the boys from donetsk

words: Peter Macia

photography: boogie


Da! Da! Da! It’s the only sound you’ll hear in Shchaslyve, Ukraine, between 12 and 3pm most days, other than the occasional listless raven caw. On this afternoon in early spring 2015, it rises from behind Shchaslyve Educational Complex, echoes off the cement walls separating a shallow ground from the surrounding neighborhood, and carries on a crisp wind, sweetly pungent with smoke from controlled burns in the fields ringing town. The voice drifts through placid pine groves, wafts over the curved-backed, oblivious babushkas in their gardens and slips by the middle-aged dad in battle fatigues who’s walking the fence line with his mammoth German shepherd sniffing the flowerbeds. Da! Da! Da! Then silence. But at closer range, near the sad Soviet-era sedans parked on Heroes Square, the silence becomes filled by a percussion of urgency: the scuffle of football boots, dull thuds, and the ping of leather whipped against aluminum.
A few steps below the parking lot, on the sunken turf, is the command’s source. Henadiy Zubov, academy coach of FC Shakhtar Donetsk, is a legend of past Shakhtar midfields and a man of few words. Zubov’s in all black, a stocking hat pulled down to the rims of his arctic blue eyes, arms clasped behind his back like a drill sergeant. He’s barking at a group of 16-year-olds, all with the same orderly haircut, while other men in black bark other boys through similar tasks. In one corner, 17-year- olds play rondo, a high-tempo, one-touch, possession-retention game. In the opposite corner, speed guns aim at 14-year-olds, precisely measuring their bursts and sprints. Along a sideline, 15-year-olds synchronize functional fitness movements. Zubov’s 16-year-olds take up the middle ground with a modified scrimmage, during which the ball is effectively never out of play and the players are constantly switching from attack to defense to attack.
The teams will cycle through each of these exercises today, another set tomorrow, and so on, until their movements are mechanical, swift, and perfectly coordinated. Each of the teams is patrolled by a man like Zubov, Ukrainians who once played for Shakhtar and know what it means to be where their boys are now. They do not cajole or comfort needy players. The other men on the pitch, the Portuguese, came from Lisbon in the summer of 2013, along with the academy’s new technical director, Miguel Cardoso, and brought with them decidedly non-Ukrainian tactics and technique. Their job is to know where the boys need to be in the future. Their mouths occasionally curve upwards into conspicuous smiles. All of these men were brought here to help these boys make a professional life out of football, and now, to make a peaceful life during wartime. Some of them speak Russian, some Ukrainian, some Portuguese, but all speak that one word—Da!—over and over, as if they can will the boys on through sheer blunt force.
All told, there are approximately 70 players on the pitch when sessions are in full swing, a dozen or so coaches, a few trainers, and a few more support staff nearby. Nearly a hundred clustered in an exurb of Kiev, living in a yellow hotel across from the Educational Complex. Together they constitute the youth academy of FC Shakhtar Donetsk, a club scattered across an unfamiliar western Ukraine, as their home city, once the center of the country’s industrial east, has become the capital of the Donetsk People’s Republic, a member state of the self-proclaimed federation of Novorossiya, and epicenter of an increasingly global conflict.
Five hours to the east of Shchaslyve, in Poltava, is Shakhtar’s senior academy—the under-19, under-20, and under-21 teams and their coaches—living at a light green, hotel-like training facility built for another club.
Today, March 11, another 50—players, coaches, staff, management, PR, marketing and the club’s owner and president, Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine—are in southern Germany, where Shakhtar’s first squad will attempt to beat one of the best club teams in the world, Bayern Munich, in the UEFA Champions League, the annual tournament contested by Europe’s elite. On February 17, in the first leg of their home-and-away tie, Shakhtar held the Bavarian giants to a 0-0 draw, giving themselves a fighting chance to advance. That game was played at Shakhtar’s temporary home stadium in Lviv, 350 miles west of Kiev, where the first team now lives and trains, and 735 miles west of Donbass Arena, Shakhtar’s actual home stadium. On that night, Arena Lviv was packed with 40,000 Shakhtar supporters in orange and black. Tonight, in Munich, there is only Bayern red.
