Shakhtar Donetsk, a football club that left its home in the Donbass region of Ukraine in 2014, has been playing in stadiums all over the country for more than a decade and is no stranger to the changes and turmoil brought on by war.
But even by Shakhtar’s standards, the events that have unfolded since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February were unprecedented.
“What we do on the pitch is to support our people, our refugees and the Ukrainian military,” club CEO Sergey Palkin told CNN Sports.
“All the speeches from the coaching staff and me to the players are focused on: [the fact] We are playing for Ukraine.”
The Ukrainian Premier League was postponed for six months when the Russian invasion began, during which time Shakhtar embarked on a ‘global tour for peace’ across Europe to raise funds for those caught in the war. Did.
Matches resumed in August, but only after the International Football Federation announced that foreign players could leave Ukrainian teams following the outbreak of war. also left the club.
“We lost half the team…we lost the coaching staff and actually started everything from scratch, from scratch,” says Palkin.
Shakhtar have rebuilt their squad with Ukrainian players ahead of the restart of the Ukrainian Premier League, hiring Croatian Igor Jovicević as a new coach.
The game resumed in August, with Shakhtar playing in the western part of the country. But in the face of the specter of war, football often feels like a distant concern.
“It’s difficult for players, but most of them live away from their families. [who] I live abroad in a safe area,” says Palkin.
“It’s hard from a psychological point of view…it’s incredibly hard to survive and stay there. [Ukraine] And to live through all these moments of life. ”
With the team having to play a ‘home’ game in the Polish capital Warsaw, there was hope that Shakhtar’s makeshift squad would make some progress in this season’s Champions League, Europe’s premier club football competition. There were few people.
However, after winning against RB Leipzig and recording draws against Real Madrid and Celtic, Shakhtar finished third in Group F and qualified for the knockout stage of the second division Europa League.
“When you’re at home and you have a problem, like a big problem or a lot of people dying, it’s hard to focus,” says Palkin.
“For us, it was a miracle what we achieved in the group stage of the Champions League. With an almost new team and a new coaching staff, we came third in the group. I am very proud of our team.”
The Ukrainian Premier League is currently on winter break. It is set to resume in the coming weeks after Shakhtar faces Rennes in his second leg of the Europa League on February 16 and he will play on February 23.
The club will be embarking without star player Mihailo Madrik in the second half of the season, who has signed with Chelsea of the English Premier League for $75 million and is expected to pay a bonus of $35 million.
Madric, who has scored three goals in the Champions League group stage this season, arrives at Chelsea at a club 10th in the league table after a dismal run.
But Palkin believes the 22-year-old winger can help revive Chelsea’s fortunes.
“Mykhailo is a top professional and a very ambitious person,” he says. “He’s very ambitious on and off the pitch. We haven’t seen a player like this in the last 20 years…I’m sure this guy will bring many titles to Chelsea.”
After Mudryk’s transfer, Shakhtar’s president, Rinat Akhmetov, announced that he would allocate $25 million to Ukraine’s war effort, including medical and psychological support.
And beyond funding aid relief to Ukraine, Shakhtar has a broader, less specific goal of spreading hope every time the team takes the field.
“When we play football, we show the whole world that we are alive, we have to stay alive, we have to keep fighting,” says Palkin.
“We are sending the message to the whole world that we need to help Ukraine. We need to win this war because democracy must win dictatorships.”