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The beautiful game never left Donbas

Football used to represent the hopes and aspirations of Donetsk. It has become a symbol of the destruction and changes the region has seen over the last few years.

June 4, 2020 - Robert O’Connor - Articles and Commentary

Donbas Arena with a Donetsk People's Republic May 1st greeting. Photo: Robert O'Connor

In the last decade of the twentieth century, many countries across Eastern Europe experienced armed conflict following the disintegration of the Soviet and Yugoslav regimes. In the book Blood and Circuses: A Football Journey Through Europe’s Rebel Republics, journalist Robert O’Connor embarks on an odyssey through the conflict zones of Eastern Europe to investigate how football has been used both as an act of resistance and as an act of rebuilding. Among the many places he visited was Donetsk, the city that hosted the semi-final of the UEFA European Football Championship in 2012, but which has now become the centre stage of an armed conflict with no end in sight.

The experience of being in Donetsk in 2019 was something I can compare only to the feeling of having broken into a living museum after hours.

During the last five years, I have visited the capital cities of each of Europe’s para-states. I discovered that all of them have found some kind of peaceful rhythm to live by in the years since they fought wars for their independence.

Throughout the travels on which my book Blood & Circuses: A Football Journey Through Europe’s Rebel Republics is based, I was welcomed as an ambassador for English football. From the isolated mountains of South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, to the lush green seaside ports of Abkhazia, to the post-industrial sliver of territory that is Transnistria, locals received me with open arms as some kind of emissary of the English Premier League.

Even in Kosovo, where they are much further along their journey towards integrating with the mainstream of European football, there was a mutual appreciation for the realisation of two disparate cultures being linked through sport (and toasted by a particularly lethal strain of rakija). In these places, life has slowly been pieced back together after the destruction wrought by war. Football has had a nurturing role to play in the healing of these places.

Organised crime and organised football

Donetsk is different. Its grimy austerity comes across as tragic. The city had time to re-imagine itself in the 21st century after the fall of the Soviet Union, making the battened-down ghost town it is today seem even more sad.

This was mafia country once. When Ukraine emerged from communism, nowhere else in the country did criminal clans claim such a monopoly over economic life. Chief amongst them was a Crimean Tatar named Akhat Bragin – Alik the Greek, to his underworld associates – who emerged as chief racketeer of Donbas. He also owned the region’s most famous football club, Shakhtar Donetsk.

Shakhtar is a club built by Soviet coal. The labouring migrants that flocked during the late 19th century to the region – christened Novorossiya by Catherine the Great – created the team in the 1930s. The team was originally called Stakhanovets, named after Alexi Stakhanov, the poster boy of Stalinist industrialisation. Shakhtar was always at one with the slag heaps of Donbas, even after it fell into the hands of criminals.

Alik the Greek, who acquired Shakhtar after the fall of communism, was killed in 1995. He was the victim of a plot forged by his enemies in the underworld, who planted a bomb at Shakhtar’s old ground in Donetsk’s Shcherbakov Park. In time, however, the city began to move away from its troubled heritage. Through football, it opened up to the world.

Huge investments were made in the city as part of Ukraine’s successful bid to co-host the 2012 European Championship with neighbouring Poland. The impressive Shakhtar Plaza Hotel, built to host world football’s top delegates, was erected alongside the impressive 55,000-seater Donbas Arena. The city’s Sergei Prokofiev Airport was renovated at a cost of 860 million US dollars in time to welcome guests for the tournament. Unfortunately, it was an investment in a future that never fully arrived.

From Champions League football to amateur games against Luhansk

My first visit to Donetsk was in 2019. I never knew the city when it was a thriving hub of international football. But my colleagues in the UK football press who followed England here during Euro 2012 spoke highly of the place.

Today though, the Donbas Arena stands empty, and it still bears scars inflicted by shells fired from the Ukrainian side of the line of contact. Inside, a sign planted at the side of the recently re-laid pitch reads ‘Keep off the grass’. It is the only sign that football was ever played here.

The Plaza, which claimed to be full for the duration of my stay, can no longer charge the prices it did when Donetsk was open to the world for business. Even if the borders were not all but closed to non-Russian and Ukrainian citizens, Prokofiev Airport was destroyed by fighting between Kyiv’s army and Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) militants in 2015.

Of everything the people of Donetsk have lost, nothing left a greater hole behind than football. Not quite all football, though, has ended. If there was one thing I learned on my journey through Eastern Europe’s former war zones and separatist states, it is that the world’s favourite game never quite goes dead. This is still true no matter how violent the fighting or severe the deprivation that follows.

In Donetsk, there is still a rudimentary championship. This takes place between players that did not choose to abandon the city in order to continue their careers in Ukraine proper or Russia. There is even a small ‘international’ competition, where the league winners play against the best teams in Luhansk for the right to call themselves champions of Donbas.

“We get maybe a few hundred that come to watch the games,” I was told by Gennady Laguteev, the general manager of Donetsk’s Olympic Stadium. Standing on the old stadium’s terraces, still decked out in Shakhtar’s famous orange and black colours, I got a sense of how the place must have felt a decade or so earlier. In the past, packed crowds of 25,000 filled the place to watch the team play clubs such as Barcelona, AC Milan and Roma. “The standard here is very low now,” says Laguteev regretfully. “Anyone who was professional had to leave.”

