Take a look at the websites of many football clubs around Europe at this time of the year – the usual, heart-warming photos of players visiting sick kids in hospitals abound. But visit the website of Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk and you are greeted by images that are starkly different.
As Shakhtar played out a 1-1 draw with Porto in Oporto last week to complete the group fixtures that saw both sides qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League, it was easy to forget that the Ukrainian side is operating under extraordinary circumstances. War stalks the city of Donetsk. A city that just two years ago so proudly hosted games in Euro 2012. A city now too dangerous for its own football clubs to play in.
The Shakhtar website is a sobering reminder of that fact. Alongside the usual player interviews and match reports is a photo feature titled Let’s Help Children. The feature contains arresting images of families at the club’s shop receiving aid packages from club and stadium volunteers working under the auspices of club owner Rinat Akhmetov’s charitable foundation.
Doubtless many had visited the Shakhtar shop before to buy the usual paraphernalia common to all such outlets. But this time, they were collecting yellow plastic bags full of daily essentials, lacking in a city on the edge of all out civil war.
Visiting the official website of the club’s stadium, the mighty Donbass Arena, is similarly thought provoking. Two years ago, it provided a wonderful backdrop to the France Spain quarter final and the semi final clash between Spain and Portugal in the European Championships. England also played two of their group games there. There was simply no sense of the troubles to come.
Now, the site contains updates from the stadium’s CEO describing damage to the arena from shelling and the efforts being made to patch it up under difficult and dangerous conditions.
The disruption caused to the club by the troubles in the Donbass region has been immense, although scarcely reported in this part of the world. We are used to seeing Shaktar and their eye-catching array of Brazilian talent in European competition, so it just seemed like business as usual as they negotiated their Champions League group.
But the civil war has put serious strain on relations within the club itself. Shakhtar hit the headlines back in July when five of its key Brazilians (Teixeira, Fred, Dentinho, Douglas Costa and Ismaily) refused to return to Donetsk from a pre-season friendly in Lyon.
Billionaire owner Akhmetov accused the players and their agents of using the conflict to engineer moves elsewhere. But the influential Costa insisted that the players were happy at the club, but nevertheless had a right to risk-free working conditions.
In the end, events on the ground ultimately vindicated the Costa and co as fighting encroached on the largely Pro-Russian, rebel held city forcing Shakhtar to relocate.
So now while the club’s home and support suffer in a war zone, the players, manager Mircea Lucescu and hierarchy are temporarily headquartered several hundred kilometres away in the capital Kiev, playing their home fixtures in the city of Lvov.
And despite the country’s internal strife, Shakhtar and the footballers of the Ukraine play on.
Last weekend, as the Ukrainian Premier League league entered its long winter break, Shakhtar lay second, trailing their great rivals Dynamo Kiev by five points. And there they will remain, frozen for almost three months.
The league’s extraordinarily long winter break is even longer than the gap between seasons! In fact, Shakhtar will be back in Champions League action (where they will face Bayern Munich) a couple of weeks before the domestic season resumes.
And how nice it would be if that fixture could be played in a repaired Donbass Arena, heralding as it would a return of peace and stability in the troubled region.
But sadly (and tragically for many), the reality on the ground suggests that the next time we see Shakhtar Donetsk in competitive action it will be in Lvov, which is likely to be their home for some time to come.