Normality is another world for Shakhtar Donetsk. When Russia invaded Ukraine, football was stopped and the lives of the players, coaches, staff and fans were turned upside down in an instant. There was no time to waste with lives at stake as the autumn’s Champions League games against Real Madrid and Internazionale quickly became a distant memory.
Sergei Palkin, the chief executive, has been at the forefront of the club’s humanitarian efforts and ensuring the safety of players from the academy to the first-team captain. Critical decisions were constantly needed as the invasion began, a world away from transfer and contract negotiations, as Shakhtar looked to use their influence to make a positive impact as football takes a backseat during the conflict.
“We are dreaming when everything will be returned to normal, we dream of flying to play Champions League games,” Palkin says. “For us it will be the biggest win and the greatest happiness, but for now we can only dream about it.
“When you are leading a normal life, you never think about being happy, or your freedom, as you do in all democratic countries. When you have this kind of situation where war has arrived in our homes, you start to think about the essential stuff.”
The club left Donetsk for Lviv in 2014 after the outbreak of conflict with Russia that year. They have since endured a nomadic existence, moving to Kharkiv and then Kyiv as they looked to settle away from the fighting as their stadium, the Donbas Arena, was damaged by shelling. Knowing the impact of being forced out of their home, the club turned their focus on to humanitarian efforts in Lviv.
“At the beginning it was quite hard. When the war started it was a mess at the border because thousands and thousands, maybe even millions, wanted to leave the country on one side and from the other we wanted to bring support, food and medicine from abroad, so it caused problems. Now the situation is clear and structured. We are working in a good and normal way but we still have a few logistical problems.”
It is estimated that 3.7 million refugees have fled Ukraine since the start of the conflict, many passing through Lviv on their way to safety across the border in Poland. Shakhtar quickly formulated a plan to get their foreign players and coaching staff out of the country after moving them into a hotel in Kyiv. The director of football, Darijo Srna, took 36 hours to drive out of Ukraine as gridlocked roads delayed progress. With the help of the Uefa president, Aleksander Ceferin, the club’s players were taken to Romania with their families within a week of the invasion.
Shakhtar know they need to look after the physical and mental wellbeing of their young players, who could be scarred for ever by the past month’s events. A huge project to take the club’s academy players abroad has meant many have travelled to the safety of Split thanks to the influence of Srna and assistance from the Croatian government, with 110 people already taken to the country.
In the Lviv Arena, Shakhtar are providing supplies, including food, water and medicine to those passing through. The refugees, including many children, have left their hometowns across Ukraine, carrying only bare essentials. The club’s owner, Rinat Akhmetov, who has called Vladimir Putin a “war criminal”, is helping to finance the support at a stadium that had played host to Shakhtar when they first left Donetsk but is now sheltering thousands of people left without homes.
“I stayed in Kyiv for two weeks and, after that, we talked with the club directors and decided we needed to start to help people and realised that a lot of refugees were coming to the western part of Ukraine and the directors decided to move to the west to open this humanitarian club,” says Palkin.
“Thousands and thousands of people are coming from the eastern part of Ukraine; you see what is happening in Mariupol, with Kharkiv and other cities along the Russian border, therefore we are all trying to support them. Many of them are staying in the western parts of Ukraine, some of them go abroad to Poland, to Hungary and other countries, so they need big support here as the situation is catastrophic. In Mariupol, we have a humanitarian catastrophe and we need to help all those people.”
Among those volunteering at the stadium are many of Shakhtar’s Ukrainian players who stayed behind, unless they have three or more children. While many of their age have joined the army, the players “have no war experience, so they are in last position to join the armed forces”, says Palkin. Instead, they are diligently working with those in Lviv, packing boxes of supplies and delivering them to those who need it. Their presence is reassuring and warmly felt as they take time to speak to those sheltering in the stadium.
Shakhtar hold on to hope of playing once more, buoyed by the support shown throughout football. Seeing the Ukrainian flag adorn Premier League grounds is a morale boost. “We see everything that is going on around the world,” Palkin says.
“We see the English championship, we see the German championship and before every game we see big support and for us it is very, very important because when we see this kind of support it brings us strength and we get stronger to help our situation. For us it is very important. Thank you very much to all the football people around the world who are supporting us.”
There is, however, frustration within Shakhtar that the Premier League has not allowed players from Ukrainian clubs to move to England over fears it will damage sporting integrity, despite Fifa and Uefa extending the window owing to the extenuating circumstances. Football is not the focus for now, there are far more important things to be getting on with in a country ravaged by war, but optimism is still rife.
“We all believe we will win, this is the most important thing,” a resolute Palkin says. “When you all believe in something and are united, this makes things more positive. We are not leading a normal life, when you switch on the TV to try and watch a film to relax. We have no time for this, you cannot think about relaxing. Now all of our efforts are on one purpose: to win this war.”