Ukraine crisis: Shakhtar Donetsk play on despite conflict

Shakhtar Donetsk players warm up during a training session at the Dragao Stadium in Porto, on December 9, 2014, on the eve of the UEFA Champions League football match against FC Porto. Image copyright AFP
Image caption Shakhtar's footballers are getting used to spending much of the time on the road

European football's top competition seems a world away from the bitter war in eastern Ukraine. And Ukraine's champions have had to flee their home at the centre of the conflict to survive.

Shakhtar Donetsk are normally based in the biggest city held by pro-Russian separatists, who took control of Donetsk in April and have been battling Ukrainian forces ever since.

Despite the turmoil, Shakhtar have qualified for the knockout stages of the Uefa Champions League and face the prospect of taking on one of Europe's biggest clubs, Bayern Munich, in the last 16.

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Media captionUkraine crisis: Shakhtar footballers face up to conflict

The club has to play home games 600 miles (966 km) away from its normal home at the Donbass Arena, in the western city of Lviv. Meanwhile, its administrative headquarters and player training sessions have been relocated to the capital, Kiev.

Hearts and minds

In stark contrast to the rebel-held city that Shakhtar hail from, Lviv has a far stronger sense of patriotism than any other city of Ukraine.

Every family here has a friend or relative fighting in the east or is making donations to government soldiers, Mayor Andriy Sadoviy told the BBC.

Beside Ukraine's yellow and blue national flags fly the red and black flags of Ukraine's most radical nationalist movement, Right Sector, which took part in violent protests that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych in February.

So there was some concern that Shakhtar's choice of Lviv Arena as a new home ground would be met with hostility.

Image caption Locals from Lviv say their city is tolerant to the idea of hosting football clubs from elsewhere

Instead, locals have welcomed the decision, seeing Shakhtar Donetsk as a European club representing the whole of Ukraine.

"They are renting the stadium, so everything is legal," said Natalia, a teacher.

"They didn't just turn up and play here. They came from the east but that's just geography," she added.

Playing at the Donbass Arena is out of the question. It had just been built when England played France and Ukraine in Euro 2012, but it has sustained serious damage from shelling.

As a result, the club has been losing earnings from ticket sales and merchandise while facing stadium hire fees of at least $8,000 (£5,000), local media said.

Image copyright Courtesy FC Shakhtar
Image caption Shakhtar's 52,000-seat Donbass Arena was damaged in attacks in August and October
Image copyright @Shakhtar_Eng
Image caption The stadium had hosted England matches twice during Euro 2012

"All commercial income is tied to the place where you play," says Shakhtar's general director Sergey Palkin.

"From there you build other sources of income step by step. At the moment, we have lost everything, and only time will tell whether we'll be able to rescue the situation."

But Mr Palin stresses there are no financial problems at the club and salaries are being paid on time.

Shakhtar's owner and one of Ukraine's richest men, Rinat Akhmetov, has said that damage to the $100m (€80m) stadium is nothing compared to the more than 4,000 lives lost in the conflict.

Analysts say Mr Akhmetov, a former Donetsk resident, is playing a political balancing act.

While the oligarch has avoided publicly taking sides in the Ukrainian conflict, he has been providing humanitarian aid for the most vulnerable people of Donbass.

Image caption Tents where people can make donations to government soldiers are easy to find in Lviv

Shakhtar's players, whose time is split between Kiev and Lviv, have become used to being on the move.

"For us it's very difficult because it feels like we are playing every game away. Every three days, we are on a plane," Shakhtar's captain Darijo Srna told the BBC.

"But unfortunately, returning to our Donbass Arena won't be possible in the next couple of months. The conflict has to be sorted out first", he said.

The club's main task is to stop its top players quitting during the winter break, before the Bayern Munich tie in February.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Alex Teixeira (left) and Fred (second from left) are two of six players who initially refused to return to Donetsk

Earlier this summer, six players - Argentina's Facundo Ferreyra and Brazilians Douglas Costa, Dentinho, Alex Teixeira, Ismaily and Fred - refused to return following a pre-season friendly in France saying they felt unsafe, but did so a week later.

"I haven't heard of any player considering leaving the club. I have a contract, I like it here and I will stay for a long time," Shakhtar's all-time top scorer Luiz Adriano told the BBC.

Despite the rumours and uncertainty hanging over the club, he wants the team to progress as far as it can in the Champions League this season.

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