A team of female football players, their uniforms emblazoned with the colours blue and yellow, warm up on a nearly deserted stadium in the capital of Ukraine. Every game now features a minute of silence in memory of the victims of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Across the chest of their uniforms is the slogan “Mariupol is Ukraine.” They’re all part of the Women’s Football Team from Mariupol. After more than two months of fierce resistance by outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian forces, the eastern port city was devastated and overrun by Russian forces last year, making Mariupol a global emblem of Ukrainian defiance.
Russia has illegally occupied the city since its president did so in September. Five original Mariupol players have founded a new Kyiv-based team, bringing in players from all around Ukraine. Is that it? To maintain their standing in the league and to remind the world that Mariupol is still part of Ukraine despite the approaching one-year anniversary of the Russian occupation.
There was a brief moment of normalcy on the football pitch this week as the team played for the Ukrainian title versus the “Shakhtar” team. Not exactly, though. Due to security concerns, authorities have barred fans from attending the game. This has left the stadium deserted and silent. The players enter via a door marked with sandbags that read “shelter.” Alina Kaidalovska, a midfielder for the Kyiv Dynamo, recalls the moment of reflection that preceded her first game in Kyiv after evacuating from Mariupol.
The events of Mariupol “came flooding back to me in a hurry,” she added. The images of blasted and destroyed buildings in the besieged city, the fear of running and hiding from Russian strikes, and the grief of witnessing people’s deaths overwhelmed her head. They spend two hours a day practising in a little stadium in the middle of Kyiv’s towering skyscrapers. They’ve already accepted the fact that they won’t win the Ukrainian championship this year, but they keep training nevertheless.
The club’s membership has increased from the initial handful to 27, with members ranging in age from 16 to 34. Despite coming from a wide variety of cities, the Mariupol insignia, a seagull with a football in the backdrop, is prominently shown on their dark blue training uniforms. Mariupol is located on the northern shore of the Sea of Azov. Despite numerous obstacles and a lack of finances, the women remain eager to participate. Polina Polukhina, the 33-year-old captain of the team, would love to play in her hometown of Mariupol again.
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