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Fighting in eastern Ukraine displaces Donetsk's soccer team

02 March 2015, 10:31

Lviv - The sleek stadium, built six years ago and host to some of Europe's biggest soccer matches, is silent. It sits in the middle of the city of Donetsk, a war zone controlled by pro-Russian separatists battling Ukrainian troops.

The $425 million Donbass Arena now serves as a depot and distribution point for supplies of humanitarian aid, stacked in corridors beneath its 52,000 orange-and-black seats.

It is the home of the talented soccer team known as Shakhtar Donetsk — but the squad hasn't played there since May 2. The fighting in eastern Ukraine has forced the team to temporarily relocate, playing its home games in the far western city of Lviv, near the border with Poland, more than 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) away.

Players like Ivan Ordets originally packed light for what they thought would be a short stay, living in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev and traveling by bus to the games in Lviv.

Nine months later, with the war dragging on through failed cease-fires and nearly 5,800 people killed, the players have rented apartments in Kiev and are starting to build new lives there, but their thoughts never stray far from the conflict.

"It's the first time in my life that I haven't been home for a long time," the 22-year-old Ordets told The Associated Press, tears welling in his eyes. Although his mother has moved with him to Kiev, other relatives remained behind.

"My uncle, my aunt, my dad — they've stayed in the east of Ukraine," he added. "In that way, it's hard and I'm worried for them."

Ordets, a defender, is one of the few Ukrainians on Shakhtar Donetsk, a team that includes 13 Brazilians, more than half its roster. He comes from Volnovakha, a small town near Donetsk, but on the Ukrainian government side of the lines.

Last month, a passenger bus in Volnovakha was hit by a shell, killing 13 people. The Ukrainian government accused the Russia-backed separatists, who denied responsibility.

"They're shooting and it's not a calm situation there in the town. There's a lot of troops in the town," Ordets said, speaking in a luxury hotel in Kiev that serves as the team's temporary base.

Some neighborhoods of Donetsk have been wrecked by indiscriminate shelling, and its airport — refurbished and modernized for the 2012 European soccer championships — is in ruins. The team's Donbass Arena has suffered some exterior damage from the fighting. Security-camera video from Oct. 20 showed a person was nearly hit by falling glass from the top of the stadium, and the club said it was caused by a shock wave from a nearby explosion, although it added that no one was hurt.

The team takes its name, "Shakhtar," from the coal miners who work in the industrialized region of the Donbass — or Donetsk Basin — of eastern Ukraine. Most of the residents in the east speak Russian and want closer ties to Moscow, regarding the government in Kiev with suspicion. By contrast, western Ukraine tilts more toward Europe, and the city of Lviv is a stronghold of Ukrainian nationalism.

Shakhtar Donetsk is owned by billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, an industrialist who is Ukraine's richest man. His companies employ thousands in the Donetsk area, he built Donbass Arena, and he has publicly opposed the separatists.

Not surprisingly, Ordets said "all the team, all the guys are for a united Ukraine," and many of the club's fans also have been vocal opponents of the rebels. Online forums for Shakhtar supporters are filled with appeals to raise funds for Ukrainian troops trying to retake Donetsk. Some fans sell Shakhtar apparel — normally orange and black — with Ukraine's national colors of yellow and blue.

Under Akhmetov, the team imported the Brazilian stars en masse with a mission to win the Champions League, Europe's most prestigious competition. Last year, Shakhtar Donetsk finished atop the Ukrainian Premier League.

Five of the Brazilian players initially refused to return to the club last year for the new season because of the conflict, including stars Douglas Costa and Alex Teixeira, but all eventually returned.

Last week, Shakhtar held German champion Bayern Munich to a scoreless draw in Lviv, with the stadium decked out in a show of Ukrainian unity. Fans from eastern Ukraine traveled more than a day by bus to support their team, whose nickname is the "Pitmen" — after their coal-mining roots.

Shakhtar team captain Darijo Srna said the bloodshed in the east both saddens and inspires the players.

"Inside of the heart, inside of the soul, we are feeling the problems and we are playing for our fans," Srna told the AP.

Although he is from Croatia, Srna has spent the last 12 years with Shakhtar and considers Donetsk to be his home. In November, he arranged for 20 tons of fruit to be delivered to children in Donetsk via the team owner's charitable foundation, as part of efforts to ease the humanitarian crisis brought on by the fighting.

"For me, the most important moment in the war is to help," he said.

Some Shakhtar Donetsk fans say Ukraine's deep political division has forced them to move west because they felt threatened by supporters of the pro-Moscow forces.

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"They caused problems for a lot of us. It was becoming unsafe for me to stay," said a man who asked to be identified only as Kirill for fear of reprisal against his relatives still in rebel-held territory.

Not everyone has welcomed Shakhtar Donetsk to western Ukraine. The city is home to an underachieving club called Karpaty Lviv, and there have been some tensions between its fans and those of the richer, more talented squad from the east that is temporarily using the stadium. At a Shakhtar Donetsk game in November, some fans unfurled a banner that said, "Get out of Lviv."

But there was no sign of ill will at the Bayern match, with many local fans wearing the Shakhtar colors.

"I've got nothing bad to say about it," said 69-year-old Yuri Kotov, who traveled to Lviv from the town of Severodonetsk in the partly rebel-held Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine. "It's a full stadium and they're welcoming us."

What the future holds for Shakhtar is as uncertain as the outcome of the conflict.

When the current players are sold or their contracts expire, the team might find it hard to attract high-quality replacements if it does not have a permanent home.

For now, the team and its fans are focused on letting the game give them some respite from the bloodshed.

"There's a war going on, but you have to give people just a little bit of joy with the games and with victories, so that they believe that everything will be fine," said Ordets, the Ukrainian player.

- AP


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