“Agents are telling clubs, ‘Don’t pay Shakhtar, the players will become free, just pay me'”

In the reception area of a plush central London hotel, Sergei Palkin, the chief executive of the Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk, puffs out his cheeks and smiles wryly.

How, he has been asked, do you run a football club when your country is in the midst of a brutal and bloody war?

“I am telling you, this war has shown a lot of problems in the football world,” Palkin begins. “Everybody is trying to use this situation. Who is trying the most? Agents.”

There will be more on agents and their role in a simmering feud between Ukrainian clubs and football’s governing body FIFA to come. First, though, Palkin recounts some dealings with clubs across Europe in recent months.

“There are people who go around saying ‘I support Ukraine’ but then finally you say ‘OK, show us that you support Ukraine’, and they don’t want to support,” he says. “We have one European club — a well-known club — we have a contract with them that includes a clause which means they must play us in a friendly game or they are obliged pay us €300,000. We didn’t play this game, despite trying many times (previously) to organise it. When the war started, we said to them, ‘Look, we’ve not played the friendly, we don’t need the money as a club, so please donate this money to Ukrainian refugees’. They have not paid it. This club has money — big money. This is an example.

“Here’s another case. There is a player we tried to buy. We wanted to do it in instalments and we issued guarantees, because at the moment it is difficult but we said we will pay everything in a year’s time. This club then provided to me a list of requirements so long that I looked at this list and just thought, ‘Honestly, forget it’. This was since the invasion.

“Therefore, when people are trying to get hype for their work supporting Ukraine, I don’t pay very much attention. There are clubs who have genuinely really helped. We played some friendly matches to generate money. Some clubs responded at the click of the finger, such as Olympiakos, who enabled us to buy 1500 medical boxes for the army. Benfica sent a huge amount of humanitarian aid. We watched what happened in different leagues. It was a big mental support to see Liverpool or Bundesliga clubs with our flag raised. It was like a shot of adrenaline. It means we are united and we really feel Europe and America supports us. If you feel alone, you do not see any exit and how to survive the situation.”

On February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine and not even a football industry that sometimes seems to operate in an alternative universe was shielded from the stark realities. The Ukrainian Premier League was suspended, before being terminated altogether on April 27. The finishing places were decided according to the standings at the point of suspension. Shakhtar were, at that point, two points ahead of Dynamo Kyiv, but nobody was awarded a league title.


Shakhtar were top of the Ukrainian Premier League before the season was halted in February (Photo: Getty)

Frankly, everyone had bigger things to worry about; most crucially ensuring the safe passage of foreign players out of a war-torn country and, for Ukrainian staff, attempting to move their friends and family to relatively secure locations. Palkin, for example, needed to move family members from the east of Ukraine, where Russian forces were shelling indiscriminately. His day job, too, came with great responsibility as a cohort of over 50 players and staff sheltered in a hotel owned by the club’s owner Rinat Akhmetov for several days, before a logistical escape plan was hatched with the support of UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin. In the following weeks, Shakhtar evacuated 85 minors into Croatia from the club’s academy, in coordination with the Ukrainian Football Federation, state police and border control service. Croatian club Hajduk Split have assisted with training pitches and living quarters.

Now, Ukraine is entering the fifth month of war and its football clubs are wondering quite how they will exist over the next season. Shakhtar are one of five Ukrainian clubs slated to compete in European competition next season. They will go directly into the Champions League group stage, while second-placed Dynamo Kyiv will enter the second qualifying round. Dnipro-1 will enter the Europa League play-off round, while both Zorya Luhansk and Vorskla Poltava will compete in the Europa Conference League. The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, has told clubs the domestic championship should return and the central government would like it to be played in Ukraine, but discussions are ongoing.

Over an absorbing hour of conversation, Palkin is prepared to discuss some of European football’s polemical issues, most notably the European Super League and the growing scrutiny of clubs linked to nation-states. In between, he emotionally describes how a Ukrainian child orphan, six-year-old Ilia, captured the hearts of Shakhtar community coaches and last week had a hand-written letter delivered to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. His professional priority, meanwhile, is to set out his club’s radical vision as to how Ukrainian football can restart, but also divulging how agents have encouraged rival clubs abroad to bypass Ukrainian clubs for their players and, in turn, sought to secure hefty cuts for themselves.


