• Shauna Rush

A SOCCER CLUB IN EXILE

Updated: Jan 27

This article was originally published on October 16th, 2019.


Next week Shakhtar Donetsk is set to play their third Champions League Group C fixture, in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, roughly 180 miles away from Shakhtar's home Donetsk.


The Ukrainian side is operating under extraordinary circumstances. As war stalks the city of Donetsk, a city which in 2012 proudly hosted games for the European Championships, is too dangerous for its own soccer clubs to play in.

History


In 1936, the soccer club Stakhanovets was formed by the All-Union Council on Physical Culture and Sports, a communist department designed to promote and monitor physical health within the Soviet Union.


The name Stakhanovets, came from the meaning "the participant of Stakhanovite movement", which derived from Aleksei Stakhanov, a local coal-miner and propaganda celebrity of the 1930s.


Their first game would be part of the cup competition the Spring Challenge of the Ukrainian SSR, where they would go on to lose 3-2 to Dynamo Odessa. Later that same year they would enter lower levels of the Soviet league system.


In 1946, the All-Union coal mining society of Stakhanovite (Stakhanovets) decided to change its name to Shakhter, pronounced Shakhtyor in Russian and Shakhtar in English, the club followed suit.


The club would see limited success winning the Soviet Cup two years in a row in 1961 and 1962. Before waiting almost two more decades to add more silverware to their modest collection, winning two more Soviet Cups in 1980 and 1983. Those, along with some decent runs in the Soviet Championship, were all they had to show in the five and a half decades they participated in former USSR competitions.

However, as Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 began a new era for the soccer club. They would initially struggle to finish higher than fourth in the newly established Ukrainian Premier League.


In 1995, then club president Akhat Bragin was brutally assassinated in a bomb explosion, during a Shakhtar game, five more people died and several others were injured.

Shakhtar would then appoint 29-year-old Rinat Akhmetov, as the club's new president. After a few years establishing themselves as serious title contenders Shakhtar would claim their first-ever Ukrainian Premier League title in 2002.


In 2004, Shakhtar would appoint Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu, which proved to be a major turning point for the club. Ukraine was struggling to develop its own talented players, therefore Shakhtar instead began building a network of agents and scouts in South America.

Beginning with winger Jadson, through to forward Douglas Costa, who shattered the Ukrainian transfer record when he was sold to Bayern Munich for $33 million in 2015, Shakhtar set itself up to become a shop window club for developing Brazilian stars coming to Europe.

"Whoever was talented locally left for other countries," says former Shakhtar player Igor Petrov of an exodus after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. "By the time of 2005, there was no new generation coming through in Russia or Ukraine, so we made the choice to look at Brazil. When we look back, there was no other option."


From that point, Shakhtar transformed itself into a true powerhouse highly-regarded domestically and in Europe. As they went on to defeat Werder Bremen to win the 2009 UEFA Cup, thanks to a crucial goal from Jadson.

Conflict


Situated in the east of Ukraine roughly 50 miles from the border with Russia, Donetsk was once a city that bristled with promise.


However, as Shakhtar secured their fifth straight league title, in May 2014, with a 3-1 win against Illichivets Mariupol. However, only 18,000 people turned up to the 52,518 capacity Donbass Arena, to host witness, as the city was bracing for something bigger.


One month earlier, Russia had annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in the south of the country. Two days later, the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) flag was raised, illegally, over the police headquarters.

Heavily armed pro-Russian separatists seized large areas of territory in Ukraine's Donbas region, including Donetsk. Ukrainian forces retaliated with shelling.


The Ukrainian government accuses Russia of arming the separatists in the east, and also of sending troops to the region. The Russian government denies this, although admits that Russian "volunteers" are fighting for the rebels.


In the fighting, about 13,000 people have been killed, and the United Nations estimates at least 1.3 million have fled their homes.


Many of those who remain in Donetsk appear weakened by years of isolation and its football team, the heart of the city's social life, decided to flee.


The club's new $400 million stadium, which was completed in 2009 was abandoned by the team. Since the fighting has begun the Donbass Arena has been badly damaged twice, once when a shell crashed into the arena, starting a fire, and again when a Ukrainian rocket landed nearby, shaking part of the roof off.


Shakhtar would eventually move operations 800 miles away, to the city of Lviv.

As Shakhtar began their pre-season preparations they would play a friendly match against Lyon in France. Six Shakhtar players refused to return to Ukraine stating that they believe that the conflict in the country puts their lives at risk.


The players "all run a deadly risk if we are in the region," said Brazilian midfielder Douglas Costa. "I like the club, the people, the city, but I'm afraid," he added. "We want to stay at the club, but we must have risk-free working conditions."


Since making the decision to leave the city of Donetsk, the club is in a position where it cannot retreat, to do so would be to give the DPR unwanted credibility. Furthermore, it would be impossible for visiting teams to cross the militarized line of contact between DPR and Ukrainian fighters.


Oleg Antipov, who used to work in Shakhtar's media department, says the city's people have "disowned" Akhmetov.


"His money and influence could have helped the city," he adds. "What he did for the city means nothing now."

Nikolai Tarapat, the DPR's sports minister, says: "It's up to Mr Akhmetov. We can't comment on his decisions. For whatever business reasons he chose to sacrifice Donetsk and move the club away. Who knows? Maybe in the future, Shakhtar could become the key to peace."

The Exile


Since being exiled from their home city, Shakhtar has found it hard to avoid conflict.


In 2017, a Ukrainian nationalist organization issued t-shirts to all teams in the Ukraine Premier League, with supportive slogans for war veterans to be worn before kick-off. Seventeen of the 18 teams wore them. The one exception was Shakhtar.

The veterans' organization blamed the Football Federation of Ukraine for intervening on Shakhtar's behalf, accusing it, somewhat dramatically, of "drinking the blood of simple Ukrainian patriots". There had been a previous incident in 2014 when the team was asked to wear shirts proclaiming 'Glory to the Ukrainian Army' before a game against Karpaty Lviv, Shakhtar refused.

As for the team they would stay in Lviv until 2016, when Shakhtar decided to move to the city of Kharkiv, where there are 200,000 refugees who have fled the conflict.


"Our aim is to help them feel at home while not forgetting that they are guests," says Anton Ivanov, club director of Shakhtar's new landlords, FC Metalist.


"Nobody feels like Shakhtar are a refugee team. This war came into all our lives very suddenly, but we are still one nation. There are about 200,000 refugees in Kharkiv from Donbas. They are Kharkiv citizens now. We're happy to have Shakhtar because they bring the Champions League here."

When Shakhtar left Donetsk a small number of players stayed behind to support the DPR. Including a few prominent names who were once highly regarded in Ukraine, such as ex-Shakhtar captain Viktor Zvyaginstev.


"Football unites all the people of Donetsk," said Zvyaginstev. "It's not a dream. I believe that in my life, we will see football at the Donbas Arena again. Old Shakhtar from the Soviet times, that is what is in my mind. Just like Bobby Charlton will never forget his days at Manchester United.

"But I regret what's happened. It was all out of our hands. We lived in peace. Look at us now."