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

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CNN

Uprooted from its home in Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014, Shakhtar Donetsk football club are used to the change and chaos caused by war and have played in stadiums across the country for almost ten year.

But even by Shakhtar’s standards, the events that have unfolded since Russia invaded Ukraine last February have been unprecedented.

“What we’re doing on the pitch, it’s supporting our people, our refugees, our Ukrainian Army,” club CEO Sergei Palkin told CNN Sports.

“All the talk from our coaching staff and myself to our players has just focused on [the fact] that we play for Ukraine.”

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

Players from Shakhtar Donetsk prepare to face Olympiacos FC in the team's peace round last year.

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

“We lost half our team … we lost our coaching staff and basically started everything from scratch, from scratch,” Palkin said.

Shakhtar hired a new coach, Croatian Igor Jovićević, before the resumption of the Ukrainian Premier League and built his squad with Ukrainian players.

Games resumed in August with Shakhtar playing in the west of the country. But against the specter of war, football often felt like a distant concern.

“For players, it’s difficult because almost all players live without families, [who] living abroad in safe zones,” says Palkin.

“It is difficult from a psychological point of view … it is unbelievably difficult to live and stay there [Ukraine] and living through those moments of life.”

Few would have expected Shakhtar’s mobile side to make any kind of progress in this season’s Champions League, Europe’s premier club football competition, especially with that the team had to play their “home” games in the Polish capital of Warsaw.

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

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

“When you have problems in your home – big problems, a lot of people dying – it’s hard to focus,” says Palkin.

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

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

The club will start the second half of the season without star player Mykhailo Mudryk, who was signed by Chelsea from the English Premier League for $ 75 million with an additional $ 35 million expected as a bonus payment – tax plus height for a Ukrainian player.

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

Palkin, however, believes the 22-year-old can help revive Chelsea’s fortunes.

“Mykhailo is a great professional and a very ambitious guy,” he says. “He’s very ambitious on the pitch and off the pitch. For the 20 years last time, I have never seen this type of player… I am sure this guy will bring many titles to Chelsea.

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

After Mudryk’s transfer, Shakhtar president Rinat Akhmetov announced that he would donate $25 million to Ukraine’s war efforts, including medical treatment and psychological support.

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

“When we’re playing football, we’re showing the whole world that we’re alive, we’re still alive, and we have to keep fighting,” said Palkin.

“We are sending messages to the whole world that we need to support Ukraine. We must win this war because democracy should win over autocracy.”

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