A Club Divided, A Club United: Zorya Luhansk, On Football’s Front Line

On the outbreak of the bitter conflict in the Donbass, Zorya Luhansk were forced to leave their war-torn home behind. Now, they are mere days away from playing Manchester United, and making history on the European stage.
September 28, 2016, 6:13pm
Photos provided by "Eugene"

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

When the draw for the Europa League group stage was complete, all eyes were on the teams who would be travelling to Old Trafford. Manchester United boasted by far and away the best pedigree of the clubs involved, comparable only with the likes of Ajax, Roma and Inter Milan. When the draw came to a close, Jose Mourinho's men had been paired with the likes of Feyenoord and Fenerbahce, as well as a side that was practically unheard of on these shores. That side hailed from the easternmost reach of Ukraine, and went by the name of Zorya Luhansk.

Zorya might be little-known in Britain, but theirs is a far more compelling story than that of United. While the latter have spent the last few years lurching from one inadvisable spending splurge to another, fretting over its status as the world's biggest club, the former has faced a genuine threat to its existence, and had bigger things to worry about than Wayne Rooney's form. While United have been splashing hundreds of millions of pounds on transfer fees, Zorya have been leading an itinerant existence, hundreds of miles away from their spiritual home. Nonetheless, they have achieved something miraculous, and are about to meet United on the European stage.

Zorya opened their Europa League campaign with a 1-1 draw with Fenerbahce in Odessa

Even in Ukraine, Zorya have a fairly modest profile. Founded in 1923 by the labourers of the local locomotive works, they are a regional side with a strong industrial heritage. The city of Luhansk (formerly Voroshilovgrad) is far to the east of Lviv, Kiev and the rest of Ukraine's grand old cities, and has always been a centre of manufacturing, a place of coal, smoke and endless hard graft. It is not far from the traditional Russian border, has a high percentage of Russian speakers and, accordingly, is the de facto capital of the Luhansk People's Republic, one of two self-proclaimed separatist states at the heart of the ongoing war in the Donbass.

READ MORE: The Bitter Demise Of Latvian Football

In the aftermath of the Ukrainian revolution, on the outbreak of open hostilities in the east, Zorya had a decision to make about their immediate future as a football club. It was 2014, shells were falling, and the entire region was at the middle of a violent tug of war. The city of Luhansk was, in essence, part of the fluctuating front line in the battle between the Ukrainian government, the Russian Federation and its proxy forces in the east. This was not a safe environment in which to play football, or to do anything for that matter. Zorya were forced to relocate, leaving friends, family and supporters behind.

A bombed-out administrative building in Luhansk, 2014 // PA Images

Not only were Zorya forced to part ways with their fanbase, they were also forced to leave behind almost the entirety of the club's infrastructure. Having played at the 22,000-capacity Avanhard Stadium from 1951 onwards, the ground was locked up and left unoccupied. Not long afterwards, superficial damage was done to the stadium in a mortar attack, with shells falling on the pitch and in the stands. While the ground is still in working condition, this must have hammered home the fact that the club was far from immune to harm.

READ MORE: Images Of The Beautiful Game From Mexico, Serbia, Iraq and Beyond

Having left behind Luhansk and crossed over into undisputed territory, the club set up shop 235 miles away in the city of Zaporizhia. They began to play their domestic fixtures at the 12,000-capacity Slavutych Arena, the home of Metalurh Zaporizhia, a club in serious financial difficulties who would eventually go bankrupt in 2015. The Slavutych Arena wasn't suitable for European games, however, and that became a problem when – against all odds – the displaced club began to challenge for European qualification. They finished fourth in the Ukrainian Premier League last season, which guaranteed them a place in the group stages of the Europa League.

Needing to find a ground that matched UEFA's stringent stadium requirements, Zorya eventually struck a deal to use the Chornomorets Stadium in Odessa. Home of local team FC Chornomorets, it at least provided them with a temporary capacity of well over 30,000. That said, the cost of hiring the stadium was significant, while there was little chance of recouping that money from ticket sales. Situated on the Black Sea coast, Odessa is just over 550 miles to the west of Luhansk. That's a prohibitive distance, even for the most die-hard of fans.

READ MORE: How Football Survives On Islamic State's Turf

In that sense, Zorya is a club divided. The team plays in Zaporizhia and Odessa, but the majority of fans are stuck in Luhansk. There is a physical rift in place, a footballing schism. Taking a two-way trip to Zaporizhia would take the best part of a day, and would probably be impossible even if one was willing to attempt it. From Luhansk, one would have to pass through the Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone, the name the Ukrainian government has given to the territory affected by the Donbass war.

So the front line has bisected the club, separating Zorya from its home, from its supporters, from its financial lifeblood. Nonetheless, the club has survived the schism, and the players have even managed to thrive. When I ask the club's CEO, Sergiy Rafailov, how they have continued to function despite their unique situation, his answer is emphatic. "We are united by our love of football, and our love of the team. That's what keeps us going. Our fans believe in us, and we cannot let them down."

