Ukraine's Refugee Soccer Club

Shakhtar Donetsk was forced to flee its home stadium and home city due to war. Now the club and its fans are facing a tough road in Western Ukraine.

by Christian Borys
Apr 7 2015, 4:35pm

Two European soccer teams recently met in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv for a bitterly cold Champions League match. The visiting side, Bayern Munich, flew in from Germany to face the Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk. In previous years, Bayern Munich would have flown into the beautiful airport in Donetsk on the other side of the country in Shakhtar's home city. But all that remains of that airport now are craters, blasted concrete, and steel. The battles that destroyed the airport also destroyed any hopes Shakhtar Donetsk might have had of playing in Donetsk for the foreseeable future.

They left their home, a historically pro-Russian city and relocated to Lviv, which is a staunchly pro-Ukrainian and pro-European city. Donetsk and Lviv are as far apart as possible both geographically and ideologically. The team, its players and especially its fans have no choice but to live through the turmoil and hope for a resolution. As it stands, however, there's no indication that anyone in Eastern Ukraine will get to experience a Shakhtar Donetsk game anytime soon.

Read More: Soccer and Revolution in Ukraine

Although Bayern Munich landed in another European country, they found themselves in a totally different reality. Germany is the economic and political powerhouse of the EU: stable, strong and prosperous, while Ukraine plunders further and further into despair. As the match was taking place, not only was a war raging on the other side of the country, but the Ukrainian economy was disintegrating. The hryvnia, Ukraine's currency, had dropped 30 percent in recent days which meant that an already impoverished citizenry saw their average earnings drop below $150 USD per month.

Outside, the signs of war presented themselves in every form except actual combat. Shakhtar Donetsk itself is not the only refugee to have fled to Lviv. Many Donetsk residents were also forced to flee west to Lviv. These primarily Russian speaking fans now find themselves cheering on their team in the home of their bitter soccer rivals, FC Karpaty. Outside the stadium, memorials to soldiers and public demonstrations of support are everywhere. Mixed in amongst the bevy of drunk soccer fans in downtown Lviv for the Champions League match are Ukrainian soldiers in combat fatigues.

Just days before the match, German Chancellor Angela Merkel flew to meet Russian ruler Vladimir Putin. The purpose of her trip to Moscow was to hammer out a deal to end the war, which she ostensibly did. But the ceasefire was broken ever before it began. As Putin was signing the papers with one hand, he was apparently using the other to order the deployment of more tanks. NATO observed 50 tanks crossing the border from Russia into Ukraine while the negotiations were taking place in Minsk. The odds of a Shakhtar Donetsk return to their home city any time soon decreased even further. But some of the team's players remain—perhaps delusionally—optimistic.

"We are very positive about returning," said Ivan Ordets, a 22-year-old defender. "I hope that we will return to the native city in the near future. I want to play there again and win."

It's hard to imagine how that might happen. A return would require soccers regulatory bodies, players' insurance companies, and most importantly, the teams themselves to sign off on games in what is effectively an ungoverned, unrecognized state now known as the Donetsk People's Rrpublic (DNR). Apart from Russia and some breakaway separatist groups like the Texas Nationalist Movement, no one has recognized the DNR as a state. It's unimaginable that UEFA would counter every European countries stance on the Ukrainian war and offer support for a match in Donetsk. "Even if they did" says a Ukrainian sporting official, "where would teams fly into? There's no airport. It's destroyed. What are they going to do, take buses from Kyiv?"

So the team, and it's fans, are stuck trying to make the best of a depressing situation. Shakhtar Donetsk supporters are out in full force in Lviv. Most are refugees from Donetsk and the surrounding areas. Accepted with open arms at first, some openly complained that the situation has deteriorated for them in the west. They say they are now discriminated against when looking for work and apartments. They said that this is the result of a few bad apples who stole and disrespected landlords when they first arrived. Apparently that reputation has now stuck.

One former resident of Donetsk, a 22-year-old woman, who was at the match told VICE that she escaped last summer. She said that none of her friends or family supported the DNR. She was forced to leave her father, mother and grandmother behind while she fled because her grandmother was too weak to move. She told VICE that Donetsk was her home, and she couldn't have ever imagined a war would destroy their lives. Now she is struggling to find a place to work in a collapsing economy far from home.

Why is this our problem now?" asked a Lviv resident at the bar in the city center. "They could have stopped the DNR a year ago instead of just leaving. Why should we go fight for Eastern Ukraine while they come here to live free."

It is commonly believed that that residents of Donetsk could have crushed the DNR uprising early on. That's because support for the DNR was relatively low back then, says journalist David Petrakarakos. "I was in Donetsk at the beginning stages of the DNR's takeover and in a city of one million, I counted only 500 DNR supporters at a rally. That's not a revolution."

Although regular citizens from the East may be facing discrimination, Ordets says that the team has been welcomed with open arms. "They gave us a good reception. There were no remarks like, Lviv is the place for FC Karpaty. We understand that it is necessary to play on any pitch. of course, it is easier to perform in front of our fans in Donetsk. We have never experienced any negative attitude towards us in Lviv, and hopefully nothing like that will happen in the future."

Ordets was probably unaware however that earlier that day, the fan club of FC Karpaty had issued an inflammatory statement. They declared that they would not support Shakhtar Donetsk and encouraged any members watching or attending the game to only cheer for Bayern Munich. Whether this was in anyway political or simply the rumblings of a longtime soccer rivalry was unclear.

Indeed at the match versus Bayern Munich, droves of Shakhtar fans flocked into the stadium to watch their team get crushed 7-0. However, Ordets says that is an exception. "At a Champions League game, the stadium will always be filled to capacity and the stands never get silent. But when we meet with teams who sit low in the standings, only a few people come out to support us and they are mostly children. I would like to see more people coming."

Barring some miracle, the team will likely be forced to call Lviv its new home indefinitely. It could be one season, it could be years, or it might very well be forever. While players remain somewhat insulated against the harsh realities facing modern Ukrainians, Shakhtar's fans are not. Their club's refugee status is just a reminder of their own place in an unfamiliar region where jobs are scarce, family is far away, and tensions run deep.