By kickoff, around 9:45pm Shchaslyve time, the academy boys have finished training, showered, done their homework in the hotel’s lobby, eaten dinner in the restaurant, and retired to their rooms to watch the game. They are divided into residences of two to three boys, which smell like teenagers who have been sweating all day. The boys all sit in their beds, and each of them is dressed in official Shakhtar casualwear. Official Shakhtar training gear and official Shakhtar match kits fill their open closets.
Before any of the boys have a chance to kick their official Shakhtar-socked feet up, the game is essentially over. The Donetsk club’s long-serving center back, Oleksandr Kucher, has been sent off with the fastest red card in Champions League history for a rash tackle on Bayern’s Mario Götze as he bears down on goal. Though slow- motion replays show little if any contact, the German’s tumble has convinced the referee. Thomas Müller converts the penalty and Bayern settle into soul-crushing domination for the next 90 minutes.
Most of the boys change the channel to a simultaneous Champions League match between Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea. A majority root for Chelsea, the London- based club owned by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich—partially because former Shakhtar star, Willian, moved there in 2013, partially because they’ve made a few friendly wagers on the game with their teammates. As Chelsea grinds through a cynical match of hard tackles and theatrical flopping, the Shakhtar score flashes in the top right corner of the screen. With each Bayern goal—by night’s end, seven to Shakhtar’s zero—the boys’ groans turn to sighs. Chelsea concedes a last minute goal and is eliminated as well. Some of the boys scurry through the hotel’s hallways to collect whatever it is they may have won.
The next day, Shakhtar’s first team players fly back to Kiev to train for their next game in Lviv, while the boys in Poltava and Shchaslyve train to someday take their places.
Da! Da! Da!
IN LATE NOVEMBER 2013, Shakhtar’s internationals were returning from duty around the globe. The World Cup in Brazil was seven months away, and many of them were still fighting to get there. Bernard, one of the club’s sizable Brazilian contingent, made his case for inclusion on his national team’s roster by scoring in a friendly against Honduras. Shakhtar captain Darijo Srna also scored, in Croatia’s playoff game against Iceland, earning himself and his countrymen a trip to the tournament. Five of Shakhtar’s Ukrainians would not be joining them, however; up 2-0 on France after the first of two legs, Ukraine conceded three goals and scored none in Paris, losing on aggregate and failing to seal what would have been Ukraine’s second-ever World Cup appearance.
Despite mixed results, mere participation at this level was evidence of the players’ class. Not only were they capable of performing in the Ukrainian Premier League but also in elite competitions around the world. Since the turn of this century, Shakhtar had built squad after squad of this caliber of player to win eight league titles and 12 domestic cups, becoming the dominant football force in Eastern Europe. After the international break, they were ready to push for a fifth straight championship, starting with a home game against FC Sevastopol.
As the far-flung teammates flew back to Donetsk on November 21, Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, unexpectedly announced the suspension of an impending trade deal with the European Union after months of negotiations. That deal was to include a massive aid package for Ukraine’s struggling economy and was presumed by many to be a stepping-stone towards membership in the EU. Those in favor of the deal, many of who lived and worked in the western regions of Ukraine, viewed the sudden reversal as a capitulation to pressure from Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin. Those who preferred to extend, and perhaps expand Ukraine’s longstanding economic partnership with Russia, many of who lived and worked in the eastern regions, including Donetsk, viewed the decision as a necessary retreat from open dispute with their biggest trade partner. That night, small protests against the decision materialized on the streets of Kiev, the largest on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square.
On Saturday, November 23, Shakhtar destroyed Sevastopol 4-0, scoring all four goals in the first half. Nearly 40,000 attended the game at Donetsk’s Donbass Arena, a gleaming entertainment palace built by Rinat Akhmetov in 2009 at a personal cost of nearly $400 million. Named for the cultural region in far eastern Ukraine, the Arena was Shakhtar’s fortress, and the club was undefeated there thus far in the season. Even Shakhtar’s irascible Romanian manager, Mircea Lucescu, seemed relatively pleased with his team’s display. “Everyone was happy with the first half, and apparently the players deserved the applause in the first half,” he said. “But they should get a scolding for the second half. We should have scored four more.”
