Shakhtar Donetsk - keeping Ukraine football alive in the shadow of war

Club chief executive Serhiy Palkin reveals the challenges of playing away from home, the constant danger of conflict, crippling financial issues and maintaining morale

Shakhtar Donetsk players ahead the Europa League match against Olympique de Marseille in Hamburg on February 15, 2024. AFP
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Full scale war in Ukraine passed its second anniversary last week but war has affected the existence of Shakhtar Donetsk, the country’s most successful football club of modern times, for a decade now.

Well run, well supported, well backed and successful, Shakhtar long developed players, bought well and sold even better. Mykhaylo Mudryk, Fred, Alex Teixeira, Fernandinho, Willian, Douglas Costa and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were all sold for huge fees having thrived at Shakhtar, serial Ukrainian champions this century.

Money was reinvested and they also spent far more than any other Ukrainian side – the country’s top 10 most expensive transfers were all to the club which carries Donetsk in its name but hasn’t played there for a decade.

In 2009 they became the second Ukrainian club after Dynamo Kiev and the first since independence to win a European trophy, the Uefa Cup. They’re ranked 25th in Europe, down from being the top 15 club that they were pre-2014, but still above the likes of AC Milan and Tottenham Hotspur in Uefa’s coefficient rankings.

Serhiy Palkin, 49, joined in 2003 and two moments stand out for the club’s long-standing lead executive.

“These were in 2014 when we were forced to leave our stadium and our city after conflict broke out when Russia took control of Donetsk,” the 49-year-old tells The National when we meet him for a face-to-face interview in a London hotel. “And 2022 when full scale war broke out. We have been existing under a war for 10 years now. We lost our normal life ten years ago.”

The lives of players, managers and club staff have changed completely.

“First we moved to Kiev in 2014 and then in 2022 we moved to Lviv, 1,000 kilometres from Donetsk. We did that because we continue to play in European competitions and from Lviv to the Polish border it’s much closer. We can cross the border and take a flight to anywhere.”

The logistics just to play a European game are a challenge.

“It’s three hours to the airport in Poland from Lviv if there are no problems at the border, but sometimes you have a lot of crowds and you have to wait. You can spend two hours on that bus at the border waiting for your passports to be checked. It’s complicated.”

Rare is the sight of Ukrainian men leaving their country.

“Ukrainian men are not allowed to leave, it is prohibited. But President Zelensky and our government made a special allowance for our players to leave the country to play in these competitions. When you have this kind of allowance, when the whole country is watching you, then you must give everything on the pitch from the deepest corners of your heart. They need to try and give some positive signals to our country, that Ukrainians can do something on a European level.”

It’s not easy for this young squad.

“When we travelled to Porto and Barcelona this season, it took the whole day to get there. From a mental and physical point of view, it makes it very difficult for the players. They are less competitive when they arrive after 10 hours of travelling.”

Then they must make the return journey back to their country where sirens of the air raids are frequent, where one subject dominates the news cycle: War.

“Our players and staff have to achieve with so much negativity in their lives,” explains Palkin.

“Negative news every day from the war, being away from their families and friends. It can destroy your brain. You sometimes wake up in the morning, read the news and you don’t want to continue.

"It’s difficult to be mentally fresh and concentrate. The problem we have is that when you play at our level, then if you lose concentration for one minute then you can make mistakes and lose a game. It’s tiny margins.”

And yet on November 7, 2023, a single goal from 22-year-old forward Danylo Sikan secured a 1-0 win against Barcelona which kept them competitive in a tough group along with Porto and Royal Antwerp.

The conflict is never far away, though. Before the Porto home game, the brother of goalkeeper Dmytro Riznyk died from wounds after a mine exploded.

“You raised me. You were always my support. I love you, sleep well. Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” wrote Riznyk.

“And our players are heroes,” says Palkin. “What our players go through is not like any others in European competition. So can you imagine what it feels like when you beat Barcelona? It means that even in this hard time Ukrainians can enjoy the positive feelings we gave them.”

Not that Shakhtar are allowed to play home games in their home country.

“This season Hamburg, last season it was Warsaw. Legia [Warsaw] was not playing in European competitions last year so many fans came to watch us. This year, they are playing in European competition so it makes no sense for us to be playing in the same city as them.

"In Hamburg, they’ve not had Champions League football for 20 years. It was an experiment for us and it worked. Before that in Poland, there are more than three million Ukrainian refugees, plus Ukrainians who lived there before the war.

"The stadium was full when we played. We are always moving around. In Ukraine for domestic games, we cannot fly. Ukraine is a big country but we must go by bus to games. That can take five, six, eight hours each way.”

Where the team start their journeys can also change.

