To Escape Fighting In Ukraine, Shakhtar Donetsk Takes An Indefinite Road Trip

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Plumes of thick black smoke and a rapid-fire echo of explosions rose into the afternoon sky.

Several hundred people from eastern Ukraine, almost all of them men in black T-shirts and balaclavas, were singing nationalistic songs as they threw smoke bombs onto the soccer field in front of them.

They were members of the Shakhtar Ultras, a group of hard-core soccer fans who support Ukraine’s champions, Shakhtar Donetsk, anywhere they play.

On this sunny August day, they were watching the Donetsk derby between Shakhtar and Olimpik.

But the match, like all of Shakhtar’s matches these days, was not taking place in Donetsk, which has been battered by months of shelling.

Instead the fans traveled hundreds of miles west to the capital, Kiev.

As with most areas of Ukrainian society, professional soccer has been disfigured by the war in the east.

Three teams in Crimea were absorbed into the Russian league system, and clubs from Donetsk, Luhansk, Mariupol and beyond have been forced to relocate to Kiev. 

Shakhtar, the country’s richest and most successful team, is the most public example of this disruption.

It has won the last five Ukrainian Premier League titles and regularly competes in the UEFA Champions League, including this season’s tournament.

Since 2009, Shakhtar has played its home games at the state-of-the-art Donbass Arena, a 50,000-seat stadium built to host several matches during the 2012 European Championships, and filled its roster with foreign stars acquired through the patronage of the club’s billionaire owner, Rinat Akhmetov.

According to Forbes, Akhmetov, the son of a coal miner, is worth $12.5 billion.

He made his money in steel, in iron ore and in the region’s coal mines, which are part of the club’s identity — his club’s crest includes two crossed coal hammers.

He was also a former ally of Viktor F. Yanukovych, the deposed Ukrainian president. 

Since Akhmetov took over as Shakhtar’s president in the mid-1990s, his fortune has allowed Shakhtar to pay wages and transfer fees comparable to Europe’s biggest teams, attracting a host of talented players who might not otherwise move to eastern Ukraine.

On Monday, Shakhtar’s star-studded roster traveled to Spain for its first Champions League game of the season, against Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday.

These are just the sort of marquee games that Akhmetov’s money was supposed to buy.

But given the volatile situation in the east — the team’s stadium was damaged last month in shelling — it is unlikely that Shakhtar will play any of them in its home stadium for the foreseeable future.

“It is a strange situation, and strange for us,” said Shakhtar’s captain, the 32-year-old Croatian defender Darijo Srna.

He was sitting in the lobby of an upscale hotel a short distance from Kiev’s Independence Square, the epicenter of Ukraine’s revolution.

The club, its players and its staff are living here temporarily, eating breakfast at the buffet among the guests and training in the hotel’s small but plush gym.

Some days, that produces odd scenes of World Cup veterans working out on treadmills alongside well-to-do middle-aged Ukrainian women doing their weekly exercises, or of players giving television interviews on plush couches in the lobby. 

But the war is never far away.

“It is not easy when every day we wake up, open the newspaper and open the television and see,” Srna said, adding:

“I’ve lived here for 11 years, in Donetsk. It is my home. I’m happy there. The day that will be the end of the war, we will return to Donetsk and kiss the street.”

But the war has undoubtedly made things more difficult.

Shakhtar is renowned for its success in scouting South America for emerging talent, especially in Brazil, and players like Manchester City’s Fernandinho and Chelsea’s Willian both gained European experience playing for the club.

The current squad includes more than a dozen Brazilians, but five of them — and one Argentine — initially refused to return to Ukraine in July after a friendly in France, citing the deteriorating security situation.

Club officials were furious. Mircea Lucescu, Shakhtar’s Romanian coach for the past decade, angrily blamed the players’ agents for trying to engineer the departures. 

“Players have contracts that they have to abide by,” Akhmetov told Shakhtar’s official website at the time.

“If they do not come, I think, they will be the first to suffer.”

All of the players, including the highly rated Brazilian Bernard, who played at the World Cup last summer, have since rejoined Shakhtar.

The Brazilians and their teammates now can be seen quietly padding through the hotel’s lobby in groups of three and four, exiled by language within a team exiled from home.

The most significant effect on the club’s fortunes, however, may come from Ukraine’s shifting political landscape.

“Akhmetov was Yanukovych’s financial backer before he came to power, and he benefited a lot financially by being close to the president,” said Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow at Chatham House in London.

When Ukrainians rebelled earlier this year against Yanukovych’s plans to seek closer ties with Russia, Akhmetov initially stayed silent.

In May, months after Yanukovych had fled the country, he came out in favor of the new Kiev government, but according to Lutsevych, the delay led many in Kiev to question his allegiances.

For now, his soccer team plays on.

The Donetsk derby in Kiev ended in a rout, with Shakhtar beating Olimpik, 5-0, in a tiny stadium before a few hundred fans.

After the final whistle, Srna and a handful of players ran to salute their fans.

They were quickly mobbed by the Ultras, shaking hands, exchanging hugs and posing for photos.

“This was the best day of the season!” said one fan, a 21-year-old finance student named Vladyslav, who declined to give his last name.

He beamed as he left the stadium.

“I don’t know how I’ll get home,” he said.

“Maybe I’ll hitch a ride on a tank.”

No one knows when top-division soccer will return to eastern Ukraine.

“Only God knows how long it will take Donetsk to recover from this hell, both mentally and materially,” said Alex Sereda, a Ukrainian soccer journalist based in the port city of Mariupol.

The team there has also been exiled to Kiev.

“It’s impossible to believe that two years ago this city hosted Euro 2012, with thousands of people walking around in Donetsk wearing Ukraine shirts.”

In the weeks after the Donetsk derby on Aug. 15, the Donbass Arena was hit by shelling.

The club’s offices were briefly overrun by unidentified armed men.

But Shakhtar continues to win.

It once again leads the Ukrainian league, having won every one of its relocated games this season.

The Shakhtar Ultras continue to travel hundreds of miles every week — on Saturday they were in Odessa for a 2-0 victory over Chornomorets — even if their numbers apparently have been reduced.

The day after the Shakhtar-Olimpik game, the Shakhtar Ultras’ Twitter account announced that a group of its members had stayed in Kiev and joined the Azov Battalion, a volunteer militia fighting in the east.

Despite his best intentions, Vladyslav said, he was not among them.

“I wanted to go to the military unit,” he said.

But my parents would not let me.”

Source: The New York Times