Displaced but far from destitute: how Shakhtar Donetsk remained relevant seven years after leaving home

Displaced but far from destitute: how Shakhtar Donetsk remained relevant seven years after leaving home

In 2012, Ukraine was at the centre of the footballing universe. As one of the co-hosts for the European Championship that year, the tournament was meant to herald a new era, not only for Ukrainian football but for the nation itself, as it prepared to join the European Union.

Two years later, civil war erupted and Eastern Ukraine fell to pro-Russian forces. The Donbass Arena, a stadium that hosted behemoths Portugal and Spain in the semi-finals of the aforementioned competition had fallen silent, and its custodians, Shakhtar Donetsk, forced to flee. It’s been six years since the Miners have been home. This is the story of what happened.

If we’re going to get into this, we to need a bit of context. Ukraine and Russia have had a difficult relationship since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It wasn’t until 24 August 1991 that Ukraine secured its independence, all after decades of oppressive Soviet rule. Predictably, however, this didn’t put an end to Russian meddling.

Fast-forward to 2014 and the Russians are back – and they’re not happy about the Euromaidan Revolution. President Viktor Yanukovych had promised his people in 2012 that Ukraine would finally join the EU, but a Putin-inspired two-year delay caused those he had let down to take matters into their own hands.

Peaceful protests descended into violence as pro-EU activists responded to unconscionable brutality from state police and military forces. One hundred and thirteen people lost their lives in what has to be considered as one of the most important moments in modern European history.

Putin was furious. Russian forces were ordered to rush into the historically troubled peninsula of Crimea, meaning dire consequences for the new government. Ukrainian Admiral Denis Berezovsky defected and was quickly followed by nearly 9,000 troops stationed in the area as Russian forces seized the Crimean parliament, installing a new pro-Russian Prime Minister until, eventually, the region became a fully integrated part of the Russian Federation.

Putin wasn’t finished there, though. The Russian government still vehemently denies they have anything to do with the ongoing conflict. Given the circumstances, however, it’s difficult to believe them. Heavily-armed militias began sprouting up all over the place, most notably in Donbass, the home of our protagonists.

It wasn’t until Ukraine had finally won its independence that Shakhtar had the opportunity to establish themselves as a force in domestic and European football. During Soviet rule, it was a well known practise for the nation’s most talented players to be coerced into playing for Dynamo Kyiv, in an act of sports-based propaganda. By 1995, however, a dark turn of fate set the wheels in motion for a dominant Shakhtar side.

Dodgy dealings were the reason behind the mafia-style assassination of former club president Akhat Bragin, or ‘Alik the Greek’ to those in less savoury circles. This paved the way for Rinat Akhmetov to climb out of the rubble and take over – not literally of course – even though Bragin was killed in a bombing.

Akhmetov heralded a new age for the slumbering giants from the east. Although they never struggled, it’s fair to say Shakhtar havnen’t looked back since Ukraine’s richest man seized the helm. His billions changed everything. Heavy investment in infrastructure and playing staff culminated in the best night in the club’s history, a 2-1 win in the 2009 UEFA Cup final against future WWE superstar Tim Weise and his impressive Werder Bremen.

Due to harsh weather conditions, the Ukrainian Premier League has a winter break, beginning in early December and ending in early March. This meant there wasn’t any competitive football being played while conflict was still in play. Despite all that, football did indeed make its glorious return, albeit with slightly shrunken attendances.

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Around 18,000 of the club’s most hardcore ultras filtered into the glorious Donbass Arena to watch their team clinch their fifth consecutive championship with a 3-1 win against Illichivets Mariupol, Luiz Adriano and future Juventus winger Douglas Costa bagging the goals to see them through.

The conflict continued to escalate and, just two days after the players celebrated a remarkable achievement in unprecedented circumstances, the flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic was illegally flown over the city’s police headquarters. The Ukrainian government responded naming those responsible as terrorists, beginning the infamous Donbass conflict, but they were powerless to stop separatist rebels from seizing the city office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs just three weeks later, in early May 2014.

At this point it was clear that in order to survive, the champions would have to leave their beloved home. In the years to come, the Donbass Arena would be shelled twice, the second time almost resulting in the death of a young girl as a large pane of glass fell beside her. Many others weren’t so lucky. This terrible struggle would go on to claim the lives of nearly 10,000 and displace over two million.

It was an off-season the likes of which very few clubs have ever seen. Memories of the UEFA Cup final seemed a lifetime ago. The threat of the club’s large South American contingent jumping ship was very real – until, just as the new season was about to begin, a deal was struck.

