Shakhtar Donetsk: The Ukrainian serial winners forced to flee from war
A little after 10pm, there’s not one set of footsteps to be heard on the pavements of Donetsk.
It’s an hour before the nightly military curfew starts but no-one’s taking any chances and the city is already slipping into a state of quiet. It won’t stir again till 4am tomorrow, once the curfew is lifted.
Donetsk is a city that once bristled with promise. Situated in the east of Ukraine close to Russia’s borders, it is now a key location in a bitter conflict that shows little sign of easing.
About 13,000 people have been killed, and the United Nations estimates at least 1.3 million have fled their homes. Many of those who remain in Donetsk appear weakened by years of isolation and its football team – the heart of the city’s social life – has fled.
Shakhtar Donetsk, champions of Ukraine, one of the 20 best teams in Europe according to Uefa, last played here in May 2014.
The fighting had begun in April, when heavily armed pro-Russian separatists seized large areas of territory in Ukraine’s Donbas region, including Donetsk. The self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) was established.
The Ukrainian government accuses Russia of arming the separatists in the east, and also of sending troops to the region. Moscow denies this, but admits that Russian “volunteers” are fighting for the rebels.
Shakhtar’s glorious 50,000-capacity Donbas Arena was the setting for a 3-1 win against Illichivets Mariupol that secured a fifth straight league title. Barely 18,000 turned up as the city braced for war. Two days later, the DPR flag was raised – illegally – over the police headquarters. Ukrainian forces retaliated with shelling. One month earlier, Russia had annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in the south.
The Donbas Arena hosted the Euro 2012 semi-final. World champions Spain beat Portugal on penalties in front of a capacity crowd and the hundreds of millions watching on TV. There’s no football played here now. The only sign of its former life is a sign reading ‘keep off the grass’.
The stadium has been badly damaged twice – once when a shell crashed into the arena, starting a fire, and again when a Ukrainian rocket landed nearby. The shockwaves shook part of the roof off. It’s had rudimentary repairs, but there’s a long way to go before the place can be considered safe.
When Shakhtar meet Manchester City again in the Champions League this year, it won’t be here but in Kharkiv, 100 miles to the west.
“It was pretty costly to repair the roof after the blast pulled it off,” says Victoria, a stadium guide. Once, there would have been an army of guides employed to show visitors round. Victoria adds: “The job needs finishing and that takes money the DPR don’t have.”
Stepping down the players’ tunnel, we tread the concrete corridors where mountains of food and medical supplies had been stored until 2017, transported in lorries from Ukraine as part of Shakhtar owner Rinat Akhmetov’s ‘Let’s Help’ aid drive. But you’ll hear little gratitude for the oligarch’s charity here.