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Shakhtar’s Darijo Srna: ‘They took my home in 2014 and now they want to do it again’ | Shakhtar Donetsk

As Darijo Srna drove south-west from Kyiv, awful new versions of images that have never been too far below the surface flashed in front of his eyes. He was behind the wheel for 36 hours, briefly swapping places with a travelling companion but finding sleep impossible, and by the time he emerged from the car a combination of Red Bull and sheer adrenaline had taken him as far as Zagreb. “I saw a lot of difficult scenes along the roadside that put me back in 1990, back home in Croatia,” he says, hesitating slightly. “Children leaving their homes, lots of families with things packed in bags. Difficult moments. But we must believe everything will be OK. We don’t have another solution.”

Srna is safe and with his family but can think of little but Ukraine. He was an icon while playing at Shakhtar Donetsk, staying there for 15 years despite offers from far bigger European names, and has been their director of football since 2020. His love for the country and deep anguish at the atrocities needlessly inflicted upon it now are conveyed profoundly; those sentiments even more keenly felt given that, since the Yugoslavian war began, tragedy has been far too prominent a thread in Srna’s life.

“They wanted to take my home in 1990; they took it in 2014; now they want again to take my home, our home,” he says. “I think this is already too much.”

War has deprived Srna of people and places he loves. One of the latter is Donetsk, where he has not been since Russia-backed separatist groups ignited conflict in the Donbas eight years ago. Shakhtar, proud miners’ club of the region and 13 times national champions since 2002, have not been back since. “I left three days before they started bombing the airport in 2014. Already people had entered the city, but I didn’t expect anything to happen. Donetsk is a peaceful place and has always welcomed foreigners, just like Ukraine generally. Ukrainians are good people. They never attacked anyone. Whether you give them one dollar, 100, 100,000, they are satisfied and happy. They don’t deserve any of this. But obviously one person has a different opinion and we will do everything we can to change it.”

Shakhtar have been based in Kyiv since being forced to depart but they have now had to leave their temporary home, too. Srna tells a long, complex and troubling story of the way their players and staff, given wildly contrasting advice and levels of help from their embassies, were manoeuvred away. After hearing the first explosions go off early on 24 February, Srna quickly liaised with the club’s chief executive, Serhiy Palkin, to house as many of the staff as possible – foreigners and those Ukrainians who had nowhere nearby to go – in their regular hotel.

“I was calm but I was afraid as well,” he says. “I’d been through this before. The club proposed two buses for everyone but there was nobody who could say to you: ‘Yes, everything will be OK on the road.’ On the second day the embassies were all saying they couldn’t help, it wasn’t secure, we had to stay in the hotel. That’s when you almost start to panic: in those first couple of days there was so much news around, some of it fake, and you start to receive a lot of phone calls from friends and families saying: ‘Get out, get out.’ You’re under pressure and it’s not easy to be composed at that moment.

Shakhtar’s Brazilian right-back Dodô speaks to the media after arriving in São Paulo from Ukraine last week.
Shakhtar’s Brazilian right-back Dodô speaks to the media after arriving in São Paulo from Ukraine last week. Photograph: André Penner/AP

“It was a kind of chaos. You have to make good decisions. The situation is under control but not under control; everyone is waiting for something. We would all be together in the restaurant, 65 of us, but then sirens would start and we would have to go down to the basement, lots of the Brazilian guys had to bring their children. It was just two days, but felt like 22.”

In the meantime, Srna had called his close friend Aleksander Ceferin. He told the Uefa president that the situation was becoming unbearable and asked for help. The situation became more urgent when the Croatian embassy finally told Srna, and other nationals such as the Dynamo Kyiv assistant, Ognjen Vukojevic, to leave the country. “I called Ceferin again and told him I can’t go without you giving me something,” he says. Ceferin gave assurances; Srna started the seemingly endless journey out with two friends in the back of the car, wedged either side of a filled petrol can, and Shakhtar’s Italian academy goalkeeping coach in the front.

Once an hour Srna would call his Brazil-born Ukraine international Júnior Moraes, who remained anxiously in the hotel with his Brazilian teammates, to tell him about conditions on the near-gridlocked roads. He heard bombing as he passed the club’s training camp; it had taken three hours, rather than the usual 20 minutes, to get that far. By the halfway point of his journey, he heard Ceferin was close to a solution for the players’ evacuation and put him directly in touch with Moraes. Twenty hours in Ceferin confirmed a train had been arranged, via Ukraine’s FA president Andriy Pavelko to take Moraes and his countrymen west. Shortly after, transport was arranged for the rest of Shakhtar’s Italian contingent, including the head coach, Roberto De Zerbi, and a precarious operation was almost complete.

Uefa’s president, Aleksander Ceferin, pictured in 2020, ‘did a huge job’ in helping Shakhtar’s players.
Uefa’s president, Aleksander Ceferin, pictured in 2020, ‘did a huge job’ in helping Shakhtar’s players. Photograph: Manu Fernández/AP

“Ceferin and Pavelko did a huge job,” Srna says. “They showed that they are not just top presidents but top people too. Ceferin took this mission on as if he was looking after his own family. In war, you find out who is your friend and who is not; who gives you a glass of water and who gives you a glass of milk. Today that feels very important.”

All of Shakhtar’s Ukrainian players, bar those who have three children, have been required to stay in the country. Srna says everyone is safe and some of the squad are managing to do some fitness work by themselves; there is also a Fifa-led solution for foreign-based players to continue their careers elsewhere on a temporary basis until June. But the priority is to help those suffering so dreadfully. Srna has arranged accommodation in Croatia for 42 of Shakhtar’s academy players, aged between 10 and 17, and the first team are making contributions to the relief effort.

He would rather they did that than join the army, as some sportsmen have opted to do. “A player can help Ukraine on the football pitch but he doesn’t know anything about armies, guns or war,” he says. “It would be his decision but maybe it’s better if they volunteer with things like offering food and supplies, while using their platforms to make their voices heard. They work with the ball, not guns. But all of them are involved in humanitarian action now.”

Darijo Srna playing for Shakhtar Donetsk against Chelsea at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk in October 2012.
Darijo Srna playing for Shakhtar Donetsk against Chelsea at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk in October 2012. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Ukraine’s football powers must stick together. “We have to be united: Dynamo, Shakhtar, Vorskla, Dnipro, Metalist Kharkiv, Chernomorets, Mariupol,” he says. “I am an optimist: I believe everything will be OK, that we will all be stronger after this and that these clubs will all play football together again. We are all staying close. Life is more important than anything else and we must do everything we can, together, to stop the war and save the people of Ukraine.”

Srna has acquaintances who have remained in Donetsk and, in some cases, back Russia’s acts of aggression. “They must find a way to be honest and objective,” he says. “Today all the world knows Russia attacked Ukraine: it’s no secret. One day they will understand everything. Time will do what is necessary.”

In time, too, Srna hopes he will be able to return. It would lift the cloud of depression that he acknowledges has not lifted over the past 13 days. “I’m proud that I live there and proud that I played and work for Shakhtar, proud that I know these people. They are heroes, they are already winners. We stand with them.”

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