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Hardened by conflict, Ukraine's most iconic team play on

Shakhtar Donetsk has become emblematic of Ukraine's determination to preserve as many vestiges of normal life as possible - including football. A new book delves into the history of the club. 

September 30 2023, 13.10pm

It's 1.30 am in Leipzig, and two young football players are strolling the empty streets of the German city. Mykhailo Mudryk and Georgiy Sudakov are with Shakhtar Donetsk, the Ukrainian football club that's become an icon of their country's resilience. The pair are fresh from a 4-1 win in the Champions League group stages, but they're unable to rest. “It's really nice to feel free to walk around the city,” they tell reporter Adam Crafton. “To breathe that air and not feel like you're escaping something.”

It's a poignant glimpse into Shakhtar Donetsk's current plight. While most Ukrainians were shocked into outright war by Russia's invasion on 24th February 2022, the people of the Donbas region have been living with war for almost a decade. Ever since Russia's invasion of the region in 2014, Ukraine's most successful football team — collecting 13 league titles this side of the millennium — has been homeless, using grounds and training bases in Kharkiv, Lviv, and now Kyiv (playing home matches at the Olimpiyskyi Stadium), while Donbass Arena, their 52,000-capacity stadium in the centre of the region's capital, crumbles under the stewardship of occupying forces.

According to Israeli midfielder Manor Solomon, Shakhtar's “experience of dealing with extraordinary events” was crucial in helping them “rescue” foreign players from the country following the full-scale February 2022 invasion. Hardened by a decade of conflict and revered as Ukraine's best-performing side in European competition, Shakhtar has since flown the flag for their whole nation in the Champions League. Against a backdrop of tragedy and turbulence, when numerous Ukrainian professional footballers including Alexander Sukhenko and Kyrylo Molokov have been killed in combat, it would be understandable if sport dropped to the back of people's minds. Instead, as evidenced by Ukraine's commitment to returning to domestic football last August (just six months after Russia's invasion), the beautiful game is arguably more important here than ever before.

“Those still at the club spend so much time dealing with reality that they need, and deserve, to have their dreams,” writes author, broadcaster and European football expert Andy Brassell in his new book We Play On: Shakhtar Donetsk's Fight for Ukraine, Football and Freedom. A powerful documentation of football's ability to unite and represent even in the most extreme conditions, the text explores the club's fight to survive and thrive in recent years, while simultaneously detailing how they became Ukraine's biggest footballing force. It's a tale of courage, conflict, loss, and love of the game.

“There's so much stiff upper lip in the face of things that most footballers couldn't even imagine, most people couldn't imagine”

“Even if you can focus on the football, and block it out to a certain extent… war is all-consuming,” says Brassell, who sits across the table from me at a snug Bermondsey cafe. “You feel this in the run-up to the Champions League game against Real Madrid. They are hearing about the new bombings of Kyiv and Kharkiv in the run-up to that game, and you can't really escape from it. Those players scrolling on their phones can't actually get any relief from that… everything that's going on, they're seeing all of it. Even if they're physically away from it, they're never really mentally away from it.”

For better or worse, players often battle with this by comparing their national contribution to those on the frontline. "It's people going to war. We can go and play a football match," Shakhtar captain Taras Stepanenko reasons in Brassell's book. "We have it easy in some ways in this nice hotel in Warsaw. This is our way of contributing."

“With Shakhtar, there's so much stiff upper lip in the face of things that most footballers couldn't even imagine, most people couldn't imagine,” says Brassell. “You're talking about all the houses on the other side of the street being destroyed, or your mother-in-law not picking up the phone so you're wondering, ‘Where are they? Are they okay?’ They're all very stoic, the players and the staff at Shakhtar. They're like: ‘We're playing football, we're not fighting on the frontline.’”

It's an attitude he encountered again and again while writing We Play On, in interviews with key figures including sporting director Darijo Srna, club CEO Sergei Palkin, current players like Stepanenko, and former coaches like Roberto De Zerbi. Interacting with a plethora of characters tied closely to Shakhtar, he came across a staggering sense of fortitude in the face of struggle.

“Knowing any sort of place, knowing the people is the most important thing," he says. "The club really opened their doors to me and I was able to spend time with them around the Champions League matches [which took place in Warsaw, Poland last season]. But having been [to Ukraine] extensively, it is sad that I wasn't able to go there as part of the book."

