Uprooted from its home in Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014, soccer club Shakhtar Donetsk is accustomed to the change and upheaval brought about by war having played at stadiums around the country for close to a decade.
But even by Shakhtar’s standards, the events that have unfolded since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February have been unprecedented.
“What we’re doing on the pitch, it’s in support of our people, our refugees, our Ukrainian Army,” the club’s CEO Sergei Palkin tells CNN Sports.
“All the speeches from our coaching staff and myself to our players have just concentrated on [the fact] that we are playing for Ukraine.”
At the start of Russia’s invasion, the Ukrainian Premier League was postponed for six months, in which time Shakhtar embarked on a “Global Tour for Peace” across Europe to raise money for those caught up in the war.
Games resumed in August but only after global soccer governing body FIFA announced that foreign players could leave Ukrainian teams following the outbreak of the war. Soon after, Shakhtar’s coaching staff also left the club.
“We lost half our team … we lost our coaching staff and actually we started everything from the beginning, from scratch,” says Palkin.
Shakhtar hired a new coach, Croatian Igor Jovićević, ahead of the resumption of the Ukrainian Premier League and rebuilt its squad with Ukrainian players.
Games restarted in August with Shakhtar playing in the western part of the country. But against the specter of war, soccer would often feel like a distant concern.
“For players, its difficult because almost all players are living without families, [who] are living abroad in safety areas,” says Palkin.
“It’s difficult from a psychological point of view … It’s unbelievably hard to survive and to stay there [Ukraine] and to live through all these moments of life.”
Few would have expected Shakhtar’s makeshift squad to make progress of any sort in this season’s Champions League, Europe’s premier club soccer competition, not least because the team had to play its “home” games in the Polish capital of Warsaw.
But after recording a win against RB Leipzig and draws against Real Madrid and Celtic, Shakhtar placed third in Group F and qualified for the knockout stages of the second-tier Europa League.
“When in your home you have problems – big problems, a lot of people dying – it’s difficult to concentrate,” says Palkin.
“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 got third position in the group. I’m very proud of our team.”
The Ukrainian Premier League is currently on a winter break. It will restart in the coming weeks, shortly after Shakhtar faces Rennes over two legs in the Europa League on February 16 and 23.
The club will embark on the second half of the season without star player Mykhailo Mudryk, who has been signed by English Premier League side Chelsea for $75 million with an additional $35 million expected as a bonus payment – a record fee for a Ukrainian player.
Mudryk, who scored three goals in this season’s Champions League group stages, arrives at Chelsea with the club 10th in the league table amid a disastrous run of results.
Palkin, however, believes the 22-year-old winger can help revive Chelsea’s fortunes.
“Mykhailo is a top professional and he’s a very ambitious guy,” he says. “He’s very ambitious on the pitch and off the pitch. For my last 20 years, I have never seen this kind of player … I am sure that this guy will bring Chelsea a lot of titles.”
After Mudryk’s transfer, Shakhtar’s president, Rinat Akhmetov, announced that he would allocate $25 million towards Ukraine’s war efforts, including medical treatment and psychological support.
And beyond financing aid relief for Ukraine, Shakhtar has the wider, less tangible goal of spreading hope every time the team takes to the field.
“When we’re playing football, we show the whole world that we are alive, we continue to live, and we have to continue to fight,” says Palkin.
“We are sending messages to the whole world that we need to support Ukraine. We need to win this war because democracy should win over autocracy.”