ISTANBUL: They had already fled their home in eastern Ukraine for Kyiv when their shiny new stadium was battered by shelling in the first weeks of a Russian-backed insurgency in 2014. Now the players of Ukraine’s perennial football champions Shakhtar Donetsk are training in Turkey because of the all-out invasion by Russia of their former Soviet state.
Team and national squad captain Andriy Pyatov – an imposing 37-year-old goalkeeper who has played at some of Europe’s most famous grounds over his illustrious career – is tired of life in exile. “It is very difficult to keep losing your home,” he said during a break in the team’s Istanbul training session for a series of friendly matches organized to raise money for children orphaned by the war. “We have to run from one place to another because of a tyrant, a dictator,” he said in reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Shakhtar’s wanderings have captured the imagination of fans across Ukraine and much of the football world. The club first moved their training base to the Ukrainian capital – home to archrivals Dynamo Kyiv. They ultimately ended up playing most of their matches in the western city of Lviv. The Ukrainian cultural capital has strong nationalist traditions and a closer historical link to neighboring Poland than the far more distant Moscow.
Shakhtar’s original home in Donetsk became the stronghold of a new Kremlin-backed leadership in Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking east. This contrast made the overwhelming support the players received in Lviv that much more poignant. Success on the pitch also helped. Pyatov has been involved in 10 of Shakhtar’s 13 Ukrainian league championship titles. They were leading the league again when play was suspended when the Russian assault began on Feb 24. Shakhtar’s most recent home in the northeastern city of Kharkiv bore some of the deadliest fighting of the war.
Shakhtar arrived in Istanbul on April 6 to prepare for a tour of friendly matches that began last week in Athens against the Greek giants Olympiakos. The team also played Lechia Gdansk in Poland on Thursday and will face Istanbul side Fenerbahce as well as Croatia’s Hajduk Split by early May. Team coach Roberto De Zerbi has returned from Italy to prepare his men for the tour. “I don’t like the idea of giving up now,” he told AFP about his decision to stay with a team swept up in a war.
Yet the current squad bares little resemblance to the one that won their last league match before the winter break in December. The club’s 13 Brazilian players have all either returned home or signed on with other European teams. And two of the local players have decided to stay behind in Ukraine. Midfielder Georgiy Sudakov’s wife is about to give birth to the couple’s first child while defender Viktor Kornienko has joined the volunteers who comprise Ukraine’s new territorial defense units. Even the trip to Turkey was an adventure. The entire squad required special government permits because all Ukrainian men of fighting age have been barred from leaving the country for the duration of the war.
‘I still dream’
Coach De Zerbi understands that some of his players might reach a point where they can no longer keep playing football and feel obliged to pick up arms to defend their land. “If he fights for freedom, for dignity, for pride, for the country, I will only congratulate him,” the 42-year-old Italian said. The club’s next friendly match against Fenerbahce on Tuesday will be played in the same Istanbul stadium where Pyatov and his teammates won the UEFA Cup against Germany’s Werder Bremen in 2009.
The stadium will be filled with memories – but not as many as the club’s abandoned Donbass Arena in Donetsk. The vast glass-and-steel structure was built for the Euro 2012 championship that Ukraine co-hosted with Poland at a time when a major war in Europe seemed unimaginable. But Pyatov knows that his career is likely to end long before Shakhtar get a chance to set foot in Donetsk again. “I still dream about it, as do all the players,” he said of playing back home. “But we know that it won’t happen overnight.” – AFP