eyes, it naturally leaves the most oppressive feelings,” he said.

Ukrainian Premier League football resumed last week in a morale boost for the country six months after the Russian invasion halted it. But Mariupol FC, a team with dreams of reaching the Europa league, is not competing.

Mariupol FC and another team from the northern city of Chernigiv have been allowed to skip the season with a right to return next year. While Denas from Chernigiv will need to rebuild a stadium that was hit by a Russian rocket, for Mariupol FC the road to a comeback will be longer.

“Our club infrastructure was destroyed completely and we’re facing severe financial difficulties,” said Mr Sanin. “That’s why we have asked the Premier League of Ukraine to give us a break until Mariupol is liberated.”

Mariupol FC was a storied club that was previously named after the Azovstal steelworks where Ukrainian fighters mounted a heroic two-month resistance against overwhelming Russian forces earlier this year.

Once home to half a million inhabitants, the city on the Sea of Azov was left in ruins after the siege. Ninety percent of Mariupol FC’s 300 employees fled the city in the aftermath.

Mr Sanin describes hiding for almost a month surrounded by Russian forces before being able to flee Mariupol with his wife and two children through a humanitarian corridor.

“My beautiful house near the Sea of Azov was destroyed,” he said, speaking on a Zoom call from a rented home outside the capital Kyiv.

The players of Mariupol FC had been in Turkey for a winter training camp when war broke out and never returned home. Most have now left the club when their contracts ended, with a few traded or loaned to other clubs.

“Fortunately we didn’t lose any players or staff, they all survived, but we have huge financial losses,” Mr Sanin said.

The most lasting of this damage to the club will be the loss of its stadium and training facilities.

“Before the war we had some of the best training infrastructure in Ukraine,” said Mr Sanin, describing the club’s dream to one day compete in the Europa League.

A modern stadium with a new hybrid pitch, as well as three-full sized training pitches and an artificial turf were all damaged by shelling during the siege, with Mr Sanin estimating that financial losses could easily exceed over 100 million hryvnia, or about £2.3m.

While Mariupol FC is still counting its losses, other teams in the league have relocated to safer cities in the west of the country and matches are being played without fans to protect them from potential Russian air strikes. In the first game on Tuesday, Shakhtar Donetsk drew 0-0 with Metalist 1925 at the Olimpiysky National Sports Complex stadium, Kyiv.

With the country now into its sixth month of a gruelling war that has settled into a bloody stalemate, President Volodymyr Zelensky ordered football to restart as a morale boost.

A second tier team from Mariupol, which has renamed itself FSC Mariupol this season, has relocated to outside Kyiv with a handful of players who made it out of the city.

“Now the most important thing is participation,” Oleksandr Yaroshenko, the club’s president, told AFP of its decision to play the season against all odds.

“Today it is more of an ideological team, which is built on the philosophy that this is Mariupol and that we are alive.”

Other Ukrainian clubs have managed to struggle on after being exiled from their home cities. When pro-Russian separatists seized Donetsk in 2014, football club Shakhtar Donetsk moved from its home city to Lviv in western Ukraine. Likewise football club Zorya Luhansk has been exiled to the Zaporizhzhia region.

But Mr Sanin doubted whether Mariupol FC could do the same. “They had the financial ability to survive in other parts of Ukraine, we just don’t have the finances. Football is a business for selling emotions but the business needs to be financially stable,” he said.

While Mr Sanin and his club dream of liberation and a rebirth from the ashes of a destroyed city, a flicker of hope in the interim has arrived with a new fundraising programme

Pitch In For Ukraine hopes to muster fans among the international football community to support Ukrainian teams.

The initiative will offer to sell fans virtual ownership of football-sized parts of Ukrainian stadium pitches, including from FC Shakhtar Donetsk and eventually Mariupol FC.

“We are doing everything we can to rebuild our club, we are hoping this programme will help us,” said Mr Sanin.

For now though Mr Sanin dreams of the day when his club’s fans – the Mariki – will again hear the Ukrainian anthem played in their home stadium.

“The destiny of Mariupol club has an unbreakable link with Ukraine and its people,” he said. “Believe in us and keep supporting us.”



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