The true graveyard of football in Donetsk is the Donbas Arena. It was completed in 2009 and was the product of a 400 million US dollar investment from the region’s most famous industrialist and Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov. A Crimean Tatar by heritage, Akhemtov was the heir apparent to the late Alik the Greek’s business empire. He inherited ownership of Shakhtar, along with the rest of Bragin’s assets, when his mentor was assassinated at Shcherbakov Park.

As a public ally and champion of the deposed president Viktor Yanukovych, Akhmetov is the link that connects Shakhtar with the disgraced former leader’s political regime and his Party of Regions. Yanukovych was grateful for the political assistance and became a regular attendee at Shakhtar’s home games. This was most notable during the club’s successful Uefa Cup campaign in 2009.

Yanukovych appeared on stage alongside the team after the cup final and addressed a huge rally in the centre of Donetsk. During his speech he heralded the dawn of a new, united Ukraine. He could not have known then how wrong his words would turn out to be.

I wrote in Blood & Circuses that, had Yanukovych’s speech been in a film, at that moment the screen would have cut to black, and his words would echo into the darkness as the image flashed forwards five years to reveal masked gunmen now patrolling Lenin Square. The pageantry would be long gone and so too would be Yanukovych, who fled to exile in Russia. Shakhtar would be gone, too, leaving the city with only memories of a once great side.

Oleg Antipov, my guide in Donetsk and a former press secretary at the club, told me that “The people aren’t angry about Shakhtar leaving, they’re just in pain”. Near the Donbas Arena, an ex-supporter had carved his feelings into a park bench regarding Shakhtar’s decision to leave in 2014 and the owner who led them out. “It’s something like ‘fuck you Rinat’,” explained Antipov by way of translation. “But really it’s more offensive even than that.”

Shakhtar played their final game at the stadium in May 2014, a 3-1 win against Illichivets Mariupol. It was a win that handed them a fifth consecutive league title, but barely 18,000 attended the game. By then, a human exodus from the city was already well under way. People fled a deteriorating security situation whilst masked militants prepared to take over the city in the name of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

The club cannot return, a lack of access for opposition teams crossing the line of contact prevents it. Besides, coming back at this point would necessitate collaboration with the DPR. The international community recognises Donbas as a part of Ukraine, while Kyiv has deemed the group to be a terrorist organisation.

Pick a side

Plenty of formerly famous names from Ukrainian football have been tarred with the same brush. Ihor Petrov captained the fledgling Ukrainian national team during its first-ever competitive international, a 2-0 defeat to Lithuania in Kyiv in 1994. Since he now acts as the president of the DPR Football Union, he is listed as a terrorist sympathiser by Kyiv. Not that he is unduly bothered.

“I made a decision to stay [after 2014],” Petrov told me. “This is my home. If I try to enter Ukraine, I do not know what will happen. I suspect I will be arrested”.

“Even when I captained the national team, that feeling of being Ukrainian was not born inside myself,” he added. “I still feel the USSR in my heart. I long more for the Russian Federation, because it represents that past. I never felt much for Ukraine.”

Football has been affected by the conflict on both sides of the line of contact. Former Shakhtar defender Yaroslav Rakitskiy, a native of Donetsk who has the city’s rose symbol tattooed on his leg, was always criticised by the Ukrainian press for refusing to sing the national anthem when he played for the country.

In 2018, he was sold to Zenit Saint Petersburg, the Russian giants sponsored and part-funded by the state oil company Gazprom. He has not been picked to play for Ukraine since. Most fans in the country believe that Russia’s links with the war in Donbas mean that he should never play for the national team again. Rumours persist in Donetsk that Rakitskiy may have helped fund the separatists.

Suspicion and mistrust

There is a tremendous paranoia that exists in Donetsk. This is perhaps predictable considering the DPR’s lack of recognition from the international community. Russian propaganda also fuels the long-held idea in Donbas that Ukrainians – specifically the orchestrators of the 2014 revolution – are fascist sympathisers.

At the border, when I attempted to enter the DPR at the military Uspenka crossing from Rostov-on-Don, I was held for six hours. I was told that I could not continue until a representative of the de facto authorities in the city came to help me. More than once in Donetsk I was apprehended and detained by armed men who demanded detailed explanations for why I was in the city.

One militiaman grew suspicious of me for taking photographs near an old hotel that had been requisitioned for ‘military intelligence’. He placed a call to headquarters to check my passport and press license details. Later, my guide Mikhail explained it had been to find out whether I was working for the Ukrainian government. “If they believed you were, it would have been a very different story,” explained Mikhail.

The suspicion with which I was held followed me well beyond the borders of Donetsk. Even at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, I was required to hand over my camera. It was checked by officials because my visa showed I had re-entered the country at the Uspenka crossing with the DPR.

The feeling of paranoia I was met with in Donetsk is not something I wish to experience again, nor is it something I will easily forget. If the authorities of the proto-state harbour genuine ambitions to open up to the world on their terms, they will need to end this paranoia. A recognisable institution with friends around the world, such as Shakhtar, could yet prove to be the key to peace.

Robert O’Connor is a journalist living in London whose work on the subject of football, politics and history in Eastern Europe has been carried by The Times, the BBC, The Independent, the Telegraph, the Moscow Times, the iForeign PolicyNew Internationalist and Vice. He is a graduate of the University of Sheffield and the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

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