The win pushed Shakhtar back into first place as they finished the first half of the season, and the Ukrainian league entered Europe’s longest winter break, with no matches scheduled for the next 86 days.
Those days would become some of the most pivotal in the country’s recent history. Yanukovych followed his EU decision with the announcement of a $15 billion aid package from Putin, and the protests in Kiev exploded, a few thousand disgruntled citizens turning into nearly a million. Yanukovych responded with extraordinary legal action followed by brutal enforcement. The former consisted of exorbitant fines or imprisonment for any form or facilitation of protest, including defamatory statements on the Internet; the latter was carried out on the protesters by his regime’s secret police, the Berkut, and a small army of paid thugs called titushki (a video of Vadym Titushko beating journalists at a separate anti-government protest had gone viral a year before, and his name became a metonym for Yanukovych’s low-rent mercenaries).
The protesters created a metonym of their own. Maidan, their communal point of origin, became the name of the movement. Their numbers now extended far beyond the actual square, often engulfing the streets and public parks between it and the old Valeriy Lobanovskyi Stadium (spiritual home of Shakhtar’s rivals, Dynamo Kiev) 500 meters to the east. Rallies, speeches, and towering barricades of tires and trash were constant.
To protect the largely peaceful crowds against the Berkut and its titushki, volunteer “defense units” were formed by the most organized group in Maidan: Dynamo Kiev’s ultras, global shorthand for a club’s most hardcore fans. The Dynamo ultras first rallied support on the Russian social network VKontakte. “We appeal to all those who have not joined the defense of Kiev from these hired reptiles,” a post on the group’s official page said. “We’re not going out in favor of joining Europe… Not against Russia and Russians!!! We’re going out… FOR THE PEOPLE OF KIEV, FOR OUR CITY, FOR OUR COUNTRY, FOR OUR HONOR!” This call, to protect anti-government protesters, was soon echoed by ultras from clubs throughout Ukraine. Groups in the south and east followed it with appeals to their members to refuse any offer to join the titushki.
The ultras’ unanimity was borne less from a support for Maidan than a historical disdain for authority and abuse of power. For decades, ultras the world over have staked their identities on a pseudo-revolutionary, “All Cops Are Bastards” platform, and drawn their membership from young men who, by nature, tend to be against everything. (Ukraine’s ultras are considered amongst the most virulent; the country almost lost its right to host the UEFA 2012 European Championships over concerns for fan safety).
When the Yanukovych regime overstepped its authority, it suddenly gave the disparate ultras cause for heretofore-impossible solidarity. This unexpected alliance was lauded by supporters of Maidan, but the government and its allies were quick to remind everyone of some of the ultras’ reputations for racism, fascism, and hooliganism.
To further complicate matters, right wing nationalist groups began using Maidan as a stage for more aggressive anti-government action, attacking police and seizing government buildings. “I have treated your participation in mass rallies with understanding,” Yanukovych said in a public address on January 20. “However, when peaceful actions have escalated into mass riots, such phenomena threaten not only the safety of the residents of Kiev but the whole Ukraine.”
With the Berkut and titushki on one side and right wing extremists on the other, the majority of Maidan became vulnerable. Civilian casualties increased and reports of deaths began to surface on social networks and news outlets. The first was a 20- year-old from the eastern central region of Dnipropetrovsk, shot with a non-police- issue rifle just outside the gates of Lobanovskyi Stadium.
Less than a month later, over 100 people were dead, many of them young men, including 13 police. Most were killed during a 48-hour period of fighting that became the deadliest days in Ukraine since World War II.
Today the Maidan is both shrine and spectacle. Memorial sandwich boards with pictures of the dead and notes from their loved ones cover the main plaza and extend up the hill toward Parliament, marking the spots where protesters were felled by rooftop snipers. Vendors in Maidan’s metro station carve out niches of both pro-Ukraine and anti-Putin merchandise, and when passengers emerge from underground, they are greeted by young men and women in combat uniforms soliciting donations to support soldiers on the front lines.
Other than the sporadic appearance of these men and women around the rest of Kiev, the city appears to have returned to business. There are more Ukrainian flags hanging from apartment windows and more anti-Putin graffiti on the walls, but the new government is still not to be trusted and the war is now somewhere else.
