January 30, 2023

Shakhtar Donetsk: As war continues in Ukraine, soccer club hopes to send message of hope with ‘miracle’ season

3 min read


Uprooted from its home in the Donbass region of Ukraine in 2014, the soccer club Shakhtar Donetsk For nearly a decade, stadiums across the country are used to the change and upheaval that comes with the war.

But by Shakhtar’s standards, the events since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February are unprecedented.

“What we are doing on the pitch is in support of our people, our refugees, our Ukrainian army,” club CEO Sergei Palakin said. CNN Sports.

“All the speeches from our coaching staff and myself to our players have been focused on that. [the fact] That we are playing for Ukraine.

At the beginning of the Russian invasion, Ukrainian Premier League Postponed for six months, Shakhtar embarked on a “World Tour for Peace” across Europe to raise money for those caught up in the war.

Shakhtar Donetsk players are preparing to face Olympiacos FC in the team's peace tour last year.

The games resumed in August but only after FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, announced that foreign players could leave Ukrainian teams after the war broke out. Soon after that, Shatir’s coaching staff also left the club.

“We lost half our team … we lost our coaching staff and we basically started from scratch,” says Palakin.

Before the resumption of the Ukrainian Premier League, Shakhtar hired a new coach, Croatian Igor Jovevich, and rebuilt their squad with Ukrainian players.

The games resumed in August with Shakhtar playing in the western part of the country. But against the spectacle of war, football often feels like a distant concern.

“It is difficult for the players because almost all the players are living without family, [who] are overseas in protected areas,” says Palakin.

“It is difficult from a psychological point of view … it is incredibly difficult to survive and be there [Ukraine] And going through all these moments of life.”

Few would have expected Shakhtar’s makeshift squad to make any progress in this season’s Champions League, Europe’s premier club soccer competition, not least because the team will be at their “home” in the Polish capital of Warsaw. “Games were to be played.

But after recording wins against RB Leipzig and draws against Real Madrid and Celtic, Shakhtar dropped to third in Group F and qualified for the knockout stages of the second-tier Europa League.

Shakhtar players pose with the Ukrainian flag after beating RB Leipzig in the Champions League in September.

“When you have problems at home — big problems, a lot of people dying — it’s hard to focus,” Palakin says.

“For us, what we did in the Champions League group stage was a miracle – almost a new team and a new coaching staff and we finished third in the group. I’m very proud of my team.”

The Ukrainian Premier League is currently on winter break. It will resume in the coming weeks, immediately after Shakhtar face Rennes over two legs in the Europa League on February 16 and 23.

The club will begin the second half of the season without the star player. Mikhail MudrakSigned by English Premier League side Chelsea for $75 million with an additional $35 million expected as bonus payment – a record fee for a Ukrainian player.

Mudryk, who scored three goals in this season’s Champions League group stage, arrived at Chelsea with the club 10th in the league table amid a disastrous run of results.

However, Paulkin believes the 22-year-old winger can help revive Chelsea’s fortunes.

“Mikhilo is a top professional and a very passionate guy,” he says. “He is very ambitious on the pitch and off the pitch. In my last 20 years, I have never seen a player like that … I am sure this guy will bring many titles to Chelsea.”

Mudryk celebrates scoring against Celtic in the Champions League last October.

Following Madryk’s transfer, Shakhtar’s president, Renat Akhmitov, announced that they would allocate $25 million to Ukraine’s war effort, including medical treatment and psychological support.

And aside from funding aid relief for Ukraine, Shakhtar has a broader, less tangible goal of spreading hope every time the team takes the field.

“When we are playing football, we show the whole world that we are alive, we live, and we have to keep fighting,” Palakin says.

“We are sending a message to the whole world that we need to support Ukraine. We have to win this war because democracy must triumph over dictatorship.

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