On Tuesday night, Shakhtar Donetsk began their Champions League season 1,500 miles away from home.
Each year these European residencies take them further away. Shakhtar have not played in their own stadium, the Donbass Arena, since 2014. They have travelled through Lviv, Kharkiv, and Kyiv. Last year, they staged their Champions League games in Warsaw, the Polish capital. This time it is Hamburg, in the north of Germany, where they have taken a tenancy at the Volksparkstadion. Royal Antwerp and Barcelona will be visitors in November, but their first night at their latest new home ended in a 3-1 defeat to Porto.
Hamburg is not a random point on the map; there is a good reason why Shakhtar are here. Since the Russian invasion began in February 2022, more than a million Ukrainians have moved to Germany, more than any other country in Europe, and as many as 80,000 are thought to have settled in Hamburg.
The city has also been starved of recent footballing success. Both its clubs, Hamburger SV and St.Pauli, currently play in the 2.Bundesliga, and Hamburg’s home has not hosted a Champions League game since 2006. HSV have not played a European fixture of any kind there since a 2010 Europa League semi-final defeat to Fulham and are not likely to host another any time soon.
It explains the great appetite for tickets. Within five days of going on sale, 23,000 had been sold. By the time the game kicked off, there were over 47,000 supporters in the ground. For the Shakhtar fans, it was a chance to reach out and touch something that has been taken away. For a few of the locals, buying a ticket was a gesture of support. For many others, it was simply the recognition that a Tuesday night with football is better than one without — especially in Germany, where midweek domestic games are a rarity.
For all sorts of reasons, this was an unusual moment. But whatever its precise chemistry may have been, Hamburg and Shakhtar look happy enough to have each other.
There is no single account about what life is like for those have been displaced to Germany. Some people are happy. Some are contemplating staying once the war is over. Some will leave the moment that becomes viable. There are good stories about how welcome refugees have been made to feel. It depends on who you talk to.
Yevgen Block’s tale is extremely human.
He was born in Donetsk and he grew up a Shakhtar fan. His parents left when war came to the Donbass Region in 2014, and he moved, initially to Kyiv. In 2022 he joined his mother and father in Essen, in Germany’s Ruhr Valley.
“Before the invasion, I didn’t have any plans to move. When it started, I stayed in Kyiv for some time, hoping it would be over soon. Then I realised… well, it was obvious that it was going to last for a long time.”
Yevgen is a lawyer. He works remotely for a Kyiv firm and so that part of his life has been allowed to continue. But socially, nothing is the same. Some of his friends remain in Kyiv, but many others have been scattered around the world. “Some of them left for the USA. Some moved to Great Britain. One is actually in Italy.”
But none of them are in Germany. “Unfortunately, I spend most of the time on my own or just with family.”
He talks also of the difficulties in assimilating. He intends to return to Ukraine once the war is over, whenever that may be, and that is partly because requalifying to practise German law would require him to master a new language and spend as much as another five to ten years studying. Paperwork might be close to a national sport in Germany, but he also says that he has spoken to Ukrainians who are thinking of staying and who have found the transition easier.
“I know some people here who were mechanics in Ukraine. They say that they have settled quite easily, because fixing a car in Ukraine and fixing a car in Germany are the same. The car is the same. The tools are the same. They’re happy. They have better living conditions and better salaries.”
Some people will only speak on the condition of anonymity. In some cases, that is because they worry their families, many of whom remain in Ukraine, will suffer a negative response from them not having returned to the front to fight.
Oleg asks for his name to be changed. He lives in Hamburg, but outside the city. He is part of a small community of Ukrainians who have little in common beyond the circumstances.
“It’s like a club,” he says. “I feel lonely. They feel lonely. And from time to time we just gather together.”
