The football stadiums in Donetsk, Ukraine have been empty for more than a year. Before a civil war erupted in the country, the city had a half dozen professional sports teams, including three football teams in the Ukrainian Premier League. But when the city and surrounding region split from Ukraine, bombing and border checkpoints made professional sports nearly impossible in the new Donetsk People's Republic.
Football is far and away the biggest sport in Ukraine. F.C. Shakhtar Donetsk, the city's biggest team, moved its home games this season to Arena Lviv, nearly 600 miles away on the opposite side of the country. Shakhtar commands a near-religious level of devotion from fans — its initials are spray painted all over the city, and wait staff at Sun City, a popular pizza chain, wear orange Shakhtar shirts as work uniforms. With the club a world away in staunchly pro-Ukrainian Lviv, the city feels like Rome after the papacy left for Avignon.
On Saturday, professional football — or at least some form of it — returned to Donetsk with a match between the newly-formed Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic at Metalurg Stadium, home of Donetsk's second most successful club. Essentially, it was the first Separatist Derby.
Donetsk and Luhansk are "breakaway republics" that exist in a strange form of unrecognized quasi-statehood; their citizens still use Ukrainian passports, and their autonomy only goes as far as the Russian Federation allows. Still, professional sports are a big part of any country's national identity, and the two People's Republics put together hastily-assembled national teams to compete.
Both squads had one international match under their belt, in which they each played and lost 1-0 to Abkhazia. But Saturday's game was the first meeting between the two sides. Like most events in the DPR, the match went down with as much flag waving and ceremony as possible — lengthy national anthems, armed soldiers everywhere, an appearance from Vice-Chairman Denis Pushilin, and trophies modeled after the World Cup trophy handed out to both teams.
Before the match, stadium speakers blasted techno, and the announcer kept up a steady stream of hype as fans filtered into the 5,000-seat stadium, which filled to at least three-fourths capacity. Russian news sources reported 3,500 attendees, nearly all of whom were Donetsk fans. Travel between the two republics is expensive and inconsistent, so it wasn't surprising that there weren't very many LPR fans in the stands. The local turnout wasn't anywhere near that of Shakhtar matches, which take place in the 60,000 seat Donbass Arena.
Still, Donetsk rode their overwhelming home-field advantage to a 4-1 victory, scoring three times in the first half and only conceded a 90th minute goal. The Luhansk squad struggled to mount any kind of attack for most of the match. The quality of play—Shakhtar won the UEFA Cup in 2009, and routinely competes against other top European clubs—was a far cry from the premier league: plenty of slide tackles, scrubby goals and frantic defending. But the match was entertaining nonetheless.
Most of the players were "local guys," according to Mikhail Mishin, the DPR's Minister of Sport, though some had experience in lower-level professional football or the Ukrainian Premier League. DPR's team had a Nigerian player, Perez Agong (Mishin told Russian news site gazeta.ru that Agong had married a local girl and was living in the DPR).
Gazeta previously reported that several of Luhansk's former Ukrainian Premier League players were banned from competing in Ukraine after representing the LPR, so it's highly unlikely that any of the Ukrainian League's top-flight pros will be lining up to represent the DPR or LPR anytime soon.
Still, the "local guys" put on a good show for their fans, who alternated between chanting D-N-R (the Russian initialism) and cheering for "Novorossiya," the collective name for the DPR and LPR's confederation. Novorossiya's crossed red and blue flag has come to symbolize the partnership between the DPR and LPR, but the concept of "New Russia" harkens back to the original name for the region under the 18th century Russian Empire.
In the absence of opposing fans, there wasn't much of an atmosphere of rivalry — the Donetsk fans in the audience mostly just looked happy to have live football in the city again. "Today was a great day, with a great friendship atmosphere," said Ludmilla Tsakova, 54, who came to the game with her husband Valeria, 60, and several friends (she told VICE Sports that she was the mother of the DPR squad's head coach).
Minister of Sport Mishin told gazeta.ru that he has plans to put together an 18-team local league, and hopes that the DPR can compete in the "World Championship of unrecognized states."
The match was free, and attracted a varied crowd of off-duty soldiers, families and children, gangs of teenagers and plenty of pensioners. Donetsk is a beautiful city in the summer, and outdoor activities are popular in the city's riverside parks. But without professional sports the city is devoid of a lot of public entertainment. The losses of Shakhtar and Metalurg are felt hard — even their merchandise shops around town are gutted and boarded up.
Druzhba Arena, home of the local hockey team H.C. Donbass, was destroyed by fighting in March of 2014, and Shakhtar's Donbass arena has reportedly taken a few stray artillery shells as well. Civilians in the city face sporadic shelling, food shortages and a military-enforced curfew at 11 p.m. every night. Any break from the stresses of war is appreciated. Artillery fire is audible throughout the day and intensifies in the evenings. But on Saturday, the noise of the crowd drowned out any booms from outside the city. "Today was excellent," Luba Teshulka, a 57-year-old librarian, told VICE Sports. "It reminded me of peace."