For almost a decade, Shakhtar Donetsk have been a club on the move. In 2014, when Russian forces annexed Crimea and began a war in the Donbas region, the club’s Donbass Arena stadium was damaged by two explosions. Since then, as fighting continued, Shakhtar have played, at various points, in the west in Lviv, the east in Kharkiv and more recently in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. The club’s dominance under the ownership of Rinat Akhmetov (widely billed as the richest man in Ukraine) means Shakhtar have still managed to win five Ukrainian titles since being uprooted from their home.

“We have been successful in results, recruitment, scouting and generating income, even in difficult situations,” explains Palkin. “We left Donetsk in 2014 and then we had COVID-19. We have played all over Ukraine. We thought this would be the worst of times and that we had hit the bottom. Now we have gone deeper than the bottom. Every day, we live in survival mode.”

The mission of survival has become more challenging in recent days. When Palkin met The Athletic for an interview last Friday, conversation turned to the transfer market and the behaviour of agents. Considering Shakhtar are in the Champions League next season, what kind of team can we expect to see in the competition?

“This summer, it has changed completely,” Palkin says. “Today, we currently are not buying players. We are in a position to sell. What can we offer foreign players at this moment? We play in the Champions League but it is unclear where we play. If we play (the league) abroad, we can keep some players here. If not, no chance. Nobody will come and play the domestic league in Ukraine.”

How many players will go? “It depends on the market. First of all, I think 95 per cent of Ukrainian players we will keep. Foreigners, I do not know yet. There are difficult negotiations. Some agents are destroying us. They are trying to steal players. They play games, contacting clubs, saying don’t pay us (Shakhtar) and deals are being broken. You cannot imagine what is going on.”

He expands: “Agents are arriving to clubs and saying, ‘Don’t pay Shakhtar, the players will become free, just pay me (the agent) €10m and forget about the club’.”

He appeared to be suggesting that agents are making an argument that contracts for foreign players would be effectively ripped up due to the war, meaning that Ukrainian clubs would lose the ability to sell the players and instead agents could take the players elsewhere and secure huge commissions.

Between the war breaking out in February and the end of the season, temporary regulations had been imposed by FIFA that allowed foreign players registered to Ukrainian clubs to play elsewhere, such as the Shakhtar forward Tete, who joined Lyon on loan until the end of the season. The clubs had held talks over a permanent transfer this summer but had so far been unable to reach agreement for the 22-year-old Brazilian.

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Brazilian winger Tete left Shakhtar for Lyon in March (Photo: Getty)

Speaking on Friday, Palkin said: “Some agents anticipated that FIFA will issue some declaration to see that all foreign players in Ukraine are free (agents). It is not possible. They are trying to manipulate the situation. FIFA are due to issue their position on this and I hope it will help Ukrainian football. If it will not help Ukrainian football it will be catastrophic, and for FIFA it will be shameful. The president of our federation contacted FIFA president Gianni Infantino and I believe the decision will be clever and support Ukrainian football. Sometimes FIFA just pay attention to the players but our football structurally has problems because of this war. At this point, the clubs need support.”

A FIFA statement did arrive on Tuesday and it did not go well for Ukrainian clubs. The headline fact is that “foreign players and coaches will have the right to suspend their employment contracts with their clubs until 30 June, 2023”, unless a mutual agreement is found between a player/coach and their club by June 30 this year. This essentially leaves a club such as Shakhtar with a week to cash in on foreign players they may have wished to sell this summer to recoup vital funds.

Palkin told The Athletic on Tuesday evening: “We are not satisfied with the essence of the new FIFA regulations addressing the issues relating to the war in Ukraine. The power to decide on suspension of the contracts is now in the hands of players’ agents. It doesn’t reflect the club’s intention to save players and investments. And we now basically have nine days to agree with our players their sale or loan to foreign clubs, which is just impossible. FIFA have not helped Ukrainian clubs by issuing regulations. On the contrary, it significantly worsened our negotiations with players and made agents even more powerful and richer.”

As a counter-point, Malle Koido, director of international football at International Sports Consulting agency, provided an agent’s perspective. She argues that FIFA is correct to prioritise player welfare over the economic security of clubs. She says: “FIFA’s decision is essential in giving players an option. Football resuming can certainly give the people of Ukraine a sense of normality back, but nobody should be forced to return to a war zone to boost morale unless they do so by their own free will. Some players will return and if the league resumed as planned, they will play — there is still loyalty with their football club, community and the country. Considering Russia are willing to bomb children’s hospitals, nobody can guarantee safety at football. It’s a prime target in a lawless war.