For people like Oleg, Shakhtar are unable to provide much support. Ukrainian football is not shown on German television, nor is it available on any of the country’s legal streaming services. In effect, he has been cut off from his team, as well as his friends, and much of what he finds familiar. No wonder, then, that Shakhtar’s games — and those of the Ukrainian national team — have become such powerful occasions.
Powerful but still strange. Shakthar’s most ardent supporters are still in Ukraine. Many are fighting on the front lines. Hamburg’s ultras are not in the stadium either, at least not where they usually are, packed on the Nordkurve, with all their flags and fire.
It means that the atmosphere is neither typically German nor Ukrainian. But it is enthusiastic and, at times, really quite partisan. Porto scored early and threatened to drain the energy from the night, but then Shakhtar equalised after a flowing move and a planted header from Kevin Kelsy, and suddenly everyone was invested again. There are Ukraine and Shakhtar shirts all over the stadium and there are Ukrainian flags in most of the rows. It rubs off. The locals have paid their money, bought their tickets and — a few beers in — are happy to put their back into it.
When Porto retake the lead and Wanderson Galeno celebrates his second goal of the night a little too forcefully, the whistles are close to deafening and a few of the locals are on their feet in the aisles, shaking their fists. For the rest of the night, they will scream for fouls and howl for penalties.
Those flags are everywhere — they are wrapped around waists, draped over shoulders, held aloft in the air — and they symbolise the fact that this is not a night for neutrality.
This is not one of the Shakhtar teams of old. Much of the talent has already been snatched away. Six of the eleven players who start the game are 24 or younger. That inexperience shows — in loose touches, overhit passes and unmarked attacking players. Domestic Ukrainian football is still being played in stadiums which are practically empty, so little surges of adrenaline are forgivable given the complication of going between two very different atmospheres.
Thirteen days before this game, goalkeeper Dmytro Riznyk’s brother, Serhii, died from wounds that were the result of an exploding mine.”You raised me. You were always my support. I love you, sleep well. Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” Dmytro wrote on Instagram.
On Tuesday night, in front of the world, he started a Champions League game.
Oleksandr Ovcharenko missed the Porto game, but hopes to be in Hamburg to see his side face Barcelona. He is originally from Donetsk but was forced to leave in 2014 and move to Lviv. For the last two years, he has been living in Mannheim, which is just south of Frankfurt, and not far from the French-German border.
“My mother still lives in Donetsk now and it’s occupied by Russia”, he tells The Athletic. “We talk on the phone but it is really hard for me to hear about what is happening in Ukraine now.
“Football has played a very important role for the country. People sometimes need to take their minds off the war and it helps with that.”
Sport as a distraction is nothing new. But Oleksandr describes just how heavy the burden that these players are carrying really is.
“I expect dedication from my team, as they represent the Ukrainian people, who are going through a very difficult time. Just as the military are now defending our country at war, Shakhtar’s players are defending the honour of Ukraine on the pitch.”
“They are telling the whole world about the war in Ukraine. About how every day peaceful people and children are being killed.”
Winning is not that important, but playing clearly is. Ultimately, Porto are too good, but that superiority never changes the mood at the Volksparkstadion. For much of the second half, Shakhtar chased a 3-1 deficit without ever looking likely to narrow it. They snapped into tackles, sprayed their passes and showed flashes of skill befitting a national champion, but Porto held them at arm’s length and reminded everyone watching of why they are in this competition too.
The atmosphere lacked ferocity, but then any kind of edge would have been absurd. There are Mexican Waves and selfies and away fans sitting peacefully among the home supporters too, and the occasion had that ambience of a game in which the score does not matter. Periodically, whenever the action lulled, phone torches started to illuminate in the stands. One by one at first, and then by the dozen until — eventually — every side of the ground was quietly lit by sharp specks of white light.
It happened three or four times. And when it did, and when even the Porto fans were taking part, everybody knew what was happening and what everyone was thinking of.
And the game carried on down below. Because it had to.
(Photo: AXEL HEIMKEN/AFP via Getty Images)