WE SAW THE BEGINNING of the conflict with our own eyes. It started when the separatists put up their roadblocks,” says Serhiy Kryvtsov, Shakhtar’s center back. “We were in Donetsk at that time.”
After the events in Kiev, unrest had grown in the east and south. Putin amassed his military on the Ukrainian border, and pro-Russian forces seized government buildings in Crimea in early March. Protests and counter-protests took place in most major cities, including Donetsk. The Ministry of the Interior requested the league suspend its schedule, but it became clear that football was a necessary distraction, and play resumed on March 16, 2014.
Shakhtar had four matches in the next three weeks, the last of which was a 3-0 demolition of Karpaty Lviv on April 5 at Donbass Arena. The following Monday, pro- Russian protests again filled the streets of Donetsk. On April 12, Shakhtar beat Dynamo Kiev in front of 60,000 in Dynamo’s modern home, Olimpiyskiy Stadium. The day after, three people were killed in Mariupol when the Ukrainian security force fought off a separatist raid on its headquarters. These were the first deaths of the conflict to occur in the east. Shakhtar beat FC Tavriya Simferopol and Illichivets Mariupol at Donbass over the next two weeks, securing its fifth straight title with two games remaining in the season.
Shakhtar’s academy teams were completing successful seasons as well, especially the under-19s. They had participated in the inaugural UEFA Youth League, a tournament created to mirror the Champions League and promote the level of youth competition across the continent. Despite losing to London’s Arsenal FC in the knockout round, the Ukrainians had impressed with their fluent style of play, and their ability to compete reflected well on the academy’s young directors, Oleksandr Funderat and Miguel Cardoso.
In the modern game, the academy’s purpose is to develop as many professional footballers as possible. The common parlance for an academy graduate is “product,” and many clubs sell or loan the bulk of their products to other clubs in order to generate revenue. A growing number of academies only sell surplus product and funnel the best to their first teams, essentially cutting their clubs’ expenditures by creating their own top-level athletes rather than having to buy them. FC Barcelona epitomizes this, regularly filling its squad with homegrown talent, including such world-class players as Andrés Iniesta, Gerard Piqué, Xavi Hernández, and of course, Lionel Messi, who famously joined Barca’s La Masia junior academy at age 13. To purchase these four players at their peaks, Barca would have had to spend into the hundreds of millions. Instead, they spent a relative pittance to house, feed, and develop them as youths.
Shakhtar, it seems, would like to follow the Barca model, and Funderat and Cardoso have been tasked with improving the quality of Shakhtar’s products. Funderat, a stocky former player from Kirovograd, became academy director in 2012 after 12 years as a Shakhtar coach. The lean and energetic Cardoso was recruited from Spain in the summer of 2013 to become the academy’s technical director. Both are in their mid-40s and have been immersed in football their entire adult lives. In less than two years working together, they have overseen Shakhtar’s rise to number five in a 2015 ranking of Europe’s most prolific academies. Though that ranking is aided by Shakhtar’s ability to place its graduates in weaker domestic leagues, it does prove that Funderat and Cardoso can nearly guarantee any boy who joins the academy a path to play football for a living, instead of the increasingly dire alternative.
“[One of our players] decided to go,” says Cardoso. “We even tried to seduce him to stay at the club. After a few months, he was a taxi driver in his city. Now, he’s joined the army, not by his own will, but compulsory. We use this example for our boys: ‘You have a good chance. You are in an unbelievable club. You have all the conditions to develop. We continue to give you everything. So pick this chance because it’s more important than ever.’”
This chance is due in no small part to the club’s owner, Rinat Akhmetov. In addition to the $400 million spent on Donbass Arena, Akhmetov invested a personal fortune in expanding and staffing Shakhtar’s Kirsha Training Centre. Constructed in 1991 on the same farmland as the club’s post–World War II training ground, it is a sprawling, bucolic campus with nine training pitches, accommodations for all of the players, and state-of-the-art facilities to ensure they are healthy and comfortable at all times.
