Shakhtar Donetsk began their Champions League campaign in style with a resounding and emotional 4-1 victory at RB Leipzig in Germany on matchday one. Yet their dressing room in the immediate aftermath fell eerily silent.
“You could hear a pin drop,” sporting director and former Croatia national team right-back Darijo Srna told CBS Sports. “There was no need for words. The silence was powerful because we all knew that we did something amazing not just for Shakhtar but for Ukraine.
“The win was more than just three points. We sent a message that we are strong in difficult moments. We showed that if we stick together we can beat anyone or anything in the world, on and off the football field. The point of the silent dressing room was to just sit for a moment and appreciate that.
“Then the coach [Igor Jovicevic] broke the silence and said, ‘Thank you so much, I love you all.’ Then suddenly Igor was crying, a couple of players were crying. This kind of emotion and victory, it’s something you can’t buy. It comes from being family.”
In beating Leipzig, Shakhtar became the first Ukrainian side to compete in the Champions League since the war in Ukraine started. Former Celtic winger Marian Shved got a brace with talented winger Mykhaylo Mudryk and ex-Ajax forward Lassina Traore also scoring.
Traore is the only non-Ukrainian from last season left at Shakhtar. The Burkina Faso international posted on Instagram that it “doesn’t feel right” leaving after the club helped him through nine months of rehabilitation following a nasty knee injury.
Shakhtar’s win was even more impressive considering their domestic league only resumed on Aug. 23 meaning Leipzig had played almost a month more of competitive football, starting in July with their 5-3 DFL Supercup loss to Bayern Munich.
Three weeks ago, Shakhtar returned to Kyiv’s Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex for the first time since February in a 0-0 draw with Metalist 1925. No supporters were allowed inside the 70,000-capacity stadium as a safety precaution.
That’s what made interactions with fans in Germany – some of them Ukrainian refugees – so special. It was a chance for the players to see first-hand the joy and hope football can bring.
“It was a really powerful win,” said 21-year-old Mudryk, who scored his first Champions League goal against Leipzig. “We have a lot of young and hungry players. We were all a bit surprised to beat Leipzig. Our spirits were so high and our coach and staff are always pushing us to do more.
“It’s been difficult for us as players, especially when football was suspended in Ukraine. Now it’s a little easier and our mission is to put a smile on the faces of the people of Ukraine.
“It meant a lot for me to score in the Champions League. I already had goosebumps after hearing the anthem. It was 76th minute and a counterattack. And my friend, Heorhiy Sudakov, played a pass as sweet as candy. All I had to do was put the ball in the back of the net. I had practiced and dreamed of this moment a lot of times. I was ready to score.
“I also got two assists, so it was perhaps the best performance of my career, especially because the Champions League is the highest standard of football in the world. Now let’s see if we can do it again against Celtic.”
Celtic is a cup final
Shakhtar are forced to play their Champions League fixtures outside of Ukraine. Their “home” matches will be staged at Legia Warsaw’s 31,800-capacity Polish Army Stadium after consultation with UEFA.
“Poland showed that they are the brother of Ukraine,” said Srna. “They have received a lot of Ukrainian citizens and now they host Shakhtar, too. The Legia Warsaw president said we are always welcome to play Champions League football in Warsaw and we will never forget that.”
There is a large Ukrainian community in Poland – 3.3 million to be exact, which accounts for 8% of the total population – with over 30,000 expected for the visit of Celtic. It’s a game Shakhtar view as a cup final.
“We already played a sensational first game, which is even more incredible considering eight players from the starting line-up came from our academy,” said Srna, who won 134 caps for Croatia. “And for me that wasn’t an accident. If we won 2-1 there might be some luck involved, but 4-1 was a fully deserved victory. And now we go to Warsaw to play Celtic and know there will be lots of Ukrainian people there.
“I can promise all Ukrainian citizens and football fans that Shakhtar will give more than 100 percent and make the game against a Celtic like a cup final. If we beat Celtic we have a big chance to enter the knockout round. And that’s the dream and with this team. I think we have a good chance, but let’s go step by step.”
