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Shakhtar Donetsk are approaching a landmark date that will mean they have been on the road for a decade; ten long hard years playing away from their home.
The situation has changed and hardened since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, but the conflict had been simmering away in the Donbas region for quite a few years before.
When did Shakhtar Donetsk last play at home?
It was in 2014 that Shakhtar last played in Donetsk at their Donbas Arena. It was supposed to be their home, a fortress for a team and a club that was dominating on the domestic stage and thriving in European competition.
The stadium was opened in 2009, costing an estimated €176 million, led by Ukrainian oligarch and Shakhtar President Rinat Akhmetov. The venue hosted games at Euro 2012 and regularly hosted crowds in excess of 40,000.
All was going well, or so it seemed.
Fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-aligned separatists escalated in 2014, to the extent that would change the dynamic in the recent and the football club would be a consequence of that. Newly developed Donetsk Airport was attacked, as was the stadium. It was hit hard by shelling but the conflict meant that football was the least of the worries.
Shakhtar moved west, firstly to Lviv, then Kharkiv and finally Kyiv, which was been their adopted venue since 2018 but it is far from home in more ways than one. Players have been living and training in the capital in what is an overall, unique situation.
The man who made the ‘Miners’: Rinat Akhmetov
As named above, Rinat Akhmetov is the figure behind the finance and the plan to put the club on the map.
That was achieved in some style before the landscape would be altered significantly and their physical location changed and changed again.
Under Akhmetov, Shakhtar had placed particular emphasis on signing Brazilian players with a dazzling shine in the outcome of that policy. Around €300 million has been spent on players such as Fernandinho, Fred, and Douglas Costa.
The boss, an oligarch who was a former professional boxer, is one of Ukraine’s richest men. He assumed control of the club in the mid-1990s and has put in an extraordinary amount of money, around €1.5bn – he has an estimated personal fortune of around €7bn as a reported owner of the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol – to push Shakhtar from a lowly status to achievers and competitors on the elite European stage.
Shakthar Donetsk on the European stage
In 2020, the ‘Miners' – named for the rich coal deposits in the Donbas – reached the semifinal of the Europa League, a competition they won in 2009 when they beat Werder Bremen in the final to crown the club's greatest European triumph.
In Istanbul’s Sukru Saracoglou Stadium, a 2-1 victory – won in extra time – was secured thanks to goals from Luiz Adriano and Jadson, two of the Samba stars who had been expensively recruited to eastern Europe.
In 2011, they reached the Champions League quarter-final to be beaten by Barcelona. Europa League semi-finals were reached in 2016 – beaten by eventual winner Sevilla – and in 2020 they were eliminated by Inter.
That is a very decent European pedigree, backed by Ukrainian league titles 14 times since 2001/02, including last season.
Where are Shakhtar Donetsk playing?
In the current campaign, Shakhtar’s UEFA Champions League games are being hosted by Hamburg SV in their wonderful Volksparkstadion. It's a fantastic setting and backdrop but clearly offers little in the way of home advantage.
Since the Russian invasion and full-scale war, the Shakhtar squad has much more of a local feel to it. The 13 Brazilians contracted to the club at the time were able to flee, representing a new and very different chapter for the club.
On that fateful 24 February, Shakhtar Donetsk defender Mykola Matviienko was sleeping in bed, next to his wife and child in Kyiv.
“I heard explosions outside the window, and we immediately jumped up,” he said.
“We spent the rest of the night in the car until we got the message that Kyiv was under attack, and we had to leave.”
This is a Ukrainian international footballer speaking of an uncertain time and an abnormal situation compared to the detached bubble that the professional game usually exists in. This is their real world.
What will Shakthar Donetsk do next?
Supporters, ex-players and officials of Shakhtar and other clubs have taken part in the conflict. The duty is apparent, as is the inevitability of loss. Current players have a special exemption to travel outside of the country as men of fighting age are not supposed to leave, but at some point, the players could feel that they must enlist.
Chief Executive Serhiy Palkin revealed in 2022 that “one of our members of staff, a youth coach, died yesterday. He was killed by shrapnel from a Russian shell. Russia is killing Ukrainians. Stop this madness!”
In recent times, Shakhtar embarked on a ‘peace tour’, playing friendly games abroad whilst carrying the national flag and drumming up support and awareness for the situation in the country, as well as raising funds for the war effort.
What has happened to Ukraine football league?
A condensed and much-changed Ukrainian league has since returned, centred on Kyiv, but the uncertainty lingers.
Former Croatia international and current director Darijo Srna, a club legend, stated of their present plight amid the conflict, “they attack our country, our land.”
Srna is a former Shakhtar captain whose shirt number 33 was retired by the club.
“But in the end, we are still here, we are still alive.”
A homecoming? That won't be easy anytime soon as much as veteran goalkeeper and captain Andriy Payatov yearns for that sense of belonging.
“I still dream about it, as do all the players, but we know that it won't happen overnight.”
Donetsk has effectively become a stronghold of the new Kremlin-backed leadership in Ukraine's largely Russian-speaking and aligned east, much of it annexed.
The conflict rages on, as does football, in an emphatic matter of priorities but this beautiful game and all it represents, the most important, unimportant thing in the world provides its own refuge and escape from the hell of war and the ugly reality of life as it is for Shakhtar Donetsk and the people all across the conflict zone.