“Our structure in Donetsk, it’s unbelievable,” Cardoso says, sitting in his makeshift office in Poltava. “Our training ground is something huge, not only in the dimension, but also in quality. From the pitches to the beautiful gardens, from the lake with the swans to our main buildings and our gyms—everything that you can imagine in terms of supporting the development of the boys.” Even as Donetsk became unstable in late spring of 2014, Kirsha remained a sanctuary.
While separatists seized several ministry buildings in the city center and the interim government in Kiev admitted it had lost control of the eastern and southern regions of the country, Shakhtar teams played out their seasons and the entire club went on summer vacation.
“Suddenly management began to call us,” says Kryvtsov, the Shakhtar defender. “They said that the situation had come to military action, fighting had started, and it makes no sense to go back [to Donetsk] because it was not safe for the team.”
In late May, separatist militias took control of the city and declared it part of the Donetsk People’s Republic, based on a public referendum that was immediately denounced as a sham by the West. A battle between the Ukrainian army and pro- Russian separatists for control of the city’s international airport had laid it to ruin.
“The situation was so explosive that we had to take our belongings out under artillery fire,” Kryvtsov says. “We left our apartments, houses, cars there. Everything was left there in Kirsha.”
Unbeknownst to the players, the management of the club, including Akhmetov, Lucescu, Funderat, and Cardoso, had already been planning the evacuation from Donetsk. Those first team players not playing in the World Cup were to meet at a pre-scheduled training camp in the Austrian Alps in mid-June and stay until the Ukrainian Super Cup match against Dynamo on July 22 in Lviv. The Poltava facility had been secured for the senior academy’s arrival in late July. And in August, the under-14 to under-17 teams would move to Shchaslyve. As Shakhtar’s academy is composed of players from all over Ukraine, those who had returned to their hometowns received constant and detailed communication about their futures, while the players and coaches who had stayed in Donetsk were bussed out together through a corridor of heavily armed checkpoints.
The decision was made to take along an additional ten players from the under-13 team—not technically part of Shakhtar’s professional academy—to Shchaslyve to train with the under-14s. However, all other players from the club’s youth development teams and almost entirely from the Donetsk region, would remain with their families.
“We didn’t leave them behind,” Funderat says. “Each family decided what was best. We didn’t lose contact with any of them. Coaches for each age group stay in touch with the students and their families. We know what’s going on with them.”
With plans in place for the academy’s relocation, the first team’s long-term situation remained somewhat in limbo. In order to have its matches sanctioned by UEFA, Shakhtar had to wait for an approved list of stadia.
While awaiting that list, Shakhtar continued playing a series of friendlies in and around its Austrian base, including a final match on July 20, in nearby Lyon, France. After losing to Olympique Lyonnais, six of Shakhtar’s Brazilians failed to get on the flight to Lviv.
The South Americans claimed in the press, with reason, that the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 outside of Donetsk a few days before had caused them great concern for their safety. Lucescu, however, never one to mince words, called their bluff. “It is not the players’ desire, it’s their agents’ work,” he quoted to Shakhtar’s official website. “A few hours before the kickoff of the match against Lyonnais, Kia showed up. And after the game, at two in the morning, he took our players away. The very talented ones: Teixeira, Douglas, Fred. The rest are not so important.”
Kia is Kiavash “Kia” Joorabchian, a notorious wheeler-dealer who works with his own cadre of agents and holds great influence over the global market through his ability to win players enormous transfer fees and contracts, of which he takes his own massive percentage. “He wants to make use of the situation in the country to get the players for free,” said Lucescu. “But they have contracts.”
Joorabchian had been trafficking talented but unheralded Brazilians to Shakhtar since the early 2000s. He had also moved some of those same Brazilians out of Shakhtar to bigger, wealthier clubs once the players became stars, benefitting all parties involved. Since 2002, 20 Brazilians had been lured to Donetsk. They formed the attack of Shakhtar’s championship teams, while the defense usually consisted of relatively inexpensive Ukrainians.
In this case though, Joorabchian had clearly misguided the players—Akhmetov quickly backed Lucescu in the press. Even more pointed was captain Darijo Srna’s interview on the club website. “We will move towards the objectives set before us by the club president, and which we have set ourselves!” he said. “Now we are in a hotel, focused on the match with Dynamo. And everything that happens should further help us become one. I am grateful to all the players—Ukrainians, Brazilians—who are here. They are the real Shakhtar!”
