‘Victory for Ukraine’: Shakhtar Donetsk unlikely to win Europa League | Ukraine

Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk have not played in their hometown since 2014. The underground parking lot at their ground in Donbass is being used by the Russians to store weapons. They have faced an exodus of foreign star players, including the sale of winger Mykhailo Mudryk to Chelsea last month.

But in a David and Goliath victory over French side Rennes, Shakhtar Donetsk opened the way to the round of 16 of the Europa League.

After a 5-4 victory, boosted by three saves by Shakhtar Donetsk goalkeeper Anatolii Trubin in the penalty shootout, the team will now play in the quarterfinals in Poland and could face world-class clubs like Arsenal and Roma.

Shakhtar Donetsk coach Igor Jovicevic hailed the victory, which comes on the first anniversary of the Russian invasion, as a “victory for Ukraine”.

“It was very important. This match was for you, Ukraine, it was for our country, for Ukraine,” said Jovicevic. “We were in the game until the end. It could almost be said that we died on the field, that we left our arms and legs there. This victory is a reward for our work.”

Shakhtar Donetsk fans celebrate their team’s victory after the UEFA Europa League playoff. Photography: Yoan Valat/EPA

Shakhtar Donetsk have not played in Donetsk since April 2014, when conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass and Luhansk regions forced the team to host league matches “at home” in Lviv, 1,200 kilometers away . Its European matches are played on a neutral ground in Warsaw.

“Psychologically, it can destroy you,” Jovicevic told ESPN last year. “After the game, we have a 10-hour drive home. For other teams it’s rest, they can go to the jacuzzi, get a massage, go to the barbecue with the family. No other team in Europe has to do this like we do – we’re traveling all the time so there’s a real buildup of mental and physical fatigue.

“It’s unrealistic what we had to do. We train, then we think of shelters and bunkers, our troops fighting for us. And then we have to think about Leipzig.”

Shakhtar Donetsk’s stadium, Donbas Arena, has been abandoned since 2014. Donbas has been under martial law since 2022 and is in ruins today, with much of its pre-war population of 920,000 seeking refuge in western Ukraine, Poland, Moldova and Romania.

Even when Chelsea signed Mudryk in January, the war effort came first for the proud club. Club President Rinat Akhmetov donated $25 million of the $105 million fee to “Heart of Azovstal”, a project aimed at helping the families of fallen soldiers in Ukraine.

“I am allocating $25 million today to help our soldiers, defenders and their families,” said Akhmetov. “The money will be used to cover different needs, from medical and prosthetic treatment and psychological support to meeting specific requests. We are forever grateful to our soldiers!”

Shakhtar Donetsk now goes to the rarefied air of the round of 16 of the Europa League.

“I respect my players, I’m proud of them,” said Jovicevic. “It is my dream that my team can one day play in a stadium full of fans. The next round now gives us the opportunity to see them again, they give us strength.

“Without the European competition, we would not go to Warsaw. Personally speaking, if we had been knocked out tonight, I wouldn’t have seen my family until at least June,” said the emotional coach. “It is already a very difficult situation to live at the pace of bombings, of sirens. We have to think about tactics, but above all we want to wake up alive in the morning.”

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