“It is certainly true that players contracted to Ukrainian clubs will be one year closer to the end of their contracts with the club by the end of the 2022-23 season. Many contracts will by then have run out or have a year left, which makes it more difficult to benefit from the sale of players. But we can’t be holding a handful of foreign football players at each club hostage because they have a transfer value attached. Individuals must have free choice to stay or go in such extreme circumstances. In a club versus player stand-off, the footballer is the little guy, and somebody needs to stand up for their rights.”

In a statement to The Athletic, FIFA said it has consulted “key football stakeholders” both in Ukraine and globally, adding that any “potential disputes arising from the decision will be dealt with by the relevant FIFA bodies”.


In between tortuous discussions with agents and painstaking conversations about the logistics of next season, Palkin remains grimly aware of Ukraine’s realities. In Kyiv, Shakhtar are providing training sessions as respite for children.

“Everyone is depressed and we lay on some football, just to distract everyone for a little while,” he says.

Recently, Palkin was in attendance at a session with the club’s sporting director Darijo Srna, when they came across a six-year-old boy. His name is Ilia and his mother died in a Russian rocket strike over Mariupol while his father is missing. A young couple, Maria and Volodymyr Bespali, have fostered the child and brought him to the west of Ukraine and relative safety. Maria said: “We were afraid to agree, of course, because of the situation and we are now both without jobs, but then it was like  — if we don’t, who will?”

She recalled the conversation the couple had with Ilia when they collected the boy. “We told him that we will be Mom and Dad here on Earth, and up there there will be angels who will watch over you.”

Palkin says: “This boy is now calling these volunteers his mother and father, but he does it naturally, when he quickly turns and asks something. It was like instinct and really quite emotional. He has received such support from this couple you cannot believe. He goes to them and says ‘Are you sure you will not leave me?’. He says he is afraid he will lose them. He experienced months of bombing, you cannot imagine.”

Last week, during the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s visit to Ukraine, he received a handwritten letter from Ilia. It read: “Dear Boris Johnson! I want the war to end sooner so that people do not die anymore. I want to play football at home in Mariupol. I would like all the children of the world not to have a war. Greetings to the children in Britain, thank you for helping us. We will win! I have a cat, Frosia, in this picture. I am sending you the flag of Ukraine I drew. Big hugs.”

When these are the gravity of the scenes in Kyiv, it is perhaps unsurprising that Palkin does not mind the levity of some of European football’s thornier topics, such as the Super League. So, were Shakhtar invited to the breakaway league in April last year?

“No,” he says. “If, for example, it had been before 2014, maybe they would have asked us. But by last year and after (the Russian aggression) in 2014, nobody was paying attention to Ukrainian clubs.”

He is asked if football’s response ought to have been stronger when Shakhtar were first displaced in 2014. After all, Russia hosted a World Cup four years later.

“From a European and FIFA point of view, there was nothing,” he says. “Nobody paid attention to what happened. It was a mistake, a big mistake, because it was the beginning of what we have now. Now we see the consequences of eight years ago. It is good that now Europe has realised it needs to act quickly because if not, everything that happens in Ukraine, would also happen in Europe. Before the war this year, nobody paid attention. We could talk about problems and people would say they support us. But from a real-life point of view, nothing happened. When we left our city, our stadium, our fans, our training ground, we had to operate in another world. When we won Champions League games, nobody paid attention to how difficult it was to manage these processes. When you live in our world, you realise. We didn’t have home games. We were always flying to different cities. It was a challenge psychologically and physically.”

He does, however, reserve praise for UEFA president Ceferin, who has assisted Ukraine this year and also impressed Palkin during the Super League. He says: “To me, if they organised the Super League, it would be the end of football. I knew the position of Ceferin and that he would fight very hard and destroy it. He was really top in how he did it. He saved football in Europe.”

With the Super League on ice, Palkin has observed from a distance the growing tension between Spain’s La Liga and clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City who have been accused of receiving funding via state-linked companies in the Middle East. Palkin, whose own club Shakhtar have benefited from substantial injections from their own wealthy owner, says: “I support when new money comes into football. Take Man City. They can spend €100 million on a player from Benfica, which can then be invested into the Benfica academy, infrastructure and first team. And if you pay €100 million, it does not guarantee you win in football. Money does not have a position on the field. You see many times clubs spend €50 million, 100 million and have zero to show. From a marketing point of view, when a club buys three megastars and the whole world pays attention and everyone wants to beat that club, it is intrigue. We don’t need to cut this tension.

