Shakhtar Donetsk host Barcelona in the Champions League on Tuesday in the German city of Hamburg, the latest ‘home away from home’ for the side forced out of Ukraine after Russia’s invasion.
“For us, it is very important to show the whole world that Ukraine is alive and that nobody has managed to destroy us,” he said.
That Shakhtar is not only still playing but about to host one of the biggest clubs in the world is a testament to the resilience of the club and its fans and supporters.
– ‘Nobody thought about football’ –
Shakhtar were forced to leave their home ground, the Donbas Arena in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, after Russian-backed separatists seized control of the region in 2014.
The 50 000-seat stadium, opened with a concert by US singer Beyonce in 2009, had hosted the quarter and semifinals of Euro 2012, but has been largely unused in the decade since, with Shakhtar playing ‘home’ games in Lviv, Kharkiv and Kyiv.
Then came the full-scale Russian invasion of the country in February 2022.
“When the war started, nobody thought about football. The main idea was how to survive,” Palkin said.
After helping foreign players and staff leave Ukraine, Shakhtar turned their facilities into a shelter for those displaced by the war in the east of the country.
“After this, we thought about how we could re-launch – and to start to play again.
“Our goal was to send a proper message to all of Europe” Palkin said.
Shakhtar took their European fixtures to Poland in the 2022-23 season, but with Legia Warsaw qualifying for Europe in 2023-24, the Ukrainian club needed a new international home.
Enter Hamburg SV, better known as HSV, and its home ground – the 51 500-capacity Volksparkstadion.
– ‘Germany supports Ukraine, Hamburg supports Shakhtar’ –
Hamburg were European champions back in 1983 and are six-time German champions, but now sit in the second division.
With HSV last playing Champions League football in 2006-07, the time was ripe for the competition’s famous anthem to return.
“We analysed the situation and decided to jump to Germany and Hamburg… we contacted the club and were made very welcome,” said Palkin.
The Hamburg public also warmly welcomed the side, with a near-capacity crowd of 46 700 turning out for their opening tie against Porto in September, which Shakhtar lost 3-1.
The German Federal Office for Migration estimates that more than one million refugees have fled Ukraine for Germany since February 2022.
Shakhtar midfielder Georgiy Sudakov, 21, who scored in his side’s loss to Barcelona, told AFP: “We had great support in the game against Porto, I know they love football very much there (in Hamburg). I think we will see even more support playing Barcelona.”
Shakhtar veteran defender Taras Stepanenko told AFP the team had been welcomed by everyone “even the Hamburg Ultras.”
“Germany supports Ukraine, Hamburg supports Shakhtar. We saw the atmosphere at the stadium (against Porto), it was very cool.
“We can only express our gratitude.”
– ‘We will return’ –
Although football allows fans and players alike a means of escape, the realities of the war regularly lurch back into focus.
In September, goalkeeper Dmytro Riznyk lost his brother, Serhii, who died from wounds sustained from an exploding mine.
Stepanenko, at 34 a veteran and a leader in the dressing room, said “sometimes you hear that someone’s brother or father died while defending Ukraine.”
“Unfortunately the war takes the best men, young men, many soldiers and civilians have died.
“They are the real heroes for Ukraine and for their families. We will be grateful to them for the rest of our lives.”
Nobody knows how much longer war will continue to ravage Ukraine, but Palkin and the players often dream of returning to a sold-out Donbas Arena when the country is at peace again.
“Donetsk is our home and it is very difficult to leave your home,” Palkin said.
“This is our dream and we live for this dream.”
Stepanenko, who joined Shakhtar in 2010 and is one of the remaining players to have played on the Donbas grass, agrees.
“This dream is always with me. It is my dream, and I believe that it will come true because this is our city, this is our home, and we will definitely return there.”