March 28, 2023

WARSAW, Poland — “We wanted to hit the jackpot, but it was not to be,” Shakhtar Donetsk coach Igor Jovicevic said after RB Leipzig‘s 4-0 victory in Warsaw denied the Ukrainian team a place in the Champions League knockout stages.

“It is unreal what we have had to do. We train, then think about shelters and bunkers, our troops fighting for us. And then we have to think about Leipzig.”

It is a 930-mile journey from Donetsk to Warsaw, but it is a road less travelled in such bleak times that ensure Shakhtar must play their Champions League home games in the Polish capital. That Shakhtar are even able to perform in football’s biggest club competition is remarkable considering the ravages of conflict against Russian invaders in Ukraine, but to then overcome the incredible difficulties they encounter on a daily basis to face RB Leipzig on matchday six — and with a chance of qualifying for the round of 16 — is a testament to the remarkable determination and resolve of a team that has been homeless for the past eight years.

In a sporting sense, Shakhtar embody the disruption and displacement of the Ukrainian population since Russia’s invasion in February left the country fighting for its existence, a fight which continues to this day.

As many as 8 million Ukrainians left the country in the weeks after the outbreak of war, with 5.5 million fleeing over the western border to Poland. There are still 1.3 million Ukrainians in Poland, so when Shakhtar play in the Champions League in Warsaw, they are a touchstone for those who have set up a temporary home in a new country, waiting to go home. Just like Shakhtar, who lost 15 first-team players when war broke out, forcing the club to replace them with untested youngsters.

“I am from Kharkiv and Metallist is my team, but I cheer for Shakhtar because they are showing Ukraine to the world,” Daria, who has been in Warsaw since March, told ESPN.

Another group from Lviv, just over the border in Ukraine, made the trip to Poland together, the four of them desperate to see Shakhtar beat RB Leipzig to claim second spot in Group F and a place in the round of 16. “Shakhtar is our team, we had to come,” Maxim said.

In the end, Jovicevic’s young team were unable to repeat their 4-1 win against Leipzig in Germany on matchday one. The Bundesliga side were too strong and too fit, winning 4-0 in Warsaw, but the Ukrainian squad remain alive in European competition, with their third-place finish ensuring a spot in the Europa League play-off round in February alongside Barcelona, Ajax and potentially Manchester United.

“I said ‘heads up’ to the players after the game,” Jovicevic said. “We concluded six games, we lost [here], but we did our best in this moment. We have had an amazing obstacle in front of us. We beat Leipzig once, to beat them twice we would be like the champions of the world. So I don’t permit that we be upset. It is amazing to be in Europa League. Barcelona, Ajax play in it. Atletico Madrid don’t, but we will. So we must look forward: heads up.

“Our challenge was to make the impossible possible. To make such success, you must have players with personality, but they increase this each day — it’s amazing for me to see how they grow each day.”

But for a 95th-minute Real Madrid equaliser in a 1-1 draw in Warsaw last month and Danylo Sikan‘s open-goal miss in another 1-1 draw against Celtic last week, it could have been a different story. Fine margins, yes, but Shakhtar’s success is simply being here to fight for the impossible.

Shakhtar Donetsk have not played in Donetsk since April 2014. A conflict between Ukraine and the Russian-backed separatist movement in the Donbas and Luhansk regions of the country erupted in March of that year, and it remained a conflict zone until the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of this year. For the past eight years, Shakhtar have led a nomadic existence as a result, playing home games in Lviv (750 miles away), Kharkiv (190 miles) and Kyiv (450 miles).

Their home stadium, the Donbass Arena, was built at a cost of $400 million in 2009 by Shakhtar’s owner, the Ukrainian mining billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, and hosted four games at Euro 2012, including the semifinal between Portugal and Spain. It was rated as a Category Four stadium by UEFA — the highest possible ranking — but has been abandoned since 2014.

“The stadium is still in good shape, considering the conflict in Donetsk,” Shakhtar official Yuri Shrivdov told ESPN. “But it has an underground car park, so the reason we believe it has avoided too much damage is because it’s being used by the Russians to store their weapons.”

Donetsk is now at the heart of the conflict in the Donbas region, a city that was placed under martial law by Russian president Vladimir Putin last month after what western governments described as the “illegal annexation” of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. The city is largely in ruins and much of its pre-war population of 920,000 has sought refuge in western Ukraine or countries such as Poland, Moldova and Romania. But the name of Donetsk is still represented by Shakhtar in the Champions League, and for team captain Taras Stepanenko, it is vital that they keep the name of the city alive.

“The name of our team is Shakhtar Donetsk and we represent our city and our region,” Stepanenko told ESPN in an interview at the team’s hotel in Warsaw. “We have done this since 2014, but now we represent all of Ukraine because only one team is playing at the high level in Europe and that is Shakhtar.

“We have had good results — everybody knows that Shakhtar and Ukraine has good players — but it also sends a message to other countries about our situation and that they still need to help protect us from the Russian Federation.”

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Stepanenko, 33, has been with Shakhtar since 2010. He was born and raised in the Donbas region and hasn’t been home for eight years. He speaks good English and is a thoughtful man, not prone to emotional or angry rhetoric, but the socks he is wearing for our interview give a clear indication as to his views on the Russian invasion. They bear the drawing of a hand with a raised middle finger and the words, in Ukrainian, that translate as “Russian warship, Go f— yourself,” which was the last communication of Ukrainian border guards during a Russian attack on Snake Island in the Black Sea in February.