On July 22, the incomplete Shakhtar beat Dynamo to claim the Ukrainian Super Cup trophy. Srna again responded with emotion in his post-match interview: “We know that our fans are with us. This victory is for them, for Donbass,” he said. For Srna, a 32-year-old Bosnian Muslim—whose father had narrowly escaped World War II, who had lived through his own country’s war as a child, and who had been with the club since the age of 20—there were no excuses. “For all the people who are going through the hard war times. My heart hurts, my soul hurts. But we still try to show our football, the Shakhtar type.”
The day after the Super Cup, Lucescu announced to the press that the first team would stage the upcoming season’s home matches in Lviv and train out of Kiev. Days later, Cardoso announced the senior academy teams’ relocation to Poltava. Suddenly it was public knowledge that Akhmetov and the club’s management had been planning for the worst case scenario long before it became necessary. The Brazilian absentees were in Lviv by week’s end.
Shakhtar’s 2014–15 league season began on July 27 with a win in Lviv over Metalurh Zaporizhya, where Serhiy Kryvtsov had played as a youth and young pro. They won every game in August, including another “home” victory over Illichivets Mariupol on August 29. The following night, as the first team slept in a hotel in Lviv, the senior academy slept in another hotel in Poltava, and the junior academy slept in yet another in Shchaslyve, the Kirsha Training Centre was hit by artillery from an unknown source and burned until dawn.
THE TRIP FROM KIEV TO LVIV takes about five hours if you drive as if highway lanes, speed limits, and other moving vehicles are figments of someone else’s imagination. Along this stretch of highway, it seems as if every billboard recruits soldiers or supporters for the Ukrainian army, but the scenery is beautiful, a rolling countryside dotted by quaint villages, old castles, and various Soviet-era monuments in disrepair.
When you arrive in Lviv, the road becomes potholed and cobbled as it climbs toward the ruins on Castle Hill and enters the historic city center. Aside from the conspicuous presence of uniformed young men near the 17th-century Catholic Church, and the odd fascist anti-Putin graffiti, the old part of Lviv looks like the old part of any other European city.
Just off Rynok Square, the hub of this central district, sits the stately and luxurious Leopolis Hotel, Shakhtar Donetsk’s second home away from home. Since July 2014, the team has spent 30 or so nights here, after 30 or so round trip flights between Kiev and Lviv.
At Arena Lviv, 20 minutes south, there are no flags or banners welcoming you to the “Home of Shakhtar, Champions of Ukraine,” just security guards slightly surprised by your presence. The first sign that you are at the right arena is the Shakhtar merch shop near the VIP entrance, where there are no VIPs entering.
Arena Lviv was built to host games of the 2012 Euros and was to become the home of local club FC Karpaty Lviv, but Karpaty only played a handful of matches there before deciding it made no sense to lease a 35,000-seat stadium it could not fill and went back to its old, smaller, cheaper place in town.
Shakhtar owner Akhmetov likely pays the same rent Karpaty did, and judging by the scenes before Shakhtar’s match against fellow Donetsk club, Olimpik, it is not hard to imagine him having the same second thoughts. There are maybe 4,000 in attendance, and most of them are school kids with parents. When the players run out, you can hear individual hands clapping, and when that dies down, just the soft rustle of those hands in snack bags. Shakhtar’s players don’t look too excited or surprised to play for such a paltry crowd, but, as this is the first match after the disaster in Munich, they need to come out strong.
After eight minutes, Shakhtar is up 1-0, a penalty converted by Darijo Srna. By halftime, it’s 4-0, with two coming from Marlos, one of Shakhtar’s most recently acquired Brazilians. The jumbotron blares advertisements, hype music, and highlights during the break. A dozen minutes into the second half, 5-0, and even the diehard fans in the home end are losing steam. The “ultras” here consist of about 10 teenagers who sing the songs, beat the drum, and do their best pantomime of the big game atmosphere, which also seems to include offering fascist-themed Shakhtar stickers to anyone who says hello.