Shakhtar clearly aren’t fazed by playing in Poland. In fact, they are well used to being displaced, having been without a home since 2014. Eight years ago, close to 20,000 Shakhtar ultras celebrated a fifth straight championship in Donetsk’s Donbass Arena (a venue that staged the Euro 2012 quarterfinal between eventual champions Spain and France).
Future Bayern and Juventus winger Douglas Costa was on the scoresheet in a 3-1 victory over Illichivets Mariupol (now known as FC Mauripol). Yet two days later, as the players proudly celebrated, the flag of the breakaway, Russia backed, Donetsk People’s Republic was raised over the city’s police headquarters. Donetsk, along with neighboring Luhansk in the Donbass region and the annexed Crimean peninsula were the focal point of hostilities with Russia in 2014 which forced Shakhtar to leave their home and relocate 1,000 miles west to Lviv.
“Our dream is to go home to Donbass,” said Srna, who played over 536 times for Shakhtar before a brief stint as an assistant manager prior to being appointed sporting director in 2020. “We are a team without address for the past eight years. And Shakhtar was, is and will always be from Donestk. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand why we can’t go home and you want to cry.”
Since February, the war in Ukraine has caused further turmoil for the club with Italian manager Roberto De Zerbi leaving in July along with a raft of foreign stars including forward David Neres, who was part of a video of Brazilian footballers pleading for help to leave the country.
But under new Croatian manager Igor Jovicevic Shakhtar are hoping for a Champions League fairy tale.
“The game against Celtic is a big opportunity,” said Mudryk, who has won five caps for Ukraine, making his debut and scoring in a friendly win over Mönchengladbach back in May. “We will do our best. And if we qualify it will be a small win in my life and a small win for Shakhtar. Then a big win will be for all Ukrainian people to be happy and not at war. One day we hope to come back to Donetsk and celebrate that in the Donbass Arena.
“We are in a really difficult group and we also have to play Real Madrid, who we always seem to draw” added Srna, who is close friends with fellow Croat Luka Modric. “Celtic recently beat Rangers 4-0, which shows their quality. But they must also respect Shakhtar. If we lose, we’ll do so playing attacking football. We showed our style and mentality against Leipzig. But remember we have a lot of young players and I don’t want to put pressure on them. They must just go out on the pitch and play their game and enjoy their football.”
Shakhtar playing and fundraising for Ukraine
In addition to targeting the last 16, Shakhtar are also hoping to fundraise directly via Champions League games.
They have already played a series of charity matches, including in April against Polish club Lechia Gdansk when 12-year-old Ukrainian refugee, Dmytro Keda, came off the bench to score the winner. Shakhtar also plan to stage a game in London soon.
“We have been working on showing solidarity to the people of Ukraine for several months and the charity games are a part of that,” said Srna. “It really all starts with our president, Rinat Akthmetov, who loves to help people. He chose to stay in Ukraine during the war to be with his people. And he donated around €2 million euros to help the Ukrainian Premier League survive. I am so proud to be working with him.”
Shakhtar had also hoped to use the Champions League to raise funds during games. They pitched a novel idea to UEFA where they would wear a QR code in place of their front-of-shirt sponsor allowing people to scan and buy a virtual plot of land in their Donbass Arena with funds going directly to the National Bank of Ukraine as part of a partnership with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s charity UNITED24. UEFA rules prevented the idea from becoming a reality but talks are ongoing as to how to use the power of football to help victims of the war in Ukraine.
“President Zelenskyy is a football fan and was so happy after our victory against Leipzig,” said Srna. “We are playing for Ukraine and want to keep sending positive emotions back to the country during these difficult times.”
Shakhtar rebuilding with youth
With the transfer window in Ukraine shutting on 22 September, Srna remains pretty busy. His job as sporting director hasn’t been easy. Foreign footballers are naturally cautious about coming to Ukraine and the nine-month suspension of the league also stagnated the domestic market.