“In our normal days we stay in Lviv. But what does that mean? We rent a hotel outside the city and opposite in the hotel we have a training pitch. The players’ family live outside of Lviv, Kiev or abroad. Players train and go back to the hotel. They don’t wake up with their families.”

Shakhtar are constantly having to adapt to change brought about by football or geopolitics. Germany has also taken in more Ukrainian refugees than any other city in Europe, with an estimated 80,000 in Hamburg.

“Before we played in Germany, we spoke to the people there and they liked the idea. It was a risk but we played Royal Antwerp and 40,000 people turned up – 90 per cent of them German. We didn’t know what the reaction would be to us, but the German people supported us. And they supported us more when we played well and beat Barcelona. And next season? We can’t play in Ukraine, we have plans to go to Dusseldorf. I hope this will go ahead.”

There are new laws brought in specifically for Ukrainian clubs, too.

“When the war started, everybody anticipated the decisions of Fifa as to our players,” says Palkin. “I realised that players from outside Ukraine would not stay and we started to sell them. We agreed sales with the agents and players and club for almost every player.

"We needed money, we have debts owed from buying players. We almost signed a deal with Fulham for [Manor] Solomon [now at Tottenham) and almost agreed a deal for Tete [then off Lyon, now of Galatasaray]. I kept trying to contact Fifa to have communications with them for clarity. We needed to know the situation of our players. It was difficult.

"Fifa barely wanted to communicate with us. We tried to speak to them with many well-connected people. Fifa didn’t want to talk and I don’t understand. Fifa acted very badly in respect of Ukrainian clubs. There was no openness, no discussions on how to help us.”

Finally, Fifa, who felt that the priority is player welfare and not the financial stability of clubs, introduced Annexe 7, an extraordinary rule granting all foreign players and coaches the right to suspend their contract employment with Russian and Ukrainian clubs.

“I don’t know why they did this and in just one day we lost all our players,” says Palkin. “We had a €40 million debt on these players and they were allowed to be released for free. And at the same time, Fifa told me that we had to pay these debts and if we didn’t then then we would withdraw our licence to play in European competitions.”

“Journalists couldn’t understand and asked me why. I couldn’t give them an answer and we didn’t get an answer from Fifa. The big winners were the agents of players. Agents have profited from war. They say they support Ukraine, but money which could have gone to us for investing into the players and developing the players went to agents. Suddenly, agents had players which were almost free and they could negotiate much more fees from the clubs they sold them too.

“Just one player stayed. Lassina Traore, a striker we’d brought him from Ajax. When the full war started he was injured and it was difficult for him to find a club. We welcomed him back and he plays for us.”

Struggling to sell players, Shakhtar must focus elsewhere on revenue streams.

“We’re funded by Uefa prize money, sales of tickets and extras from stadiums in Champions League. We receive nothing from spectators in the domestic league as it’s prohibited. We’ve had almost four years of no fans. First Covid, then war.

"A new resolution has been issued saying that 30 per cent of capacity of stadiums can be used for spectators. So, if your stadium holds 25,000, you can have 8,000 spectators. The problem is that you must guarantee bomb shelters for 30 per cent. This is impossible. You cannot build a bomb shelter for 8,000 people. So, we are left with maybe allowing 1,000 supporters.”

Ukrainian domestic football continues, with some games played close to the frontline running for 600 miles across the east of the country.

“We travel by coach, we play the game and leave,” says Palkin. “Ukrainians are more or less adapted to this life. For new foreign players, they don’t feel about this war the same as the Brazilians, for instance, who left during the first weeks of the full-scale war.

"Then, we were in Kiev and bombs were falling. They stayed in shelters for many days. The Russian army was approaching Kiev from north, west and east. It was a nightmare and the players were scared a lot.

"They left, but they still think it’s like this and it’s not. I can’t say it’s calm because almost every day and night we have air raid sirens to warn that the rockets are coming in. People are spending half of the night in the shelters and it’s difficult, but it’s still not the same as when Russian army were close to Kiev.”

There are other exiles within Ukraine – if they even exist. Zorya Luhansk play their games in Zaporizhia, while fellow Premier League side Mariupol ceased to exist after their city was taken over by Russian forces. Their stadiums – a beautiful home for a club that was doing so well – lie in land occupied by Russian forces.

“When I arrived at the club, its president Rinat Akhmetov told me that he wanted to build a European level-club,” explains Palkin.

“We started to build this club. We paid attention to everything: the academy – and there were eight Ukrainians playing in our recent European game against Marseille, almost all from our academy. And if you look at the history of how we sell players, the most expensive sales are from our academy.

"Mykhailo Mudryk went to Chelsea. That helped us a lot to repay debts and run our club. We built a scouting network; we built the commercial side. We wanted resources in all areas and that helped us jump a lot.”