The game ends 6-0, but Lucescu is less than thrilled. He grouches into the sprawling media room, where a handful of journalists anxiously sit surrounded by empty chairs. One of them asks Lucescu about his team’s odds of winning the title.
“We all know that there are no chances of winning the championship,” Lucescu says. “We are not playing for three weeks [due to a schedule break], but we are paying the players for these three weeks. Many of them want to go home. How could it all have been planned out so poorly? Imagine what would occur if all the teams from the Donbass region could not participate because they have huge expenses playing without an audience and constantly living in other cities. The president [of the Ukrainian Football Association] needs to thank Donbass for keeping all these teams together and for allowing this championship to proceed. I’m not just talking about our team right now, but unfortunately all the teams from Donbass.”
Lucescu’s tirade is enough to make you wonder just how long his boss will put up with losing this kind of money playing in Lviv every week. Yet even before the conflict, tickets in the main stands at Donbass Arena sold for only 20 to 90 Ukrainian hryvnia (between $1-4 USD; tickets in Munich and London, at stadiums of similar caliber, start around $40). It is possible Akhmetov never intended to recoup his investment, at least not quickly.
While Shakhtar’s most recent financial reports show a club with healthy turnover—because of lucrative Champions League matches in Europe and sales of its talented Brazilians to Europe’s top clubs—those numbers do not reflect the losses incurred since the club left Donetsk. Nor do they reflect the financial pressures the conflict has placed on Akhmetov’s company, Systems Capital Management. When his portfolio is healthy, Akhmetov can operate Shakhtar almost as if it is his charitable gift to the people of Donbass; but now it has literally become that, a club that exists by his will and wallet alone.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Akhmetov. Born in Donetsk to a coal miner father, he made himself into an industrial baron, one of the richest of the post-Soviet oligarchs. In the opening scene of The Other Chelsea: A Story from Donetsk, a documentary about Shakhtar filmed during its 2009 UEFA Cup-winning campaign, Akhmetov is shown in the VIP box of the old Shakhtar Stadium with various members of eastern Ukraine’s pro-Russian political scene. Viktor Yanukovych stands next to him. A year later, Akhmetov’s Donbass Arena would open and Yanukovych would be elected president of Ukraine thanks to almost unanimous support in the eastern and southern regions. During Yanukovych’s first year in office, Akhmetov’s net worth grew threefold, to $16 billion.
Akhmetov and Yanukovych, two old boys from Donetsk, had risen to the height of power in Ukraine. But now, with his friend Yanukovych in Russian exile and his wealth plummeting, Akhmetov is making possibly the boldest and riskiest move of his career by leaving the place that made him.
Just before he was forced to relocate the team to Kiev, Akhmetov told the press, “Donbass Arena has long been a symbol of beautiful football and open sporting competition, and now I want it to become a symbol of peace. Donbass has always supported Shakhtar and now Shakhtar will play for peace in Donbass.”
The stadium has since been turned into an aid distribution center, supporting thousands of needy families in Donetsk. Akhmetov continues to pay the staff to maintain it, right down to the grounds crew who keep the pitch emerald green, freshly mowed and match-lined, just in case. These efforts are always covered thoroughly on the club’s website.
And this is what makes Shakhtar’s ambiguous future such an interesting case study. As the biggest and richest clubs in Europe become some of the biggest and richest brands in the world, they are also becoming less engaged with the communities that established and supported them over the last century or more. Manchester United has 10 times more fans in Asia than in Manchester. Real Madrid sells 1.5 million shirts globally every year. Barcelona spends every other summer playing exhibition matches for its North and South American supporters. To be successful, clubs can no longer confine themselves to the places they are from. “Manchester” and “Madrid” are part of their globally recognized brand names.
Shakhtar is at an advantage in that sense, because most football fans outside of Ukraine do not know where Donetsk is and will probably never go there to watch Shakhtar play. Shakhtar can become a symbol, a signifier, the club from a war-torn country with wild-haired Brazilians. It can play in Lviv or Kiev or Donetsk—it may not matter. Its greatest potential consumer base will only see them on television when they play in the Champions League anyway. It is those games, against the best teams in Europe, which will make Shakhtar’s players famous and marketable. It is those games that will help the club sell merchandise to kids around the world who just like the idea of Shakhtar Donetsk. The longer Ukraine’s war continues, the more Akhmetov’s club will need to find support beyond its borders.
