Shakhtar Donetsk welcome Champions League distraction

By Rafael Saakov and Stephen Fottrell BBC World Service
Shakhtar Donetsk players applaud their fans after the 0-0 Champions League match against Athletic Bilbao on 17 September
Shakhtar Donetsk players applaud fans after the 0-0 Champions League tie at Athletic Bilbao on 17 September

Shakhtar Donetsk play their first home Champions League game of the season on Tuesday, but the match against Porto will take place not at the club's home ground in eastern Ukraine, but more than 600 miles to the west, in Lviv.

The nine-time Ukrainian champions are homeless because of the conflict in the east of the country between the national army and pro-Russian separatists.

The team is currently based in the capital, Kiev, where they play home Ukrainian Premier League games and travel to Lviv for European games.

Shakhtar's captain, Croatia international Darijo Srna, says that he and his team-mates try to focus on matters on the pitch, although he admits that is not easy.

"Of course it's hard to play away from your home," Srna told the BBC.

Blast damage at the Donbass Arena
Shakhtar's Donbass Arena suffered damage from two explosions on 23 August

"It is currently impossible to play in Donetsk. We are worried for the city, for the stadium, for all people who live there. We just have to play for our fans to show our character."

Shakhtar's home ground, the Donbass Arena - which hosted a Euro 2012 semi-final - suffered bomb damage in August. Six Shakhtar players had already refused to return to the city ahead of the new season because of concerns over the escalating conflict.

According to Srna, despite the complexity of the current situation, the club's aims remain the same - reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League and winning a sixth Ukrainian league title in a row.

But the defending champions, who are more used to playing in a 52,000-capacity stadium, have to adjust to playing league games at Kiev's Bannikov Stadium, which has a capacity of 1,678. Average attendance for league matches has so far been about 1,000.

Donetsk-based Shakhtar fan Alexander Zhavoronkov says that matches in the capital are mainly attended by supporters from the Kiev region and those who have fled the conflict in the east.

"Fans from Donetsk don't go to the matches in Kiev," he said.

"The main reason is safety. Trains don't operate at the moment, so you can only use buses. But you have to pass various checkpoints. Nobody wants to risk it.

Ukrainian fans of FC Dynamo Kiev, FC Karpaty Lviv and FC Shakhtar Donetsk shout slogans during the 'March of Unity' in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on July 22, 2014.
Fans of rival clubs - including Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk - have united to protest during the current conflict

"Of course everyone is upset. We are already missing the Donbass Arena and everything that was part of our lives. We are waiting for peace to come to our land when the team will be able to return to the stadium."

Shakhtar's general director Sergei Palkin told the BBC that the club's main focus is now on survival.

"The main complexity for us is that we don't have a home for the time being," Palkin said.

"We live on wheels. Naturally, it is difficult mentally and psychologically, but we have no other options. We do what we can. Atmosphere in the team is normal, the spirit is fine.

"Our main goal is to keep the team and to keep the club. It takes decades to create a club, and you can lose it just in two months."

Shakhtar won the last five league titles in Ukraine and, despite the distractions off the pitch, currently lie second in the table, one point behind Dnipro.

Shakhtar's owner Rinat Akhmetov, ranked among the wealthiest men in Ukraine, said that the damage to the $100m state-of-the-art Donbass stadium is nothing compared to the lives lost in the conflict.

"If I was asked whether I'm ready to see our stadium smashed into small pieces and lose my business, but instead see peace in Donbass, I would agree without any doubts," Ahmetov said.

"The most important thing is to stop the war and save the lives of children, women, older people and all residents of Donbass."

Shakhtar's training base in Donetsk was also destroyed by two missile strikes on 30 August and the club's head office was seized by armed men, forcing them to relocate staff to Kiev, along with the team.

Some fans have jokingly referred to the club as FC Shakhtar Lviv or FC Shakhtar Kiev and the club's social-networking platforms are full of fans' concerns over the future of the club.

Promisingly for the side, however, a near-capacity 32,000 tickets have been sold for the game against Porto in Lviv, in what will be the first Champions League match to be played in western Ukraine.

The Donbass Arena in Donetsk
The $100m Donbass Arena currently lies empty as Shakhtar play home games in Kiev and Lviv

As for the players, the six who refused to return following a pre-season friendly in France - Argentine Facundo Ferreyra, who is now on loan at Newcastle United, and Brazilians Douglas Costa, Dentinho, Alex Teixeira, Ismaily and Fred - all returned a week later.

They were not punished, but Shakhtar's record signing, Brazilian international winger Bernard, who took part in the country's World Cup campaign, was fined "quite a large sum of money" after returning late following his participation at Brazil 2014, according to Palkin.

Srna, meanwhile, says that he remains committed to leading the team.

"I have never had thoughts about leaving the club. I want to finish my career in Shakhtar, so I'm with Shakhtar, both in good times and in bad," he said.

The security situation in the south-east of Ukraine, despite a truce agreed on 5 September, remains dangerous and there have been repeated violations since then.

The head of Shakhtar's fan club from the nearby town of Snizhne, Vladimir Zolotarev, says he regularly hears the thunder of exploding shells. He is a former coal miner, like many of the club's traditional fan-base.

Zolotarev bought 40 season tickets for members of his fan club, spending about $550 (£338), before the conflict affected the team's season so dramatically. He is now trying to get his money back from the club.

While Shakhtar's fans count their losses, the club is also facing financial and logistical challenges, brought about by the conflict in eastern Ukraine. A successful Champions League campaign might help.