The club would now play their games a thousand miles to the west, in the city of Lviv. Players did leave but it was far better than feared. Facundo Ferreyra was sent on an unsuccessful loan to Newcastle and striker Eduardo – yes, the Eduardo that had his leg
“snapped in half” while at Arsenal – left for Flamengo.

Shakhtar have deep ties to the east of Ukraine. Football fans in the west knew this and things such as their refusal to wear t-shirts in support of the Ukrainian military had not been forgotten. Despite their stature, they had few friends in their new home and attendances dwindled. The 50,000 die-hard fans they were used to shrank to an average of just under 13,000 in their new 35,000-capacity ground.

With the world seemingly against them, it was up to legendary manager Mircea Lucescu to keep things steady on the pitch. Five victories out of five and just one goal conceded placed them handily at the top of the table at the beginning of the 2014/15 campaign. The vultures hovered, however, and a resurgent Dynamo Kyiv saw this season as the perfect opportunity to destroy the half-decade monopoly the now uprooted Shakhtar had established on the championship.

The two giants met on 5 October in Kyiv, and if it wasn’t for what was happening in the east of the country, one wouldn’t hesitate in describing this game as a battle. Ten yellow cards and one red were shown in a hectic affair. In the end, it was a towering header from man-mountain centre-back Domagoj Vida that won it for the side from the capital.

The remainder of the season very much followed suit. After five years at the top of their game, Dynamo finally broke Shakhtar’s stranglehold on the Premier League. Perhaps it was in the Champions League, however, that Shakhtar received their biggest humiliation.

A tricky group could have seen either Shakhtar, Porto or Athletic qualify, with BATE the likely whipping boys. Five-nil and 7-0 wins against the Belarusians saw Shakhtar qualify in second, ensuring a first-round qualifying birth against the mighty Bayern Munich. A credible 0-0 draw at home was thrown away just three minutes into the second leg.

After a calamitous tackle by defender Oleksander Kucher on Mario Götze left the referee with no choice but to pull out the red card, the ever-reliable Thomas Muller dispatched the subsequent penalty with ease. The game ended 7-0 with six different goal scorers and Shakhtar left Munich with their tails firmly between their legs. Their season was dead in the water.

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As such, the 2015/16 campaign was going to be tough from the start. The summer transfer window saw Lucescu’s team stripped of its most important parts, much like an old car. Luiz Adriano left for AC Milan, midfield stalwart Fernando moved to Sampdoria, and talismanic winger Douglas Costa joined the team that battered them in the Champions League the season prior, Bayern Munich.

A stuttering start saw the team, unusually, only win three of their first five games, but after a dreadful 2-0 loss to Dnipro, Shakhtar well and truly found their stride. Twelve consecutive wins, with 43 goals scored, included a dominant 3-0 victory against Dynamo Kyiv.

During the winter break, top scorer Alex Teixeira was snapped up by Chinese side Jiangsu Suning for a record €50m, leaving a significant gap in an already small squad. It wasn’t until the second fixture against Dnipro that the Shakhtar train derailed. The 4-1 defeat left Dynamo with enough wriggle room to go on and bag their second title in a row.

To make matters worse, their early European campaign didn’t fare much better. An impotent showing in the Champions League group stage saw them fall into the Europa League, losing to eventual winners Sevilla in the semi-finals. It restored some pride.

On the pitch, while they hadn’t reached the heights they were used to, it was far from disastrous. Football is ruthless, however, and after 12 years Lucescu was given the chop. Suave, modern coach Paulo Fonseca was the man chosen to replace the old Romanian for the 2016/17 season, bringing his cropped trousers and sexy Pep-inspired, patient passing game with him.

Fonseca got his boys playing. An incredible run saw the Miners not lose until April, a whole ten months after the season started. They won the league at a canter, not even a mid-season stadium move to Kharkiv, 900 miles back east to the Metalist Stadium, capable of throwing them off.

Nevertheless, it was impossible to escape what was happening back home. Shakhtar were once again chastised by the 17 other teams in the Premier League for not wearing t-shirts in support of their military, with the Ukrainian Association of Football being accused of “drinking the blood of simple Ukrainian patriots” by the foundation that organised the gesture for their support of the Donbass giants.

Normal service was very much resumed for Shakhtar under Fonseca and the silverware came thick and fast. The 2016/17 league title was retained the following year, along with the Ukrainian Cup and Super Cup, superseded by an impressive run in Europe. Although they only made it to the first knock-out round, it was in the group stage that they were labelled as potential dark horses – but the balls didn’t drop in their favour. They were drawn against Feyenoord, Napoli and, worst of all, Guardiola’s Manchester City.