Instead, Brassell was forced to interact with those in Ukraine from abroad, reporting on Shakhtar's innovative cultural identity as it changed before his eyes. During their late 2000s and early 2010s heyday, when they won the UEFA Cup and secured five consecutive Ukrainian Premier League titles, Shakhtar gained a reputation for their advanced Brazilian scouting network, developing and selling players such as Willian, Fernandinho, Douglas Costa, and Alex Teixeira. The Russian invasion — and FIFA's subsequent ruling that all foreign players could leave Ukraine as free agents, a decision that financially crippled the club and caused Palkin to vent “FIFA are destroying Ukrainian football… They are just leaving us to die alone” — stripped away this advantage, leaving Shakhtar reliant on young, often inexperienced Ukrainian players. 

“Removed from their home and forced to transform the way they operate, Shakhtar are unable to plan for the future”

While this has given greater responsibility to young talents like Mykhailo Mudryk (sold to Chelsea for €100m+ in January), it has also forced the club to alter the way they work. Due to their comparatively high quota of foreign players, they've had to adapt more than many Ukrainian clubs. Thankfully, Shakhtar is better equipped for adaptation than most.

“They're the club that is best prepared for this sort of situation because they're already on their emergency plan,” says Brassell. “After 2014, they were an incredibly stable club with a very well-functioning structure, a coach who had been in situ for well over a decade, and still it took them a while to figure it out. When you fast forward to the full-scale invasion, it's something that no club, no sporting institution or business could 100% cope with, but they did move to the backup plan pretty swiftly in a way that most other institutions or businesses couldn't have done.”

As well as safely relocating players, coaches and staff members, Shakhtar swiftly embarked on a Global Tour of Peace in April 2022, playing friendlies in Turkey, Poland, and Croatia to raise awareness of Ukraine's plight, and later adopting Warsaw's Stadion Wojska Polskiego as their European home. Conversations about this period of upheaval can often centre on sporting logistics; but for Brassell, a crucial, often overlooked consideration is the humanity and personal suffering of the club's players, who currently perform in supporter-less stadiums with bomb shelters below and attack from above a constant, creeping threat.

“When you get to know them, you mainly think about them as people, and you think about the fact that they carry on in this very stoic way,” he says. “They get to see their families every four-six weeks, because their families are living in safer spaces, whether it's Spain, Portugal, Poland… can you ever adjust to that? Footballers are very good at getting on with things. But this is different, this is much harder, and there's no endpoint."

Remarkably, Shakhtar have continued to be successful. Last year, Croatian boss Igor Jovicevic guided them to a league title win and a Last 16 finish in the Europa League (“planting Ukraine's flag firmly in the football European landscape”, in Brassell's words), and they currently sit top of the fledgling 2023/24 UPL season. Before that, Italian coach Roberto De Zerbi's exciting brand of attacking football attracted the attention of Premier League high-flyers Brighton & Hove Albion, a side he has since coached to their first European campaign. But for the club where the Italian cut his teeth before the invasion ended his time in Ukraine, this leaves a slightly bitter taste.

”It could have been fantastic,” says Brassell on De Zerbi's brief spell at Shakhtar. “The reason him and Ahkmetov [the club's president] vibed is because they're just zealots for a certain type of attacking football. It was an effort to double down on the principles they already had. When you hear De Zerbi talking about [having to leave Shakhtar], it's like an itch that's never gonna go away. He's restless, he wants to achieve stuff, and I really got the impression that it's something that bugs him, that he couldn't finish it.”

One of many international talents the club has lost through no fault of their own, De Zerbi's exit reflects Shakhtar's precarious situation, one of seemingly endless turmoil and reinvention. Removed from their home and forced to transform the way they operate, Shakhtar are unable to plan for the future, which goes against their innovative, forward-thinking DNA. Nobody knows when the conflict in Ukraine will end, but until it does, amplifying the country's voice through football is of vital importance.

“Now, the rest of the world really understands what's happening, and what they've been through for the last decade-plus,” says Brassell. “In their minds, they were already representing Ukraine on a massive scale, ever since the 2009 UEFA Cup… they became known for their brand of football, a brand of football that the world understands. Now, to represent your country ideologically is something totally different, but they've got to that point now, because of those years of building a rock-solid infrastructure that has allowed them to cope with this moment. That is a real source of pride to people.”

The fact that FC Shakhtar Donetsk still exists is an achievement in itself. But the fact that this famous sporting institution is still operating at the highest level, not just fighting for the right to play football but winning trophies and competing with Europe's best? That's a testament to the character of this special club, and a reflection of football's unique ability to bring people together in the toughest of circumstances.

Andy Brassell's book ‘We Play On: Shakhtar Donetsk's Fight for Ukraine, Football and Freedom’ is published on 28th September.