The new Donbas Arena opened in 2009 with a concert by the American singer Beyonce. With an all-seated capacity of 52,198, it was a Uefa 4-star venue and fit for what had become Ukraine’s most successful club.

The arena staged games for Euro 2012. France, England, Spain, Portugal and Ukraine all played there as the venue was used up to the semi-finals. Manchester United visited in 2013, yet within a year the venue was used to stage a peace march against the violence of pro-Russian unrest in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.

The following year, the stadium was damaged by artillery as pro-Ukrainian forces clashed with pro-Russian separatists for control of Ukraine’s fifth biggest city of one million.

It lies only five miles from the front line but since Shakhtar’s departure in 2014, it hasn’t been used since.

“Before 2014, almost all people in Donetsk spoke Russian, but when the full-scale war started a lot of people left the city. Some left for Kiev, others to western parts of Ukraine or out of Ukraine. And almost all of them changed to speak in Ukrainian and not Russian. It was a signal of support to speak Ukrainian. The people had spoken Russian, they never thought that Russia would start to kill them. Russian became the language of the enemy.”

Several former Shakhtar players stayed in the city and supported the unrecognised Donetsk People’s Republic. Palkin himself hasn’t visited Donetsk since 2016.

“There are some Shakhtar fans there but most have left. Our beautiful stadium and training camp is still there but it has already been 10 years since we left.”

Many of Shakhtar’s Ultras hardcore are fighting in the war.

“We are always in contact with them,” says Palkin. “We support them. They might ask us to help them. We have a person in the club connected with all these guys. They might need clothes for their kids or generators. We don’t send munitions. Everybody is proud of our soldiers and we are involved. We’ve run schools for kids, we’ve started a football team from soldiers who may have severe injuries from the war.”

We are the ones living this war. We must survive – and survive as a football club too
Serhiy Palkin

It is hard to overestimate the transformation forced upon Shakhtar.

“Before 2014 we were a club from Donetsk,” says Palkin. “Now we are seen as a club from the whole of Ukraine. We’ve played in Kharkiv, Kiev, Lviv. We play everywhere. We’ve spent 10 years travelling.”

Fellow Donetsk club Olimpik also moved around cities but don’t currently play in any league, while Metalurh Donetsk went bankrupt in 2015.

Relations with fellow Ukrainian rivals are not unhealthy.

"We support each other, we have unity. Yes, we have arguments, but personal relations are good, especially after full scale war. Before, it was difficult for us to agree about money from the TV pool. Games are still on television in Ukraine, but we don’t argue about the TV money because there is no TV money!”

It’s a rare moment of humour in a serious, absorbing conversation with the former accountant who is well-respected in European football.

Shakhtar are different from the others. Ukrainian, yet established in European competitions with the incumbent revenue streams.

Even this season, they picked up nine points in a difficult Champions League group when they were unfortunate not to qualify for the knockout stage, but instead went into a Europa League play-off against Marseille, which they lost 5-3 on aggregate after two late goals in the second leg in France. It’s the small margins.

Shakhtar go on.

“We must use this situation [the war] to develop our strategy,” says Palkin. “We are a unique club. We lost our home 10 years ago and yet we’ve kept good results. Not top results because it’s difficult with our conditions, but healthy results. And by getting these results, people continue to hear about us in Ukraine. People cannot forget us.

“I hear that people outside of Ukraine are tired hearing about this war after two years. Maybe, but we are the ones living this war. We must survive – and survive as a football club too. We must be commercial to survive, we must concentrate on income from abroad since we can’t get income at home. We want to open football schools and have collaborations with local clubs, be they in the Middle East helping clubs develop academies or scouting networks. We need friends.”

A friendly game at Tottenham Hotspur saw 56,000 attend in what turned out to be Harry Kane’s final game before he joined Bayern Munich. Many Spurs fans flew Ukraine flags.

“It’s important that we have these friendly matches. We played Tottenham Hotspur which made money which we sent for refugees, for our soldiers, for hospitals in Ukraine. We played a friendly game in Japan and we got a lot of support. The whole country knew that we were there. We attracted attention from the local community and a message that we need help and support and to generate money for Ukrainians.”

And the future?

“I don’t know how long it will be until we return to Donetsk, but I believe that we will return. It’s our dream to return and I am optimistic but even if the war finishes tomorrow it will take a long time to reconstruct Ukraine to how it was before. If you are not optimistic then you will go crazy. We all need to help to reach our goals to win this war. And if we don’t win then the situation won’t just be critical for Ukraine, but for the whole democratic world.”

Updated: February 29, 2024, 10:03 AM