Exiled by Russian bombs, Shakhtar Donetsk embraces his journey

It was not the sounds of the bombs, although he heard them, that brought back memories to Darijo Srna. It was the air raid sirens.

When they sounded in kyiv shortly after 6 a.m. on February 24, Srna froze in terror. Her mind was flooded with thoughts and memories of her childhood, her first experience of war, when the former Yugoslavia collapsed in the 1990s.

Since then, football has taken Srna, 39, away from his home in Croatia, to a glittering career, most of it with Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk, where he is currently director of football, and to games in the League of Nations. champions and two world cups. But in an instant, the sound of sirens brought everything back.

“I started to panic,” he said. “You have a lifelong trauma, that’s for sure – deep inside of you. It’s something you try to forget. But you can never forget that stuff.

Shakhtar Donetsk had already fled the bombs. In 2014, the last time Russian forces invaded Ukraine, missiles landed on Shakhtar Stadium. Within days, the club packed up and headed west, beginning a nomadic existence: to a new home in Lviv, in the far west of the country, then east again, to Kharkiv. , before settling in the capital, kyiv.

Now Shakhtar is on the move again. Last week, after receiving special permission to fly serving-age men out of the country, its players and coaches landed in Istanbul. With the war leading to the suspension of the second half of the Ukrainian season, Shakhtar will soon become a tour team, playing exhibition matches – the first was Saturday in Greece — to draw attention to the plight of Ukrainians and raise funds for the war effort.

Shakhtar Donetsk has never ceased to be a team. Now he hopes it will also be a symbol.

“I don’t know what kind of team in the history of football can be compared to us,” Srna said. “No other team has ever felt or experienced what we have experienced for the past eight years.”

Shakhtar officials were confident there would be no war, even as Russia massed forces and equipment on the Ukrainian border; even as players began to worry; even as worried family members called them daily during a winter training camp in Turkey with news, warnings, pleas.

So in February Sergei Palkin, the general manager of Shakhtar, called a meeting in an effort to allay growing concerns.

“I said everything would be fine because the Ukrainian president, everyone, said there would be no problem, war would not come,” Palkin said.

The team returned to Kyiv. But Palkin was wrong. Three days later, Russian troops crossed the border and rather than prepare to play the second half of their league season, the team management suddenly found themselves forced to make completely different calculations.

While many of Shakhtar’s Ukrainian players have moved to Lviv, which hosted the team when it was forced out of Donetsk, a group of more than 50 players and staff have taken refuge in a hotel owned by the owner of the Rinat Akhmetov team. From there, quick help and frantic phone calls helped devise a plan to get the club’s foreign players and their families to safety.

Srna played a key role in the talks, which also involved players’ unions, Ukrainian and neighboring football associations and Europe’s sporting governing body, UEFA. He said his own experiences – he was also a member of the team the last time she fled to safety, in 2014 – served as a guide.

“Unfortunately,” he said sadly, “this is my third war.”

It was only after the players returned to South America and elsewhere that Srna embarked on his own journey: what turned out to be a 37-hour drive to Croatia, where much of his family still lives, to reassure them he was sure. Two family members on his father’s side were killed after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, so his nerves weren’t the only ones that needed calming.

After hitting base, however, Srna quickly set about tackling a new task: how to get the dozens of children based at Shakhtar’s youth academy outside Kyiv out of harm’s way. The effort was professional but also intensely personal: many of the children were only 12 and 13, around the age Srna was when he first experienced war.

Hajduk Split, Srna’s first professional club, said they would be open to welcoming the boys if they could come to town. Dinamo Zagreb, another Croatian side, said they would provide buses if Shakhtar could bring players to the Ukrainian-Hungarian border. The players and the rest of Shakhtar’s traveling squad spent two days at Dinamo’s stadium, Srna said, where they were fed and assessed by doctors before heading to Split.

Today, thanks to the effort, more than 80 children, some of their mothers and a few aging coaches and medical staff are safe in Croatia, far from the worst horrors of war, training and even games again. .

“I just put myself in their shoes,” Srna said of his involvement. “I didn’t want these children to stay and listen all day to the shelling and the bullets.

“What I remember when I was a kid, I remember who gave me chocolate, who gave me a ball, who gave me water. And that was the most important thing. »

Like all other segments of the Ukrainian population, Shakhtar has also been affected by the war in more serious ways. A team academy coach died after his hometown was overrun by Russian forces in the first weeks of the war. Two staff members of the team’s merchandising department took up arms.

Shakhtar’s training site in Kyiv also bears the scars of the conflict. Pieces of its training grounds were gouged out by shelling, and artillery fire ripped through hangars where the team stored training equipment.

The conflict has also drawn attention to figures like Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man. Like a handful of oligarchs in Russia, he grew immensely rich – sometimes amid questionable means – in the wild and unpredictable aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union. Akhmetov insisted on being seen as contributing millions of dollars of his fortune to the war effort, and he said in an interview that he remained committed to his country and his team. “All our efforts are focused on the one thing that matters: helping Ukraine win this war,” he said.

The efforts of Akhmetov and his football team are now linked with those of the Ukrainian government – relationships that have already helped Shakhtar overcome some unique obstacles. Before they could leave for Turkey, for example, the club needed special government exemptions from an emergency law prohibiting men of military age from leaving the country during the war. Those approvals finally arrived on Wednesday afternoon. Now that he is based in Istanbul, his tour will fulfill several functions.

The games, starting with the one against Olympiakos in Athens on Saturday, are seen in part as a diplomatic tool, a chance to personalize Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis, raise money for the country’s military and provide humanitarian aid to its citizens.

But matches will also play an important sporting role. Several Shakhtar Donetsk players are also members of the Ukraine national team, and the matches will help ensure their fitness ahead of key qualifying playoffs in June for the 2022 World Cup. (Shakhtar rivals Dynamo Kyiv play a series of exhibition games for the same reasons ; both clubs have said they will call up players from other Ukrainian teams to complete their rosters, in part to give Ukraine the best chance of qualifying for the World Cup in the June qualifiers.)

The Shakhtar squad that will take part in the next tour – matches against Polish and Turkish clubs have been arranged, and matches against List A opponents could follow – have been stripped of much of their international talent: most of these players exercised an option to temporarily sign with teams outside Ukraine after the outbreak of war. Most will never come back. But some, like Brazilian defender Marlon, have said they will be back, and others are considering their options.

“We are not angry, we are all human beings,” Srna said. “It’s important that they are safe and with their families.”

The new season in Ukraine is, for now, scheduled to start in July. With so much damage in the country and the war still raging, the calendar seems to be little more than a placeholder. When football returns, as it will eventually, nothing will be the same.

It’s not even clear whether Donetsk, the home of Shakhtar, will remain part of Ukraine, a prospect that could turn the team’s temporary exile into permanent exile. Either way, whatever the conclusion, team officials said Shakhtar would never turn their backs on their roots.

“They can put any flag in Donetsk,” Srna said. “But Shakhtar will always be from Donetsk; it is something that no one and nothing can ever change.

Wherever Shakhtar ends up calling home, no matter who they play in the meantime, one idea remains even impossible to contemplate: matches against Russian opponents. Palkin said he was confident that European football officials would ensure that Ukrainian teams did not cross paths with Russian opponents in future competitions. But he had a simple answer if Shakhtar ever faced such a clash. “We wouldn’t play,” he said.

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