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?