HAMBURG, Germany (AP) — Just playing is a small victory for Shakhtar Donetsk, though the Ukrainian champions won't stop there.
Team captain Taras Stepanenko told The Associated Press on Monday that Shakhtar's opening Champions League game against Porto on Tuesday is part of his team's duty to represent Ukraine and show his country's resilience.
“Our soldiers fight in the battles and we fight in the sports arena. So it’s our duty like citizens of Ukraine,” he said.
Stepanenko predicts “big emotions” when Shakhtar emerges in front of tens of thousands of fans, both local and Ukrainian, in Hamburg. The Ukrainian league restarted a year ago despite the war but all games are played in empty stadiums — and sometimes interrupted by air-raid sirens.
For the second straight season, Shakhtar is playing its Champions League games outside of Ukraine because of the Russian invasion. Last year, Poland stood in as Shakhtar's home venue. Now it's Germany, a country which has welcomed hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who fled the fighting.
Just getting to Hamburg took an “absolutely difficult” 10-hour journey, Stepanenko said, mostly by bus because Ukraine's airports have been closed since the invasion. After winning a Ukrainian league game Saturday, the team drove to Poland from the border city of Lviv, spent about three hours getting through the border, then caught a flight from Poland to Hamburg. It's technically a home game for Shakhtar, but the away team will get there much faster from Portugal.
“You never know what’s going to happen at the borders. Even with the domestic league there’s a lot of traveling involved to away games. Hours in the bus is a regular thing at the moment," Shakhtar coach Patrick van Leeuwen told the AP.
Besides the usual fan mail, players get messages from Ukrainian troops on the front line. Stepanenko said it's a reminder of how his situation compares to the hardship they face, and extra motivation to give his all on the field.
“When we drew with England (in a national team game on Sept. 9), I really got a lot of messages from the soldiers. They watched the game on the battlefield near the area where is the most difficult situation now, if they have some moments to watch the football. For them it’s like a release from the current situation,” he said.
“It’s really, for us, difficult sometimes to compare yourself. You're in good conditions, you play football and these guys are supporting you during the war.”
The town where Stepanenko was born, Velyka Novosilka, is in Ukraine-held territory near the front line of the country's recent counteroffensive. It has been “totally destroyed,” he said. Stepanenko's mother and grandmother have moved in with him from the city of Zaporizhzhia, a frequent target of Russian strikes.
“My grandmother every day gets in touch with her sister who lives in Novosilka until now, in the basement,” he said. “It’s not a big city, but it’s totally destroyed. And the nearest village is just the same. I think maybe 10% of the people are still living there because maybe they don’t want to leave, maybe someone don’t have (the) possibility to leave this place. I don't know. This is hell.”
One of Stepanenko's teammates is 36-year-old former Barcelona defender Dmytro Chygrynskyy, who first joined Shakhtar in 2002. Last year, he was playing in Greece when Russia invaded, and he rejoined Shakhtar for this season to add experience to the team and mentor the many young players from the Shakhtar academy in the squad.
“Since the beginning of the war, I had this dilemma inside of me because I was playing football, doing the thing I’m used to doing, what I used to do all my life, but knowing that your family, your parents are here, in Ukraine, it’s not easy at all,” Chygrynskyy told the AP in a call from Ukraine.
“When I got this chance to to come back, it was great. And honestly, now I feel very happy and also proud of what I have seen here, that the people are so united that the people just keep fighting, keep living, they’re so optimistic, so brave.”
Shakhtar was a displaced club long before the 2022 invasion. The club represents the city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine but hasn't played there in nearly a decade since the city was taken over by Russia-backed separatist forces in 2014. Russia now claims to have annexed it.
Stepanenko has been with Shakhtar since 2010 and argues the club's recent history shows how Ukrainians have been brought closer together. Ukrainians from other parts of the country were reluctant to support Shakhtar at first when it moved from Donetsk to play in cities like Kyiv and Lviv, he said.
The team remains heavily identified with Russian-speaking, coal-mining areas of eastern Ukraine — its name means “miner” — but it's increasingly become a symbol of Ukraine as a whole.
Shakhtar's club president is Ukrainian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, who pledged $25 million for soldiers' families after the club sold Mykhailo Mudryk to Chelsea for up to 100 million euros ($106 million) in January. Despite the wealth behind Shakhtar, the club won't give up hope of returning to play in Donetsk some day, Chygrynskyy said.
“That’s also the dream of the president and of all the people here, because with the possibilities of the president, they could have built like another arena, stadium or whatever in Kyiv,” Chygrynskyy said. “But we know where we’re from, what’s our home.”
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