Fans sad at Shakhtar's exile from rebel Donetsk

AFP, Sunday 27 Jul 2014

Shakhtar Donetsk
Shakhtar Donetsk's fans support their team during the Champions League (Photo: Reuters)

The stadium is deserted, the merchandise shops are shuttered and last season's posters are still up.

Football club Shakhtar on Sunday kicks off the season far from its native Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, where fighting is raging between government forces and pro-Russian rebels.

For its first match, the title holder should be playing at home in the 50,000-seater Donbass Arena built for the Euro 2012 championships.

Instead it plays rivals Zaporozhie in the city of Lviv -- some 1,000 kilometres (621 miles) away in western Ukraine, seen as enemy territory by separatists in the east.

Shakhtar has been training in Kiev and has not set foot in the insurgent stronghold of Donetsk for weeks, as the Ukrainian army's siege on the city gets ever closer.

The club's training ground south of the city centre, a sprawling area that includes eight pitches and a development centre for young players, lies deserted.

Only staff looking after the site were at work behind cast iron railings as bombings echoed in the background.

"There's not been anyone for weeks but you have to look after the grass to make sure the pitches stay in a good state," said Konstantyn, who is in charge of maintenance.

"But until when? The fighting is getting closer and closer and more and more intense every day," he said.

Just a few hundred metres from the front entrance, the impact of a rocket landing could be seen on the road.

As the fighting crept nearer, six South American players last week refused to return to Ukraine following a friendly match in France.

"Everything is a mess," said Andrei, who is in charge of security at the Shakhtar training ground.

"The foreigners are scared, all the games will be away so the players will have to constantly travel and take the plane. It's a disaster for the club," he said.

'My club is in exile'

"I'm frustrated, angry and desperate about the situation. My city is at war and my club, which I have followed since I was a little boy, is in exile," 28-year-old Denis, once a Donbass Arena regular, said in a phone interview.

Like many of the club's most diehard supporters -- and a growing tide of local residents -- the fan has not been in his home city of some one million for a few weeks.

Shakhtar's official fan club has helped provide security for protests in support of Ukrainian unity -- with thousands marching last Tuesday in the western city of Lviv -- and its members are scared of reprisals from pro-Russia militants.

"I dream of seeing the army take back the city of Donetsk quickly so I can go home with my family and return to my stadium," said Denis, who has been sheltering from the violence in Kiev.

For the past several years -- ever since Shakhtar was bought by Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov -- the buzz around the club has only grown.

Shakhtar, whose name means "miner" in Ukrainian -- a reference to the city's rich coal-mining tradition, broke the domination of Dynamo Kiev.

The club, wearing orange and black colours, won its fifth title in a row last season -- bringing the total number of championship trophies to nine.

"I'm going to try and drive to Lviv to see them play but it's far away and so it's expensive even though I'm in Kiev," said Dima, another club member.

"We have to show the players we're behind them," he said.

The 23-year-old waxed lyrical about the "incredible atmosphere" at the Donbass Arena saying the chanting and the excitement were "without parallel in Ukraine".

"Donetsk without Shakhtar is not Donetsk!" he said.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports).

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