While Zorya might be a long way from home at the moment, they are still flying the flag for eastern Ukraine. The team is representing the city, the region and the people of Luhansk, at a time when they desperately need a talisman. Speaking to me via email and through a translator, Sergiy makes it clear how difficult the situation is, both for the club staff and the people they have left at home. "It's not only hard to play away from home, but also to live," he says. "Many of our employees have relatives who they have little chance to see. Their property, their homes – all remain in Luhansk."

READ MORE: Royalist, Republican, Socialist, Fascist – The Chequered History Of The Copa Del Rey

When I ask whether or not club staff are able to visit Luhansk, the difficulty of travelling to and from the People's Republic becomes apparent. "Employees of the club sometimes go back to the city, but it's hard, and there's no easy way to drive there," Sergiy says. "Almost all of them own homes in Luhansk and nearby cities. The club, at its own expense, now rents apartments for its employees in Kiev. Many of them have relatives in Luhansk, but they do not even have consistent telephone access in the city. To go and visit or meet with loved ones is extremely difficult. It is problematic trying to cross the demarcation line."

Considering that the club's employees are barely able to return to Luhansk, it's little wonder that supporters struggle. Sergiy tells me that attendances are small, even though people from other parts of the country often supplement numbers. He managed to return to Luhansk in May, and survey the situation at the Avanhard Stadium. The damage done by the mortar strike has been largely repaired, he tells me, and the stadium facilities are in a good condition, all told.

With infrastructure to maintain in Luhansk but barely any takings on the gate, the club is in a tight financial situation. That being the case, their Europa League participation takes on a new significance, and matters to Zorya in a way that their group stage rivals would struggle to understand. "It means a lot to us, and brings great prestige to the club, to play teams like Manchester United, Feyenoord and Fenerbahce," Sergiy tells me. "It is important for morale, and also financially. It helps replenish the club's budget, of course."

With small crowds, negligible merchandise sales and fees to pay for renting their facilities, the importance of that Europa League cash to Zorya cannot be underestimated. The extra television revenue keeps the club financially stable, and allows the players to focus on their football, knowing the situation off the pitch is secure. When Zorya play Manchester United, it will be a meeting of two teams at opposite ends of the financial spectrum. What Zorya lack in revenues they make up in resolve, however. "It's probably difficult for someone outside of Ukraine to understand the situation," Sergiy says. "It's very difficult for us, but we'll manage."

The club's hierarchy have to manage, of course. They owe it to the supporters back in Luhansk, many of whom will be watching the Europa League clashes on television, if they can. The fans seem to appreciate their efforts, backing them even in the face of difficult decisions like the temporary relocation of the club. That's certainly the impression I get from Ilya and Eugene, two Zorya fans who I contact via a third party. Both of them stress the familial bond within the club, and I get the impression that, despite the distance, Zorya fans feel closer to the team than ever before.

READ MORE: Football, Floodlights and Threats From The Taliban – Life In The Afghan Premier League

With Ilya, his passion for the club is evident in his every word. "I would sum up the relationship of the fans with the club in one word – family," he says. "Many of our fans know the players, the coach and the press department personally. Despite the modest budget, all the staff work with motivation and commitment and, on the field, the players give everything each match." He tells me that he cannot get to the majority of games owing to the cost of travelling up and down the country, with money the main prohibiting factor. He wishes that Zorya could have played in the north-easterly city of Kharkiv, though "even frequent trips to Kharkiv are unaffordable for the average fan."

Ilya goes on to stress that Zorya's sense of community transcends the club, and affects the city of Luhansk in general. "To the surprise of everyone here, even people not interested in football, the club seems stable, plays entertaining football and is one of the top teams in Ukraine at the moment," he says. "In general, I am delighted to be a part of the club. We have a special relationship with the club and its hierarchy, and in this we differ from the rest."

Eugene, a member of Zorya's Ultras group, keeps a cool head in his assessment of the situation. When I ask what issues he and his fellow fans face in travelling to games, he says: "The main difficulties are our studies, our work, and the fact that some guys are in the Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone. It's difficult to escape and not everyone can, but if the boys can go, then the boys go." The mention of the Donbass conflict in the same breath as travelling to a football match gives a glimpse into everyday life in a designated warzone. The front line might not be too far away, but that's not going to stop the Ultras from watching Zorya whenever they can.

A photo of some of Zorya's Ultras, provided by Eugene

While nobody can deny that Zorya's situation is precarious, there seems to be an incredible togetherness, a square-jawed sense of determination within the club. Zorya may be physically divided, but the club, the players and the supporters are still on the same page. The fanbase might be geographically cut off from the club, but they are also united in the most exceptional of circumstances. That gives them a sense of shared community, and it also gives them unshakeable belief.

So, unperturbed, Eugene tells me: "The situation is not so bad, really. I can say with confidence that the club will live on."