Champions League nights have come to represent normality for Shakhtar Donetsk in recent years. The reigning Ukrainian champions, making their ninth group-stage appearance in 11 seasons, are certainly used to the rigours of European competition. However, Wednesday evening’s Group H encounter against BATE Borisov will be anything but a normal game for the hosts.
Taking place at the Arena Lviv, over 600 miles to the west of Shakhtar’s native Donetsk, the game marks a continuation of the club’s exile from Eastern Ukraine where fighting is on-going between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists. Despite a ceasefire agreement signed between Ukraine’s government and rebel leaders on September 5, Donetsk remains a war zone with clashes and shelling a daily occurrence.
Shakhtar has become just another piece of collateral damage in a bitterly-fought civil war, forced into a homeless, wandering existence. The Donbass Arena, a once glittering jewel amid the slag heaps of the coal-mining city, has suffered heavy damage from artillery fire, while the club’s offices have been seized by armed men, and its training ground destroyed by shelling on 30 August.
The Miners have been adjusting to life in considerably more humble surroundings than their $400 million stadium complex, playing home league games at Kyiv’s 1,678-capacity Bannikov Stadium as well as at the more impressive Arena Lviv.
“It’s a difficult situation,” Shakhtar captain Darijo Srna told World Soccer this week. “However, we want to return to Donetsk as soon as possible. We want there to be peace in Donetsk, we want to play in the Donbass Arena in front of our fans.
“On the day the war ends we will return to Donetsk and kiss its streets.”
It’s perhaps true to say that not all of the Croatia defender’s teammates share his optimism. Six of Shakhtar’s South American contingent initially refused to return to Ukraine after a friendly in July, amid accusations that they were attempting to engineer moves away from the club. All except Facundo Ferreyra, who is now on loan at Newcastle United, remain at Shakhtar, having joined their teammates a week later.
However, the concerns over the club’s long-term future remain with players and fans alike confronting the reality that a homecoming is a distant prospect at best.
“Of course, everyone is upset,” Aleksandr Zhavoronkov, head of the fan club ‘Patriot’ told BBC Russia last month.
“Fans from Donetsk don’t go to matches. There are a number of reasons but first of all - safety. We miss the Donbass Arena and are waiting for when peace comes and the team returns to the stadium."
However, despite the obvious fact that Shakhtar are in a position far from conducive to success, the form Mircea Lucescu’s team has shown this season suggests otherwise. The Miners have not adjusted their targets in the wake of the Ukraine crisis; a sixth consecutive league title, a Ukrainian Cup win and reaching the Champions League knockout stages all continue to be the requirements for the season, and all appear eminently obtainable.
On the pitch, the club has gone on as if nothing has changed. Two league defeats in three games – a 2-1 reversal in Saturday’s derby against Metallurh preceded by a 1-0 defeat to Dynamo Kyiv in early October – may appear less than encouraging but both matches saw Shakhtar dominate only to be let down by poor finishing and individual errors. The Miners may sit third in the Ukrainian Premier League, but are only a point worse off than at the same stage last season where they went on to lift the title by a comfortable margin.
Shakhtar have not been invulnerable but they have continued to play with an attacking verve expected from their talented Brazilian cohort. No better was this evidenced than in their last European outing, a crushing 7-0 win against a hapless BATE. Douglas Costa, Taison and Alex Texeira cut through their opponents’ defence at will, as Luiz Adriano became only the second player to score five in a Champions League game. Another win over the Belarusians on Wednesday will put Shakhtar on the brink of qualifying for the knockouts.
However, as positive as the signs may be for what Shakhtar can achieve this term, it is little more than a distraction from the uncertainty of the club’s future. The war in Eastern Ukraine is heading, seemingly inexorably, towards a frozen conflict; the frontline has barely shifted since the shaky ceasefire began in September and there has been little to suggest that the Ukrainian government will be able to reassert control over the separatist regions.
In short, Shakhtar are unlikely to be going home any time soon. This continued absence from Donetsk will undoubtedly have serious ramifications for the club and raises numerous questions about their long-term sustainability. Shakhtar, famously nicknamed the ‘Brazilian colony’ after their habit of bringing in talented South Americans, may soon see that seasonal influx dry up altogether if concerns over player safety remain.
The Miners could well watch their current samba stars leave and, despite the fact that Kyiv and Lviv pose none of the dangers of Donetsk, there is a risk that they may not attract the quality to replace them.
More than that though, the club’s very identity is under threat. Prominent separatist ideologue Konstantin Dolgov has been quoted this week as promising that Shakhtar will never return to Donetsk, calling for the formation of a “People’s club” to replace them.
The grim reality for Shakhtar and their fans is that Dolgov may be right. Given the political state of affairs, it is completely possible that the Miners could find their homelessness becomes permanent, leaving the club on its knees.
It is worth saying that football becomes somewhat insignificant in the face of the brutality of conflict and there are many in Ukraine’s East who have suffered a far worse fate than those involved with Shakhtar. However, the Miners are all the same casualties of a war that looks set to write a dark chapter in their history and could even threaten the very nature of their existence.