“I understand they have tried to organise clubs (via Financial Fair Play) from a business point of view. But we need to work out a formula to maintain new money coming into football. If you take a football business, it is limited in terms of the number of people who can attend or watch matches. You grow and grow, but what next? You need to develop. When you sell players for big money, it develops the football ecosystem and this is good. If you have Sheikhs with a lot of money and they want to invest €1 billion at an English clubs, then OK, let’s invest. They didn’t steal this money; it is their money. If they want to fund a stadium or buy megastars, OK.

“Look at Man City 15 years ago compared to now; the whole world now pays attention to City. Who was paying attention 15 years ago? Chelsea, the same; go back 25 years, they were going step-by-step down. Now they are two-time winners of the Champions League. It has made English football economically far stronger. For us, a Champions League game is the biggest generator of money, but when I speak to English clubs they say they make more from a Premier League game. We are in the group stage next season which is a huge help it means we can continue to run the club.”


In the coming weeks, the challenge is likely to intensify for Shakhtar, who have nine foreign players registered to their first team. In Ukraine, the club is attempting to exert leadership. It helps that their owner, Rinat Akhmetov, is worth €4.5 billion, according to Forbes, and Palkin says the owner had invested $80 million towards the country’s humanitarian war effort by June 1 alone.

Akhmetov had previously appeared to be at odds with the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, who had sought to clamp down on the nation’s wealthiest businessmen. At one point last year, Zelensky even claimed there were attempts being made to lure Akhmetov into a Russian-backed attempt to overthrow his government. Zelensky did not provide evidence and Akhmetov called the claim “an absolute lie”, as reported by Politico at the time. Akhmetov added: “I will continue to defend a free Ukraine, a free economy, democracy and freedom of speech.”

Since the outbreak of war, the pair appear to have made up, with Akhmetov praising Zelensky’s “passion and professionalism” and he has pledged to “rebuild the entire Ukraine”. He also cited the need for an unprecedented international reconstruction programme.

Shakhtar are one of his numerous businesses, including investments in steel, technology, energy and media industries. Palkin explains that Shakhtar have a role both domestically, in providing aid, but also internationally, in using sport to raise awareness for their country’s predicament.

“When the war started, everybody was in shock,” Palkin says. “You are trying to work out what to do first. We had staff and players here to look after. We opened the Lviv Arena stadium as a shelter for eastern Ukrainian refugees. We provide medical aid, food, refuge and they sleep there. The strategy of our president is to assist people and three million people have benefited from the €80 million he has donated across his businesses.”

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Ukraine’s World Cup qualifiers against Scotland and Wales were emotionally charged (Photo: Getty)

There are plans for more awareness-raising friendly matches and Shakhtar are in ongoing discussions with two Premier League clubs to play a game in early August in England. Then the season will begin, but the location is undecided. Shakhtar are proposing a domestic campaign under a hybrid model.

Palkin explains: “Our federation and government have allowed us to start playing the Championship in August. The central decision was to play in Ukraine; in Kyiv or the western part. But it is quite risky. Rockets are rockets and they can reach any place. They (the Russians) are bombing the country.”

Do the clubs agree? “We had a meeting of all Ukrainian clubs; Premier League, first and second division. We decided to start the Championship in August. Now we are in discussions about where to play: Ukraine or Eastern Europe, like Poland or Hungary. Our club wants a hybrid model. For us, if we start the Championship, it should be about helping to win the war. This means every game should be dedicated to peace and explaining how many people and children are dying. Money generated should be given to refugees, the army and those suffering in the war. My feeling is if we stay in Ukraine, nobody will pay attention to us and it will need to be closed stadiums for safety. So then it is hard to make declarations about peace and generate money.

“So we have proposed the following. There are 16 teams in the top division and the top five are in European competitions with the Champions League, Europa League and Conference League. If we play against a Spanish club in the Champions League, it will take us three days to travel in and out of Ukraine and we could miss the weekend league game. I tried to explain this to everyone. So we have proposed moving the top six clubs to play until the end of this calendar year in Poland, where the six clubs will play games between each other, and then from January (depending on the war), join the remaining 10 clubs for the Championship, who can play games in western Ukraine for the first half of the season.”

Initial discussions have taken place with Polish authorities. “When we played Lechia Gdansk and met the mayor of the city and local government, they said they want us to play games there,” Palkin says. “Mayors of cities are calling us to play in their cities. They understand and feel a connection to what is happening.”

As with everything else in Ukraine, uncertainty remains the order of the day.

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“Agents are telling clubs, ‘Don’t pay Shakhtar, the players will become free, just pay me'”

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