It was around 5.30am on a cold February morning when Taras Stepanenko’s greatest fears became reality. Shakhtar Donetsk’s captain rolled over and thought he had overslept, such was the brightness outside.
The sun was yet to rise in this Kyiv suburb but the skyline was illuminated by missiles and bombs. Stepanenko’s homeland – and with it his freedom and humanity – was under siege.
‘We woke up to the sound of war with explosions nearby,’ he tells Sportsmail, stuttering around the heartbreaking detail. ‘My wife, Margarita, told me the war had started but I said, ‘No, it cannot be possible… it must be a power-plant explosion’.
‘Nobody really thought full-scale war could happen. Nobody knew what to do. Those first days were awful. Everyone was scared for their life.’
Stepanenko, 33, has three sons – five, eight and nine years old – and feared for their safety. ‘From the first minutes of the invasion, we had to be prepared. You don’t have time to think, you just need to move,’ he says. ‘I was scared for (my sons’) lives.’
Shakhtar Donetsk’s squad train in Warsaw on the eve of their Europa League game with Rennes
The team are playing ‘home’ European matches some 937 miles away from their actual home
Shakhtar captain Taras Stepanenko described how he escaped Kyiv following the invasion
The first days were spent hiding in the Kyiv countryside, in his house atop a hill which was one of three routes of invasion by Vladimir Putin’s troops.
The Ukraine international, who has 73 caps, hid in his basement with a baseball bat – alongside his neighbour, armed with a rifle – and waited for the Russians.
‘I thought they would come to my house. But luckily our soldiers stopped them so they couldn’t move. It bought us time.’
Stepanenko and his family fled Kyiv to the safer city of Chernivtsi. He is keen to say ‘safer’, rather than ‘safe’. Nowhere in Ukraine is safe.
He has since lived in Moldova and Romania, while his family have now settled in Spain.
‘When you have to leave your home, your friends and parents… every day I read about houses being destroyed,’ he says.
‘Some days we cry all day. Some days we don’t have any emotions, some days it’s numb, awful and stressful.’
Shakhtar produced some brilliant displays in this season’s Champions League but were eliminated from their group
Shakhtar’s players celebrate their 4-1 win over RB Leipzig in the Champions League
As the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion approaches, Sportsmail meets several Shakhtar players in Warsaw, Poland.
They are here for a ‘home’ match, 937 miles north-west of Donetsk, against French side Rennes. Shakhtar had been in exile from their home city since war broke out in the Donbas region in 2014, since playing in Lviv, Kharkiv and Kyiv.
‘It is much harder for our soldiers than for us,’ says Oleksandr Zubkov, the midfielder who scored against Real Madrid this season.
‘We want to continue our fairytale in the Europa League. When we play, we fight for each other and fight for Ukraine.’
Manager Igor Jovicevic adds: ‘My players and I understand we are playing for the Ukraine people. We want to make them proud, from deep in our hearts. They make us proud, fighting for our freedom.’
Defender Viktor Kornienko helped the soldiers and posted a picture of himself in army gear, writing: ‘I am helping the armed forces so we can destroy the Russian f***ers. Glory to Ukraine!’
Shakhtar’s Viktor Kornienko has helped Ukraine’s armed forces in their fight against Russia
There has been widespread devastation in the Donetsk region on the frontline of the war
A Ukrainian serviceman fires mortars towards Russian positions near Bakhmut this week
Football slowly restarted in the war-torn nation, with matches played behind closed doors amid the backdrop of war.
‘In the first few months, I did not think about football once,’ recalls Stepanenko. ‘It was all not real. My only priority was to stay safe and try to visit my relatives.
‘After four months we started to play charity matches and I played a World Cup play-off for Ukraine (the loss to Scotland).
‘We eventually had to come back to… if I can say this… normal. When the Ukrainian league returned, we played in Lviv.
‘We were playing and heard an air-raid alarm so we ran to the basement! This happened three times. One match we ran to the bomb shelter and stayed for two hours. Then we came back and played the second half!
‘When you are playing football, you don’t think about the war. But you can’t escape it. You always hear noises, the war is always there.
‘I speak to my parents (who are still in Kyiv) and sometimes I hear explosions. Two or three times a month, Russia launches missiles on Kyiv.’
Shakhtar coach Igor Jovicevic addresses the media on the eve of the game with Rennes
Ukraine’s players and staff feel they are carrying the hopes of their nation in the Europa League
On the pitch, Shakhtar have been decimated in the last year and are taking FIFA to the Swiss Federal Court to argue a ruling which allowed all of Shakhtar’s non-Ukrainian players to leave on free transfers.
Roberto De Zerbi, now Brighton manager, slept on a floor in a team hotel in the first days of the invasion and did not return to Italy until all of his players and families had safely fled Ukraine.
His successor, Jovicevic, was managing Dnipro – a city by the Dnieper river in the centre of Ukraine which the Russians have heavily targeted. He drove 60 hours from there to his homeland of Zagreb.
When the Real Madrid academy graduate got the call to take over at 13-time Ukrainian Premier League winners Shakhtar, he found a team without a spine, as 15 players left for free.
Shakhtar, which translates as ‘miners’, needed to completely rebuild.
CEO Sergei Palkin claims the club lost a generation of talent for free. It is understood Shakhtar valued Manor Solomon, who joined Fulham on a free transfer, at just under £20million.
‘We invested money and we bought these players before the war,’ explains Palkin. ‘From one side we lose investment, and I still need to pay all the debts to clubs who sold us the players.’
Former Shakhtar star Mykhailo Mudryk (middle) left to join Chelsea in January for £88m
Incoming signings are hindered by the war, with fans worried about on-the-pitch hopes after the sale of talisman Mykhaylo Mudryk, who joined Chelsea for big money in January.
Rennes is the club’s first competitive fixture since November 19, and the club spent time at a training camp in Belek, Turkey.
Shakhtar have invited young children Mykyta and Illia Kalimbet to the match in Warsaw. The children’s house was shelled by Russian troops and their mother was killed.
Jovicevic ended his interview by unpromptedly dedicating the match to the two boys and said Shakhtar will fight on behalf of all Ukrainians.
Source of data and images: dailymail
The post Shakhtar Donetsk Europa League campaign offering Ukraine hope amid Russia invasion first appeared on Elrisala.
It was around 5.30am on a cold February morning when Taras Stepanenko’s greatest fears became reality. Shakhtar Donetsk’s captain rolled over and thought he had overslept, such was the brightness outside. The sun was yet to rise in this Kyiv suburb but the skyline was illuminated by missiles and bombs. Stepanenko’s homeland – and with …
The post Shakhtar Donetsk Europa League campaign offering Ukraine hope amid Russia invasion first appeared on Elrisala. Sports – Elrisala