But Ukrainian winger Shved has joined from KV Mechelen and already made an impact. 22-year-old Croatian midfielder Neven Durasek (Dinamo Zagreb) and Brazilian right-back Lucas Taylor (PAOK, loan) are two other important signings. Taylor was the only non-Ukrainian starter against Leipzig.
“The job has been challenging,” admitted Srna. “We lost a lot of foreign players and all our Italian staff, including the previous coach, Roberto De Zebri. It was a shock when he left. But now we are rebuilding with a lot of young Ukrainian talent. And I think we showed our potential by beating Leipzig.”
Keeping the ‘Ukrainian Neymar’ is key
Surely the biggest ‘signing’ of the summer was keeping hold of star winger Mudryk, who is viewed as integral to Shakhtar’s chances of winning a 14th Ukrainian Premier League title. He is often dubbed the ‘Ukrainian Neymar’ although it’s not a nickname the 21-year-old approves of.
“It’s not the Ukrainian Neymar. It’s Ukrainian Mudryk. This sounds better,” said Mudryk, who is inspired by Cristiano Ronaldo’s work ethic. “I think the nickname and the comparison with Neymar is a big compliment. But I am my own player. I work hard every day. My vision hasn’t changed. I need to keep improving my individual game and working hard if I want to earn that praise and be compared to top players.”
Shakhtar rejected a €30 million offer from Everton in August and Arsenal and Brentford also enquired about the talented 21-year-old. All three clubs could yet renew their interest in January.
“We received an offer of €30 million [from Everton]. And when our president doesn’t sell a player for €30million, especially in such difficult times, he is sending a message to everyone that he wants to progress in the Champions League and to win the championship.
“Mudryk is a serious talent. After Kylian Mbappe and Vinicius Jr, he’s the best player in Europe in his position. If someone wants to buy Mudryk they must spend a lot, a lot, a lot of money and respect our club and our president.”
Mudryk himself is now focused on helping Shakhtar qualify for the Champions League last 16. But he admits if Arsenal come calling in January it will be a hard to refuse.
“Arsenal is a very good team with very good coach and I like the way they play” revealed Mudryk, whose international teammate Oleksandr Zinchenko is already at the Emirates Stadium. “From my side, I can’t say no [to Arsenal] but the transfer is not only my decision. It’s a lot of people, like the president of Shakhtar and the club.
“Every guy dreams about the Premier League. It’s a top league and everyone wants to play in it. But the speculation has passed and I must move forward and focus on Shakhtar and in winter we will see what will happen.
“There was a lot of discussions about a transfer and clubs who want me, but it’s normal. Now I am at Shakhtar and I want to play in this team. I love this team. I love every guy in this team. Shakhtar for me is home, but I want to always improve myself and achieve new goals. Now, all my thoughts are only about Shakhtar but in the winter we will see.”
Watching Mudryk knee-slide to celebrate his goal against Leipzig with his fists clenched and his eyes about to pop out with joy, it was clear what his first ever Champions League goal meant.
And for now, Mudryk is intent on leading Shakhtar out their group and in doing so ensure Champions League football continues into 2023. That could yet be key in keeping him at the club beyond January, too. But regardless of whether he stays or go a part of him will always be playing for his country.
“Mudryk’s heart will always be with Ukraine,” smiled Srna. “He is with all Ukrainian citizens. You could see this in his face after scoring his goal against Leipzig. Just look at him, and all the emotion he carries, and you will understand everything.
“And it’s the same for all of us. We are playing every game for Ukraine. I can promise that we will always give 100 percent for Ukraine, for Ukrainian citizens, for the Ukrainian President and for the Ukrainian army. The fact we can help bring pride, hope and comfort in this difficult time, I think shows the incredible power of football.”
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Champions League: Shakhtar Donetsk ‘playing for Ukraine’ as Mykhaylo Mudryk eyes possible Arsenal move
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