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Shakhtar: The Champions League's very own nomads

Sunday 18th February 2018

Much has been made of Tottenham Hotspur adapting (or not) to their season at Wembley while the new White Hart Lane is built. When you compare it to the plight Shakhtar Donetsk is enduring, however, there's little reason for sympathy. 

Shakhtar hasn't played a proper home game since 2014. Any chance for returning to its home stadium in Donetsk looks as far away as ever. Like all Ukraine, the city was part of the old Soviet Union. After glasnost led to the Soviet's dissolution, Ukrainians became independent while keeping close relations to Russia. Over the years, Russian influence dwindled, particularly in the country's western regions. There had been a movement towards joining the EU and NATO. 

In November 2013, protest erupted around the country when then-President Viktor Yanukovych walked back agreements with the EU in favour of renewed ties to Russia. Ukraine as a country was split. The east, which bordered on Russia, favoured the Putin regime. The west opposed it. By February 2014, Yanukovych was forced from office. The country was on the brink of civil war. 

In response to Yanukovych's ouster, Russia chose to annex Crimea. The peninsula has been considered a Ukrainian territory since 1954 despite being a part of the Soviet Union at the time. After the breakup, Crimea was nominally Ukrainian but Russia maintained naval bases there. In 2014, Putin felt it in the Federation's best interest to reclaim the territory. Once Crimea returned to Russian control, other areas of eastern Ukraine became targets for pro-Russian militia groups. Among those targets was Donetsk.

Since 2014 Donetsk has been a front line for the conflict between Ukraine and pro-Russian groups. It is now under the control and influence of the Donetsk People's Republic, which is supported by Russia. When war first broke out, the Donbass Arena was badly damaged. A stadium that had cost millions to build, which had hosted a European Championship semi-final just two years prior, was now unusable. Shakhtar had to leave the city.

At first, the Miners played their home games in Lyiv, practically the full width of Ukraine away. This season, they play in Kharkiv. The city is still 150 miles away from Donetsk. Yet, the side's new proximity allows the Moles, as supporters are proudly known, better opportunity to see their club. That said, the club's offices and training facilities are based in Kyiv. The squad must travel more than 200 miles to play every 'home' match.

Amazingly, Shakhtar has somehow maintained its standard, winning a Ukrainian league title, two Ukraine Cups, three Ukraine Super Cups, and making the Europa League semi-final in 2016. This season, the Miners top the league, just ahead of Dynamo Kyiv. This week they will take on Serie A giant AS Roma in the Champions League Round of 16. Regardless what has taken place off the field, Shakhtar has managed to remain successful. It is an achievement that goes far beyond what any other club achieves on a yearly basis. 

Donetsk and Ukraine's fate remains unresolved. At present Shakhtar cannot play their home games in Donetsk but it isn't holding the club back. Every football club should have a home. The hope is the fighting and suffering of others will end, then Miners and Moles can again join forces at the Donbass, where they belong. 

Gerry Johnston

I am a 33-year-old sports writer from Ireland who enjoys watching European football. My main focus is La Liga, but I do keep a close eye on all of the major leagues throughout the world.

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