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‘We are Ukrainians, we are ready for everything!’ - Shakhtar Donetsk make historic return to action in Athens

4:00 PM GMT+8 11/04/2022
Shakhtar Donetsk 2022
A friendly against Olympiacos marked the first time an elite team from Ukraine has played football since Russia's invasion of the country began

Shakhtar Donetsk are all too familiar with the feeling of losing a home. In 2014, Russian-led conflict in the east of Ukraine forced the club out of the Donbass Arena.

From there, they moved 1,200 kilometres (750 miles) west to Lviv before in 2020, setting up home in Ukraine's capital city, Kyiv.

But after Russia's latest offensive across the whole of the country, Shakhtar yet again find themselves homeless, but this time with the consequences far more severe.

From a footballing perspective, they have no teams to play against, the Ukrainian Premier League postponed indefinitely while war rages nation-wide.

From a personal point of view, players have been forced into bunkers, and watched as the towns and cities they call home are destroyed, perhaps not knowing if friends or family have escaped.

On Saturday, though, Shakhtar were able to provide a chink of light amid the darkness, as they returned to the pitch for the first time since mid-February, becoming the first major club from the country to do so since the war began.

Over 2,500km (1550 miles) from home in Athens, they took on Olympiacos in a friendly encounter, and though they were beaten 1-0 by a first-half Tiquinho header, the priority for all involved was to spread the message of peace.

“I’m always proud of the team,” Shakhtar's sporting director, Darijo Srna, who played a club-record 536 times for the Donetsk outfit in 15 years, said.

“The last training session they did was January 19. When I asked if they were ready to play on Saturday, they said: ‘Darijo, we are Ukrainians, we are ready for everything!’

“They had just one training session together yesterday, and they were playing together for the first time in their life - we took seven or eight players on loan from Mariupol.

“[Dmytro] Myshnyov, the captain of Mariupol, doesn’t have his house, his car, his apartment anymore - we brought him here to play for us, and today he is a symbol of Mariupol. We are really proud of that.”

Some 13,000 fans showed their support from the stands, despite the game being organised at short notice, with the €102,000 (£85k/$111k) raised through ticket sales donated to those suffering in Ukraine.

One section of the Karaiskaki Stadium was closed to fans, the seats instead filled with toys in a tribute to children killed since the Russian invasion.

On the pitch, players wore 'Stop War' slogans on the front of their shirts, with names of Ukrainian cities rather than their own names on the back.

"It’s the first time it’s happened, a team from Ukraine playing again. It’s a big symbol for us, for the world, and especially for Shakhtar,” Olympiacos manager, Pedro Martins, said.

“Since Tuesday, when our president asked if we can play in this game, we said ‘Yes, we want to. It’s important for the club, for the world’. It’s a big image we can transmit for everybody.

“We are suffering like them because just months ago, they were here like us, playing in the big tournaments - Shakhtar, Dynamo Kyiv, Dnipro… They are fantastic players, fantastic teams. 

“Football is so powerful. It sends a strong message to everybody. Today was the beginning; there will be more games like this and I hope as soon as possible that there will be official games for Ukrainian teams.”

Olympiacos owner Evangelos Marinakis has offered Shakhtar the chance to stay in Athens for two months, Srna revealed, providing the club with training facilities and accommodation.

The Ukrainian outfit have, though, got more games planned in both Europe and the United States, with all proceeds set to go towards supporting those who require urgent help and care back in their homeland.

“We all really appreciate [the welcome from Olympiacos],” Shakhtar winger Mykhaylo Mudryk said. “For the Olympiacos fans to support us, it’s really important to us, to Ukraine.

“The situation in our country is very difficult, and we all pray for peace and pray for our country. 

“Football is one of the best ways to help the world understand and remember again and again our situation. Now our mission is to remind people, and the whole world, about our situation.”

And so while Shakhtar have lost their home before, the yearning to return to Ukraine is no lesser than any other club, with the ultimate aim, of course, to be back playing their home games in Donetsk.

“You cannot find a team who has lost two homes in eight years,” Srna lamented.  “In 2014 we lost Donetsk, Donbass Arena, our fans, our city, our houses.

We moved to Kyiv, and after eight years we had war in Kyiv. I just ask for all the world to stop the war.

“It is not enough to just speak, we must help to stop aggression in Ukraine. We must do everything to stop it. Because Ukraine has not been in the war for 44 days, it has been in the war for eight years.

“We need the world to stand with us; to do something concrete, not just to speak.”