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From afar, it looked a great European night; a full house, two well matched, attractive sides – a lovely football match. It was easy to forget the troubled backdrop.
The happy faces in the crowd decked in orange and black belied the problems that face the Ukraine and Shakhtar’s Donetsk home in particular.
Football counts for little in the face of an armed conflict. But that’s not to say it counts for nothing.
Football clubs after all represent communities. And Shakhtar Donetsk and their rise to prominence under billionaire owner Rinat Akhmetov over the last decade came to be not just a symbol of pride for the people of the region – but a symbol of optimistic modernisation; their competitiveness in European competition and their mighty Donbass Arena engendering a sense of being part of something bigger, something sophisticated, of being on the map.
Now the stadium that hosted great European nights and served as the backdrop to games in Euro 2012 lies empty – cut off from the club itself inside the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic.
Indeed, the stadium website, which so proudly pushed the cauldron’s modern facilities even as conflict raged, is also now inaccessible.
Since the conflict that forced the Pitmen to move first to Lviv, some 1,000 kms to the west, and then to their present home in Kharkiv, about 245 kms north of Donetsk, I’d visit that site out of curiosity.
In the early days of the troubles, there was still a sense that normality would soon return. Then as the conflict deepened, the website would feature updates on the aid hub the Donbass Arena had now become.
Occasionally, there’d be mention of the damage the stadium had suffered from stray shells and talk of when repairs might be effected. Then the updates stopped, and now the site, like the stadium, is silent.
Right now it seems almost impossible. The problem is not just the conflict, which is still very much ongoing, but also the fact that Shakhtar as a club do not want to legitimise the People’s Republic of Donetsk.
Shakhtar’s nomadic existence has had a massive impact on the club. Exile from the community that once filled the Donbass is tough on the club’s finances.
So too is the loss of local business and commercial support so meticulously assembled. And just as serious is the impact of the conflict on the pockets of Ahkmetov who has lost control of a number of important businesses in what was Ukraine’s industrial heartland.
Billionaire sugar daddies are not my cup of tea, but if they have to play a part in the game, then at least let it be something close to the Akhmetov role.
With his vast riches, he could’ve done an Abramovich, or acted like the oil-rich state owners of Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain.
Instead, he ploughed money and time into his own city – giving it a modern, top class football infrastructure.
And he did so, as Veth notes, while keeping the club on the right side of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules.
That Shakhtar are on the verge of the Champions League quarter finals given the context is an impressive act of defiance. Given the context, their wins over Manchester City, Feyenoord and Napoli in the group stages are more than noteworthy.
Given the context, the fact that they are going toe to toe with Dynamo Kiev in their hunt for a second league title on the bounce under manager Paulo Fonseca should turn heads.
And given the context, the fact that they have not folded as a club is a testament to strength of the club structures Akhmetov put in place.
But the context is surely eating away at the pride of the Donbass. According to Veth, “the club is surviving, for now, from making smart transfers and good sponsorship deals.
Without a home stadium though, things could become difficult in the long term.”
Without a change in context, they surely will.