This decentralization of Shakhtar’s power could also benefit Ukraine. When news of conflict in Donetsk first spread outside of Eastern Europe, millions of football fans must have thought, “That’s where Shakhtar is from,” and paid a little more attention. When Shakhtar played Bayern, millions around the world watched and heard the game’s commentators talk about the situation in Donbass. What would these millions know about the war in Ukraine were it not for Shakhtar?
More importantly, can Shakhtar have a similar effect on the war itself? Can the club that so explicitly stands for the values of the east unite the country by playing its home games in the western city known for its European-ness? In a world whose populations are increasingly defined by their digital and ideological associations rather than lines on a map, can a mere football club become a positive political force in the real world?
SHAKHTAR'S FIRST SEASON away from home has challenged those at the club in ways they couldn’t possibly have imagined. With Donetsk still out of reach, the coaches, players, and academy boys hold on to the things that cannot be changed by place.
Oleksandr Funderat watches over the under-19s training on the pitch next to the light-green hotel in Poltava. In April they’ll make it to the final of the 2015 UEFA Youth League, losing to Abramovich’s Chelsea boys. A lanky striker from Kherson named Viktor Kovalenko will be their star. He made his debut with the first team this year, playing in the attack amongst the Brazilians. Kovalenko has been with Shakhtar since he was 11 years old.
Funderat thinks about what his job is, now that he is an academy director of Shakhtar Donetsk but not in Donetsk. “Our main task was to make good football players out of these children,” he says. “But young football players from the Donbass are trapped, and we can’t ignore that. So we try to help them, and create a peaceful environment in which they can do their academic work and improve their skills. When we started the academy, we had every intention to turn it into the best football school in Ukraine for all children. The relocation has not changed this fundamental principle.”
Serhiy Kryvtsov, Shakhtar defender, stands in an empty banquet room in Kiev’s luxurious Hotel Opera, owned by Akhmetov. The club’s PR officer watches from the corner; Kryvtsov is to speak only of football, not politics. When asked how he feels about the situation, having lived his whole life in an independent Ukraine, he says, “My son was born in Donetsk. I was born in Zaporizhia. Now my wife is pregnant again, and the baby will be born in Kiev. Now the people who live in Donbass are Russian, so my son, will he be Russian, too, because he was born in Donetsk? I don’t understand this, because I believe in the country we had. This country can be good or bad, but this is my country, and we have to stick together to save it.”
Henadiy Zubov, Shakhtar academy coach, legend of past Shakhtar midfields, man of few words, sits in the yellow hotel in Shchaslyve. A picture of his family sits on his desk. He’s taken his black stocking hat off to reveal a receding hairline and furrowed brow. He’s also removed his big black coat, and his training top reveals a slight paunch. He ponders the question, What does Shakhtar mean to you? “The club is my home,” he says. “I played for Shakhtar for 10 years, I gave all my soul and heart to earn the trust and love of the fans. Now I’m here for seven years as a coach. So what more can I tell you? All my life is football. And all my heart is with Donbass.”
Eduard Matveenko is a 17-year-old central defender from Mariupol. Compared to other academy boys, he looks physically ready to fight for his place, with tattoos on his forearms dedicated to his mother and God. He stands near the pine grove in Shchaslyve. What are his hopes for the future? “They are all related to football, but this is second,” he says. “Most important, I think, is to become a good person and have a family, because in football you do not deal with real life. A family will be with you always, from start to finish.”
Some stray dogs wander behind Eduard, but he doesn’t seem to notice. They’re everywhere, the strays. Little packs of them near the babushkas’ garden, or in the park near Heroes Square, or getting chased off the pitch by men in black. Nyet! Nyet! Nyet!
You won’t find them running through the ball-retention sessions at La Masia or Chelsea’s Cobham Training, laboratories of discreet performance science and peculiar economics that each year become more integral to the serious business of football. Places that look a lot like future revenue sources. Yet here in Shchaslyve, the quiet little town whose name means “Lucky,” the strays are free to roam.