Shakhtar Donetsk turn to Saudi Arabia for financial boost amid ongoing instability

One of Ukraine's biggest and most successful football clubs have been unable to play in their own stadium since 2014

Shakhtar are still in contention to reach the Uefa Champions League knockout stages heading into their final group match against Porto. AP
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Shakhtar Donetsk is planning to turn to Saudi Arabia for financial help as the Ukrainian club seeks ways to safeguard its future, according to CEO Serhii Palkin.

The club, frequent participants in the Uefa Champions League, haven’t played a game at home in Ukraine for nearly a decade, and Palkin has engaged Geneva-based sports advisory firm LTT Sports, which has a base in Jeddah, to discuss deals with clubs in the Saudi Pro League including Al Taawoun. The aim is to sign lucrative player transfers and organise exhibition matches in the kingdom next season.

“We’re going to this market as we recognised Saudi Arabia has a lot of money and will host the World Cup soon,” Palkin, who has been with the club for nearly two decades, said in a recent interview from his base in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. “I believe we need to be involved in the whole process.”

Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in sports and entertainment in recent years, and has ambitious plans to transform the Saudi Pro League into one of the leading football competitions in the world. Investment in player transfers – made possible after the Public Investment Fund (PIF) took control of the SPL's four biggest clubs – has seen global superstars including Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema make moves to the kingdom.

PIF is also the majority owner of Newcastle United having taken control of the Premier League club in October 2021, while the World Cup looks bound for Saudi Arabia in 2034.

Shakhtar, who currently play their ‘home’ matches in domestic tournaments in the city of Lviv, close to the border with Poland and sometimes in Kyiv, haven't played a match in their 70,000-seat home stadium in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk since 2014, after fighting first broke out there between separatist Russian forces and the Ukrainian army.

Palkin declined to name any other clubs other than Al Taawoun, who currently sit fifth in the 18-team Saudi Pro League, but added he’s also looking to build player academy links.

Palkin was speaking as a new documentary about the club and its off-pitch struggles plays to positive reviews in the United States. “Football Must Go On” is a four-part series on US broadcaster Paramount Plus.

Shakhtar is owned by industrial billionaire Rinat Ahkmetov, whose steelworks in Mariupol saw some of the fiercest fighting of the current war. The club is also headed to Japan on Thursday to play a series of exhibition matches, against top-flight local teams including J League Cup winners Avispa Fukuoka.

The marketing and publicity push is all part of a search for fresh revenues after the financial devastation from the war. In 2018-19, the last year undisrupted by Covid and then the war, total club revenue reached $250 million (at 2019 exchange rates), including $170 million from player transfers and sales. By 2021-22, total revenue had plunged to $80 million, with just $23 million coming from player transfers, as the impact from a Fifa ruling took hold.

Shakhtar in March filed a complaint to the European Union’s antitrust watchdog after Fifa allowed players it claimed were worth more than €40 million ($43 million) to leave for free following Russia’s invasion last year. Shakhtar lost a December verdict over the matter at the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration in Sport, which upheld the Fifa ruling and said they are appealing that decision.

In January, Shakhtar sold Ukrainian forward Mykhailo Mudryk to Chelsea FC for $70 million, with Ahkmetov saying he would donate $25 million of that to Ukraine’s war effort. That helped 2022-23 revenue rebound to $162 million.

The club currently sit in fourth position in Ukraine’s top league, uncharacteristically out of the top three, but they have had recent success in the Champions League, beating heavyweights Barcelona 1-0. Shakhtar can still qualify for the Round of 16 but need to beat Porto, with whom they are level on nine points, in their final group game on Wednesday.

Updated: December 10, 2023, 9:05 AM