Shakhtar Donetsk in Survival Mode as Ukraine Conflict Looms Large

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Shakhtar Donetsk in Survival Mode as Ukraine Conflict Looms Large
AP

Shakhtar Donetsk took just 12 seconds to open the scoring in their first Ukrainian Premier League game of the season, a 2-0 win over Metalurh Zaporizhya. Champions for the past five seasons, Shakhtar have started the season in imperious form, winning their opening two games and already sitting on top of the division by virtue of goal difference.

Normally, this would be cause for celebration among the club's fans, but Shakhtar's "home" game against Metalurh was played over 1,000 kilometers away in Lviv, and right now, football is the last thing on supporters' minds.

With a pre-war population of nearly a million people, Donetsk is now emptying as the city is quickly becoming a war zone. Those who remain say the place has become a ghost town, as locals flee in fear of their homes becoming a battleground between the advancing Ukrainian army and the retreating pro-Russian rebels who had swept through the city from the east, reaching the far west of Donetsk's borders.

With shelling recently killing dozens of people in the centre of the city, many Shakhtar fans now don't care about the club's results, and even if they wanted to watch their side on TV, they couldn't, as the rebels have turned off all Ukrainian TV channels, and electricity has been cut off in some areas of the city. Unsurprisingly, Shakhtar have temporarily relocated, setting up their headquarters in Kiev and playing their matches in the western city of Lviv until the fighting subsides.

Lviv was a surprising place for the Pitmen to choose, as the city is widely regarded as the most nationalist in all of Ukraine. Shakhtar's owner (and the country's richest man), Rinat Akhmetov, was a close friend of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the man who while in power pressed for closer ties with Russia.

Andrey Lukatsky/Associated Press/Associated Press
Shakhtar Donetsk celebrate winning the Ukrainian title.

These attempts led to fierce protests in early 2014, and the occupation of Kiev's Independence Square in the "Euromaidan" eventually saw Yanukovych flee to Southern Russia, events which subsequently set in motion the current crisis in the country, as Russian president Vladimir Putin moved to "protect" the people of Crimea until the political situation had stabilised.

Because of Akhmetov's link with the former president, other fans view Shakhtar as being a "pro-Russian" team. The club spoke about "winning" the support of Lviv locals, but the jeering that followed their goals in the season opener suggests this may be a pipe dream.

As well as the obvious economic factors such as ticket sales and merchandise, Shakhtar's summer transfer plans have also been damaged. In recent years, the club have developed a precise transfer policy of signing young talent from South America and then selling them off for larger fees after a couple of seasons.

Recent players from the Shakhtar conveyor belt include Willian to Anzhi (35 million, per Goal.com) and Fernandinho to Manchester City (40 million, per beIN Sports). This summer, however, six South American players (Douglas Costa, Fred, Dentinho, Alex Teixeira, Ismaily and Facundo Ferreyra) tried to instigate a fire sale after going missing following a pre-season game in France.

Manager Mircea Lucescu was not impressed, saying, "I love them and appreciate Brazilian football a lot. But their professionalism leaves a lot to be desired," per Shakhtar's website.

Citing fears for their safety as the reasons for wanting to leave Ukraine, club CEO Sergei Palkin reassured the players their well-being was 100 per cent guaranteed, and soon after, all six returned to training for the club, although forward Ferreyra has since joined Premier League side Newcastle in an initial loan deal. The remaining five have settled back in the country, residing in Kiev with their families, but there is little doubt all would like to leave the club should the opportunity arise.

Said Akhmetov, per Shakhtar's website:

Everyone returned. I spoke about it at once. It's OK, this is the situation that will make us stronger. And I think that these players will help us very much. We are faced with ambitious goals, we must win all the competitions we take part in: that's the Ukrainian League, the Ukrainian Cup and the Champions League. We hope to make our fans happy with our game, although everyone's...in no mood for football.

While the conflict carries on in their home city, the Donetsk side will shift their focus back to matters on the pitch. Since Lucescu arrived as coach in 2004, Shakhtar have won the title in eight of his 10 seasons at the helm, and where once Dynamo Kiev were Ukraine's leading light and a symbol of anti-Moscow sentiment back in the Soviet Union era, now it's the eastern squad who are the country's top club.

After dominating domestically for so long, the Pitmen's thoughts had turned to European progress, and though Shakhtar won the UEFA Cup in the 2008-09 season, they have never advanced further than the quarter-finals of the Champions League (back in 2010-11).

Even in 2011, Akhmetov was already talking of one day winning Europe's premier competition.

Those ambitions will be put on indefinite hold until fighting has subsided, as convincing new players to join the club (and sign up for Ukraine's harsh winters) was hard enough before the conflict broke out. The only significant signing has been Marlos, who arrived for 7 million from league rivals Metalist Kharkiv, but considering what the city and its people are going through, the club's fans won't be too preoccupied by this lack of activity.

Football is not the priority for the fans of Shakhtar right now.

 

Charles Ducksbury is a European football expert who has written for CNN, When Saturday Comes and many others.

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