Soccer-Ukraine shows shell-blasted Kharkiv stadium seats to remind Euro 2024 of war


Soccer Football - Euro 2024 - Ukrainian Association of Football presents installation of a Kharkiv's stadium stands - Wittelsbacherplatz, Munich, Germany - June 17, 2024 Ukrainian Association of Football president Andriy Shevchenko presents seats at Wittelsbacherplatz, from the Sonyachny Stadium in Kharkiv that were shelled by Russian missiles ahead of the match between Ukraine and Romania REUTERS/Angelika Warmuth

MUNICH, Germany (Reuters) - Former Ukraine striker Andriy Shevchenko presented the shell-blasted seats of a Kharkiv stadium built for Euro 2012 in Munich on Monday, as cheering Ukraine fans vowed to keep fighting the Russian invasion.

Ukraine's football association said the Sonyachny stadium in Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, had been destroyed by Russian shells in 2022. In a central Munich square, Ukrainian refugees and supporters who had driven 25 hours from Ukraine looked at the blue and yellow seats, hours before their team were due to play their first Euro 2024 game against Romania in the city.

"When I was the coach of the national team, we often came to Kharkiv for training. We prepared for the Euro 2021 qualifiers at Sonyachny. Learning that the stadium was destroyed felt like finding out your home was ruined," said Shevchenko, now president of the Ukraine Football Association (UAF).

"Even if football pitches or stands cannot withstand Russian shells, we will never stop standing for our country and telling the world about this ruthless war," Shevchenko added.

Kyiv wants to bring a stark reminder to Euro 2024 that Ukrainian forces have been engaged in Europe's bloodiest fighting since World War Two, and civilian life in the country has been upended. More than 500 sports facilities have been destroyed, including 77 football stadiums.

Ukraine's first match will highly emotional for the team, Ukrainian refugees and those watching at home.

Coach Serhiy Rebrov said he and his players were in contact with soldiers on the front lines who have told them to show "the spirit of Ukraine" at the tournament.

FORMER HOST NATION

Ukraine and Poland co-hosted Euro 2012, with the final held in Kyiv. Besides Kyiv and Kharkiv, Lviv and Donetsk also staged matches and more than one million foreign visitors came to the country. Donetsk is now under Russian occupation and Kharkiv is repeatedly attacked by missiles and drones.

As a six-year-old, Daria Reshetilo remembers watching Italian and Spanish soccer fans streaming through a sunny Kyiv for the Euro 2012 final, and the party atmosphere.

Today she is a refugee, living and studying in Germany apart from her family.

"I will be offering face painting outside the stadium before the game to raise money for Ukraine. I want to do something, this is so important for us," she said.

Anna Lymarenko, 25, originally from Kharkiv but visiting Munich for a craft show, said the football would help keep Ukraine visible abroad.

"There are lots of Europeans who understand what we are fighting for - not just for our own freedom and democracy, but also theirs, so I hope there will be a lot of support for Ukraine."

"It is so hard to live in Ukraine, to see childhood places destroyed... when you live there you can easily lose hope, so it is good to feel you are not alone."

The front lines in Ukraine have barely moved since the end of 2022, despite tens of thousands of dead on both sides in relentless trench warfare.

After initial Ukrainian successes in which Kyiv repelled an assault on the capital and recaptured territory, a major Ukrainian counter-offensive using donated Western tanks fizzled out last year. Russian forces still hold a fifth of Ukraine and are again advancing, albeit slowly.

Moscow casts what it calls its special military operation in Ukraine as part of a broader struggle with the West, which it says wants to bring Russia to its knees. Kyiv and the West say Russia is waging an illegal war of conquest. (This story has been corrected to say that Donetsk is under Russian occupation and Kharkiv is under repeated attack in paragraph 8)

(Reporting by Alexandra Hudson, editing by Ed Osmond)

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