Ukrainian Draw Darkness of War, Lightness of Soccer

For 90 minutes, Ukrainians turned their attention from the fighting in the east to an international soccer game with Bayern Munich in the western part of the country. They liked what they saw.
Bayern Munich struggled to find its game in Ukraine's Lviv stadium.

This article was originally published on February 18, 2015, and republished without changes in February 2018.

At times, Bayern Munich players could have believed they were competing in a match between national teams – and not a Champions League tournament game between Europe’s top clubs.

The packed 39,000-seat stadium in Lviv was full of banners in the Ukrainian national colors. Ukrainian fans frequently bellowed “U-kra-i-na” in harmony, and even once, they stood and sang the national anthem.

This was not a typical Champions League game by any standards.

First the score: Shakhtar Donetsk and Bayern Munich tied 0-0. That, in itself, is a victory for the Ukrainian club, which hasn’t played in its own stadium in war-torn eastern Ukraine since July, hadn’t played a competitive game since December and was forced on Tuesday to play in Lviv, hundreds of miles from its home turf.

Add to that the fact that Shakhtar drew a tie against a club that is one of the best in the world.

Bayern Munich, which won the Champions League two years ago, pulverized Hamburg 8-0 in a Bundesliga match last week. It leads the Bundesliga with 52 points, ahead of its nearest competitor VfL Wolfsburg with 44. If the club lacks anything, it’s not self-confidence.

The game began as nearly all games with Bayern Munich begin – with ball possession.

Experts reckoned the match in Lviv would be one-sided. They were surprised.

The game began as nearly all games with Bayern Munich begin – with ball possession. And it ended, as most of them do, with Munich achieving 64-percent ball possession.

In the first two minutes of play, Sebastian Schweinsteiger fired off a shot that inched past the goalpost. Ukrainian fans were prepared for the worst.

Then Shakhtar dug in with a defense that allowed Bayern Munich few chances. Munich’s top guns – Arjen Robben, Franck Ribéry and Thomas Müller – all had their chances but couldn’t capitalize on them.

It didn’t help that Bayern Munich midfielder Xabi Alonso was sent off with a red card after 65 minutes of play in his 100th Champions League game.

It was a tough game, played in icy minus-10 degree Celsius temperatures, with both sides sharing 35 fouls and seven yellow cards. And of the yellow cards, one could easily have been red. The Brazilian Douglas Costa shoved his elbow into Mr. Ribéry’s face so hard that the Frenchman looked dizzy for several minutes of play.

“We really wanted to score here,” Munich forward Mario Götze said in a televised interview. “It would have been important.”

You know there is this terrible war out there, but you don't really realize it because you don't really know such a situation personally. Thomas Müller,, Midfielder with Bayern Munich

The team’s trainer, the Spaniard Pep Guardiola, called the results “dangerous,” adding that the club “now has to win the return match.”

Of the team’s dismal performance, Manager Matthias Sammer said bluntly, “This wasn’t Bayern Munich on the pitch.”

Maybe the circumstances played a role in Bayern Munich’s unexpectedly poor performance.

Ahead of the game, Mr. Müller had been philosophical about the trip to Ukraine, which has been fighting pro-Russian separatists in and around Donetsk and the east of the country since last April. The fighting has killed over 5,400 people and wounded thousands more.

"Somehow, it's a surreal situation,” he said at a press conference on Monday. “You know there is this terrible war out there, but you don't really realize it because you don't really know such a situation personally."

Bayern Munich decided not to travel to Lviv until Monday afternoon, returning to Bavaria directly after the match.

Even then, the club played closer to its home stadium than Shakhtar. Lviv is 1,050 kilometers or 650 miles from Donetsk but only 925 kilometers from Munich.

The two sides will meet at the Allianz Arena in Munich for the second leg on March 11.


John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: [email protected]