Football: Battling Shakhtar Donetsk inspiration to Ukrainians: CEO

The CEO of Shakhtar Donetsk, the Ukrainian powerhouse yearning to return to the home stadium they were forced out of in 2014, believes seeing their players in action lifts the spirits of those from their war-torn nation.

Serhii Palkin spoke to Kyodo News online as Shakhtar played a Dec. 18 charity match with J-League Cup winners Avispa Fukuoka at Tokyo's National Stadium, where over 600 Ukrainian evacuees were invited. The proceeds were directed toward the reconstruction of the Eastern European nation, ravaged by the ongoing war following Russia's February 2022 invasion.

Donetsk, in the eastern Ukraine region of Donbas, was occupied in 2014 by separatists supported by Russia shortly after Russia invaded and occupied Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

More than 18,000 watched as both teams entered the pitch draped in Ukrainian flags for the game arranged by Fukuoka's majority shareholder -- a real estate brokerage group that has been supporting the evacuees.

"Thanks a lot to all parties involved in this donation match," the 49-year-old Palkin said. "I would like to (say thank you on behalf of) Ukrainians to the Japanese population because they support Ukraine a lot in this very difficult time for us. It's very important to feel this support."

"They gave us this kind of proposition to have the match in December, and we accepted because it's very crucial when we realized that we can generate some money for buildings and apartments in Ukraine."

In 2011, Shakhtar provided financial aid following the Great East Japan Earthquake, and Palkin was happy to see the club foster stronger bonds with Japan.

"Our club donated to Japan $1 million to help support your country, and now you're supporting our country," he said. "When we stare danger in the face, we always should be like one team, and just when we are together, we can survive and we can win."

In 2014, Shakhtar fled their home stadium, Donbas Arena, moving first to the western city of Lviv and then to Kharkiv.

The 2022 invasion means a possible return is not getting any closer -- they have been hosting their Champions League and Europa League matches in Warsaw and Hamburg.

"You will not find a club with a history like we have because almost actually 10 years we stay out of our home, out of our hands," Palkin said. "For us, it's very difficult mentally to play always away, and we have a dream one day to return."

Despite the adversity, Shakhtar only narrowly missed out on a place in the Champions League knockout phase days before traveling to Japan. Palkin believes football has a big role to play as it remains a part of the locals' daily lives.

"When we're playing in the Champions League, especially when we are (playing), for example, Barcelona, this news is spread over Ukraine," he said. "It's very positive's like a breath of fresh air. It's a big inspiration."

And while playing friendly matches may carry less significance in sporting terms, Palkin underscored how vital it is to showcase Shakhtar's name globally amid his country's plight.

"The first of two main purposes of these friendly matches is to generate some money to support our Ukrainian refugees," he said.

"But the second, but not least, was to send a message to the whole world. What was going on in Ukraine today? Our message was to attract attention."

© Kyodo News