“My village, Velyka Novosilka [to the south-west of Donetsk], is now almost totally destroyed,” Stepanenko said. “My parents moved to Zaporizhzhia, but they had to leave there also because it became too dangerous, just 40 miles from the front line.

“The Russians, I don’t know what they want to prove, were always launching rockets into buildings, into electricity stations, so I moved all of my family to Kyiv. But it is a similar situation there. This week, two or three missile strikes near my house, no water or electricity for two days. But this is the story of our times.”

Despite the conflict in Ukraine, the 2022-23 Ukrainian Premier League began in August. All games are being staged behind closed doors at stadiums in the west of the country. Shakhtar are playing their “home” games in Lviv and Kyiv, but both cities have been hit by Russian missile strikes in recent weeks; football, just like day-to-day life in Ukraine, continues under the constant threat of attack. During Shakhtar’s 2-2 draw against FC Oleksandriya in Lviv on Saturday, both teams were forced to spend an hour and 40 minutes sheltering inside the stadium after an air raid siren forced the temporary suspension of the game.

“It was the first time we went to the basement because of an air raid,” Stepanenko said. “It was strange: we are footballers, we just think about football, so we weren’t thinking about an attack. We were 1-0 down in the game, so we just spoke about how to change the result. It was like ‘we have to win this game,’ so nobody thought about the dangerous situation.”

Shakhtar’s squad arrived in Warsaw on Sunday evening. SkyUp Airlines flight 1605, which carries the Shakhtar badge and colours as its livery, had made the 40-minute flight from the Polish city of Rzeszow. Prior to that, the team bus had driven Igor Jovicevic’s players the 110 miles from Lviv due to Ukrainian air space being closed as a consequence of the conflict.

With difficult roads to negotiate and border checks — Shakhtar players must take their place in the queues like every other citizen — a 250-mile journey between Lviv and Warsaw that would take less than 50 minutes in normal times can now take up to ten hours. Every road trip in Ukraine is precisely that — done on a bus between Kyiv and Lviv — but when they play in the Champions League, it is the same arduous journey to Poland and then a flight to wherever the draw takes them.

This season, Shakhtar have travelled to Madrid, Glasgow and Leipzig for group games against Real, Celtic and RB Leipzig, while playing all of their home games at Legia Warsaw’s Marshall Jozef Pilsudski Stadium. There have been no easy rides.

“Psychologically, it can destroy you,” coach Jovicevic told ESPN. “After the game against Leipzig, we have a 10-hour journey home.

“For other teams, it is rest, they can go to the jacuzzi, have a massage, go to the barbecue with their family. No other team in Europe has to do it like us, we are travelling all the time, so there is a real accumulation of mental and physical fatigue. But it is all relative. We are playing Champions League and all of my players have been ready to fight every game, whether to continue in the Champions League or go to the Europa. Both are amazing achievements.”

Monday and Tuesday were rare rest days for Jovicevic and his players. They trained at Legia’s facility, but there was no long journey to worry about, just the opportunity to relax and enjoy the peace of the team’s base at Warsaw’s Regent Hotel. It was the kind of tedium and normality that can often be the bane of a footballer’s life, but with his country still fighting for its existence, Stepanenko admits he no longer worries about the “ordinary” things a player would often think about.

“For the guys, it’s like, ‘look, the situation at home is worse,'” he said. “So we are happy to travel. I probably used to take maybe 100 flights a year, to and from Kyiv, to home games, to Champions League games. Now we have to take the plane and the bus and we usually need 9-10 hours to get a European city. It’s a little bit difficult and it’s a new experience for me.

“As a footballer, you should think about your fitness and your recovery, so there are times when you have to be mentally strong because it’s hard to keep this situation. But it’s now normal. It’s our life.

We know a lot of people in Ukraine are in the worst situations. We don’t complain and I haven’t heard something of the guys complaining about the situation. No, we are here and it’s our duty for Donetsk, for our country. And we keep fighting for that.”

What happens next? Shakhtar will continue to fly the flag for Ukraine and remain a symbol of Donetsk in the Europa League when the competitions resumes in February. The next round will coincide with the first anniversary of the Russian invasion, and the symbolism of Shakhtar representing Ukraine among European football’s elite, one year on, isn’t lost on Stepanenko.

“Of course, it is important for us to be able to play in Europe next February,” he said. “It will show our defiance, our spirit.

“I speak with friends in the military two or three times a week, and they want us to play, to win, to do it for all of the regions in Ukraine. We aren’t fighting the war for our citizens, but we can play football and we are trying to be their symbol in what is an awful, terrible, unbelievable situation.”

There is a belief within the club, perhaps a naive one, that Shakhtar will return to Donetsk in the future and play once again at the Donbass Arena. “Maybe not soon, but I believe we will go back to Donetsk,” Shrivdov said. “We are hearing about our troops making progress, so the next year, we will see. We will be back.”

Stepanenko is also refusing to abandon his dream of playing on Shakhtar’s home turf again. While he and his family now regard Kyiv as home, Donetsk is where their roots remain. “Ukraine’s strength is the unity of its people; we are all together against this aggression and that’s why I believe we will win, 100 percent,” he said.

“And when we do, it is my biggest dream to go back to the arena and play. I have thought about it since we moved from Donetsk. Maybe I won’t be a footballer anymore when we go back, but I will play as a veteran, as an old man.

“The club can organise a charity match, invite all the legends, and we can fulfil our dream. But I am confident it will happen.”

That is a dream for the future, but first, there is a flight back to Rzeszow and then a bus ride to Lviv, another 10-hour journey, Shakhtar ready to do it all again when the Europa League comes around.

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