It’s June 26, 2012, and the eyes of the world are on Donetsk, a city in the industrial Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
Spain, the world and European champions, are playing their great rivals on the Iberian peninsula, Portugal, for a place in the Euro 2012 final, to be played in the capital Kyiv a few days later.
The showpiece match, headlined by the world’s best players, goes all the way to penalties, Spain winning to cap a long and never to be forgotten night for the city of Donetsk. The glittering Donbas Arena has lit up brightly as the centre of the universe.
Flash forward two years, two weeks and six days. A passenger airliner carrying 283 civilians on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashes in fields near the River Mius, the natural border that divides the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.
The plane broke up in midair. Most of the wreckage falls in the rural village of Hrabove. It is only a little more than 75km from the Donbas Arena.
For the second time in two years, the eyes of the world fall on Donbas.
The downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014 caused diplomatic earthquakes. Four and half years on, they are still being felt.
— Kyiv Post (@KyivPost) May 25, 2018
Diplomatic relations between Moscow and Kyiv are non-existent. The latter accuses Russia of financially and militarily propping up the separatist ‘people’s republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk, regions Ukraine says are under illegal occupation.
More than 10,000 have died in the fighting between government and separatist forces. Almost two million refugees have fled.
Shakhtar Donetsk are the most well known of those refugees. Exiled from Donbas, the club play their home games in Kharkiv, 150 miles or so to the northwest, at the 40,000-seat Metalist Arena.
“Nobody can fill such big stadiums as this in Ukraine” says Anton Ivanov, general manager of Metalist Kharkiv, who share the stadium with Shakhtar.
“Metalist average about 8,000 a game, which is big for Ukraine. It’s the second-largest average attendance in Ukraine. And we play in the second division.”
Shakhtar have played in Kharkiv since 2016. This season, they have only once attracted an attendance of greater than 8,000, for November’s 2-1 win against Dynamo Kyiv. For their final two league fixtures of 2018, they drew a combined crowd of fewer than 5,000 spectators.
From a financial perspective, this is not a problem. Shakhtar are owned by the richest man in Ukraine. He has bankrolled their ascendancy in the years since the country won its independence.
But dwindling attendances as they seek a following in their adopted home have been a blow to football in country that, as Ivanov laments, struggles to sustain an interest amongst its fans.
“Not many games gather more than one or two thousand in Ukraine,” says the general manager. “Shakhtar might get 30,000 for the Champions League, but nothing like that for a league game.”
We are meeting in the hospitality suite at Metalist Stadium. It’s a large, sprawling room, peppered with bare tables and a sparsely decorated Christmas tree in one corner.
Staff were supposed to have been preparing for a Champions League game here the following night against Lyon.
Instead, that game will take place in Kyiv, almost 500km from Kharkiv, after UEFA deemed the city unsafe in response to a state of martial law declared in parts of the country’s eastern and southern regions.
Ivanov, like the rest of the staff here at Metalist Stadium, thinks that call has been a mistake. Kharkiv is, after all, seemingly at peace tonight, with nothing noticeably disrupted about the city’s rhythms to suggest that the football could not have gone ahead as normal.
One rumour here is that Lyon put pressure on UEFA to switch the game. Certainly it is likely that Arsenal did likewise when their Europa League game against Vorskla two weeks previously was switched to Kyiv from Poltava, despite the new emergency laws not applying in the city.
An alternative is that the extra caution is a legacy of the last time UEFA said no to hosting games in Kharkiv – in the aftermath of flight MH17.
That year, Metalist were made to move their Europa League home fixtures out of the city, when the governing body banned games from taking place near the Donbas border following the crash.
The air disaster ruling affected Shakhtar, too.
Their preference had been to play their home games in Kharkiv as far back as 2014 when they were first forced out of Donetsk. Instead, they were made to play in the country’s far west in the city of Lviv where, owing to a fierce east-west cultural divide in Ukraine, they were largely shunned by local fans.
Just saw the Shakhtar team in Kiev. Due to political unrest they live in Kiev & play in Lviv, 600 miles from Donetsk pic.twitter.com/Dyb81IEbdW
— Conor McNamara (@ConorMcNamaraIE) October 19, 2015
They moved to Kharkiv in 2016 when UEFA softened it stance.
“Kharkiv is not really a part of the problem in east Ukraine,” says Taras Zhyvokorentsev, founder of a local initiative to promote integration between locals and refugees here.
“We don’t have the same feelings as there was among the people who declared the republics in Donetsk and Luhansk.
“There are many Russian speaking people here in Kharkiv, but there was never a will to break away, even in 2014 when the revolution happened.”
During those chaotic days when the major cities of Donbas fell into rebel hands, the Russian flag was briefly raised from the roof of the Kharkiv Oblast regional government building, and the Kharkiv People’s Republic was momentarily declared.
Local authorities quickly wrested back control, and Zhyvokorentsev is convinced that paid-up Russian influencers were responsible for this fleeting revolution.
“People were brought in to create trouble,” he says. “People spoke with Russian accents. They were not local people from Kharkiv.”
Shakhtar’s game against Lyon is a success, off the pitch at least. 39,000 gather inside Kyiv’s Olympiskiy Stadium as the most arctic snow falls; a reminder, if one was needed, of the Soviet heritage that survives in this city.
The game finishes 1-1, not enough to see Paulo Fonseca’s side into the last-16, but sufficient for a consolation place in the Europa League when the European season resumes in February.
According to sources inside the stadium, the team could have relocated permanently to the capital by then.
There is little to no hope of a return to the Donbas Arena. The stadium was badly damaged by shelling between government and rebel forces in 2014, and its main use during the four years of conflict to have followed has been as an aid centre for those affected by the fighting.
Russian media reported earlier this year that a new pitch has now been installed, suggesting that plans may be afoot for the facility to begin hosting football again. But it is unlikely to involve Shakhtar, or any other club affiliated with the Ukrainian football authorities.
A spokesman for the Kharkiv human rights charity KHPG said of the situation on the line of contact between Donbas and Ukrainian controlled territory: “We cannot get our monitors in there safely. The situation is too dangerous. Sometimes, you cannot even cross the border without an armed escort.
“We feel confident that Ukraine will be united again in the future. But will it be soon? It seems unlikely.”
By Robert O’Connor
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