Most people gave them little hope of making it out, but two results defined their destiny. First came their home game against Napoli; goals from Taison and Ferreyra put them ahead before Arkadiusz Milik scored a penalty in the 72nd minute. A squeaky final 20 minutes felt more like a two-week period of self-isolation, but Shakhtar held on for an impressive three points.

The Napoli result was huge, but Manchester City – they’re an entirely different kettle of fish, right? Well, wrong, actually. The Mancunians were Shakhtar’s first English opposition since their exile, and the opportunity to show they were still a capable side to a wider audience must have been one hell of a motivational tool.

The Metalist Stadium was sold out as 33,000 people came to see Shakhtar take on the eventual Premier League winners. A decisive six-minute period gave Shakhtar the foothold they needed on their long climb to victory, with diminutive winger Bernard getting their first goal in the 26th minute and left-back Ismaily scoring their second in the 32nd. A 92nd minute Sergio Agüero penalty did little to rattle Ukrainian nerves and they held on to secure one of their great European upsets. They did, of course, get knocked out by Fonseca’s future employers, Roma, in the next round, but that’s not important.

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Europe’s big clubs were taking notice once again and it was another summer of upheaval for an impressive Shakhtar side. Bernard left for Everton, Ferreyra sealed a move to Benfica, and legendary full-back Darijo Srna switched snowy Ukraine for sunny Sardinia with a transfer to Cagliari.

In England, the back pages were strewn with pictures of Brazilian Fred. The hard-working midfielder joined José Mourinho’s doomed Manchester United revolution for yet another record fee of €59m. Back east, however, it was a different deal making the headlines.

Centre-back Yaroslav Rakitskyl had spent his entire career at Shakhtar until Zenit came calling. Rakitskyl had been no stranger to controversy since the beginning of the war. His refusal to sing the national anthem when he played internationally caused quite a stir and his move to Russia cemented the opinion held by many that he was a traitor.

Perhaps if it had been a different Russian club the backlash might not have been so fierce. Zenit are sponsored by Gazprom, and the monolithic natural gas providers part-owned by the Russian state had cut supplies to Ukraine since the beginning of the war, leaving thousands without power.

The 2018/19 season would be Fonseca’s final in charge and, domestically at least, he saved his best for last. The Portuguese’s side would have gone the entire season unbeaten if it wasn’t for a 1-0 defeat to, you guessed it, Dynamo in their third game. Fonseca and his charges took that personally. They didn’t lose another game and lifted their third league title in a row, a feat few would have thought possible when the young manager took over. One supposes it doesn’t particularly matter where they play.

It wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies, however. Fonseca and his coaching staff bid their farewells just before the 2019/20 season, with compatriot Luis Castro the man chosen to take his place. Castro was doing a fantastic job – it was almost as though nothing had changed. Unfortunately, no-one could have predicted what happened next.

COVID-19 crippled football across Europe. Domestic and international tournaments across the continent were put on hold, with Ukraine no exception. On 11 March, the the domestic FA declared that all games were to be held behind closed doors, legislation similar to that at the beginning of the war. Just six days later, however, as the situation worsened, all football was postponed.

Although the morality can be called into question, football did eventually make it’s wondrous return as the world craved some semblance of normality, and fans in Ukraine were in for a treat. Shakhtar’s first game back was against the eternal enemy, the Sith to their Jedi, the Tom to their Jerry, the Mourinho to their attacking football: Dynamo Kyiv.

The stage was set, and while Shakhtar received thunderous applause, the visitors fumbled their lines. The reigning champions were eventual 3-1 winners and their fourth consecutive title was all but sewn up.

In Ukraine, fans were briefly allowed back into the grounds before proceedings were once again switched to being behind closed doors. As of writing, this Shakhtar currently play their football at the NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium back in Kyiv, their fourth home in seven years. Six draws in their first 17 games has them sat in second, but they’ve been impressive in Europe.

Ordinarily, two wins against Real Madrid in the Champions League group stages would have you down as one of the favourites for the tournament, but calamitous displays against Borussia Mönchengladbach saw them drop into the Europa League once again. The boys in orange and black are on course for another impressive season.

Off the pitch, the Miners’ world has been turned upside down, but their success on it speaks volumes for the character of those tasked with saving this incredible club from destruction. From the manager to the tea lady – or whatever the Ukrainian equivalent is – those that have stared into the eyes of the Four Horsemen and said, “I think we’ll play on, thank you very much”, deserve enormous credit. So here’s to Shakhtar Donetsk and their dream of seeing home once again.

By Alex Roberts @APRoberts123

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