Not the sound of bombs, although he heard them, evoked memories in Dario Srna. These were air raid sirens.
When they thundered in Kyiv shortly after 6 a.m. on Feb. 24, Srna froze in horror. Thoughts and memories of his childhood, of the first experience of the war when the former Yugoslavia disintegrated in the 1990s, flooded his mind.
Since then, football has taken Srna, 39, away from home in Croatia, to an outstanding career, mainly at the Ukrainian club Shakhtar, where he is now the director of football, and to the Champions League and two world championships. But in an instant the sounds of sirens brought it all back.
“I started to panic,” he said. “You have some kind of lifelong trauma, of course, deep down. This is something you are trying to forget. But you can never forget such things. “
Shakhtar Donetsk used to run away from bombs. In 2014, when Russian troops last invaded Ukraine, rockets fell on Shakhtar Stadium. For several days the club gathered and headed west, beginning a nomadic existence: a new home in Lviv, in the far west of the country, and then again east, in Kharkiv, before settling in the capital, Kiev.
Now Shakhtar is on the move again. Last week, after receiving a special permit to deport military men, her players and coaches landed in Istanbul. Due to the war that led to the suspension of the second half of the Ukrainian season, Shakhtar will soon become a touring team that will play in exhibition games – the first was Saturday in Greece – draw attention to the plight of Ukrainians and raise money for the war.
Shakhtar Donetsk has never stopped being a team. Now, hopefully, it will also become a symbol.
“I don’t know which team in the history of football can be compared to us,” Srna said. “No other team has ever felt or lived what we have for the last eight years.”
Shakhtar officials were confident that there would be no war, even if Russia rallied forces and equipment on Ukraine’s border; even as players began to worry; even when concerned family members called them daily to a winter training camp in Turkey with news, warnings, requests.
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Therefore, in February Shakhtar CEO Syarhei Palkin convened a meeting to dispel growing concerns.
“I said that everything would be fine, because the president of Ukraine, everyone said that there would be no problems, there would be no war,” Palkin said.
The team flew back to Kyiv. But Palkin was wrong. Three days later, Russian troops crossed the border, and instead of preparing for the second half of the league season, the team’s leadership suddenly had to make completely different calculations.
While many of Shakhtar’s Ukrainian players moved to Lviv, which hosted the team when it was first forced to leave Donetsk, a group of more than 50 players and staff took refuge in a hotel owned by team owner Rinat Akhmetov. From there, timely help and insane phone calls helped draw up a plan to rescue the club’s foreign players and their families.
Srna was a key conductor in these discussions, which also involved players’ unions, Ukrainian and neighboring football federations and the governing body of sport in Europe, UEFA. He said his own experience – he was also a member of the team when it last fled to safety in 2014 – served as a guide.
“Unfortunately,” he said sadly, “this is my third war.”
Only after the players drove home to South America and other places did Srna embark on his own journey: what turned out to be a 37-hour drive to Croatia, where most of his family still lives, to reassure them that he was safe. Two members of his paternal family were killed after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, so his nerves were not the only ones that needed to be calmed down.
But after touching the base, Srna quickly took on a new task: how to take dozens of children based at the Shakhtar Youth Academy outside Kyiv. The efforts were professional, but also very personal: many of the children were only 12 and 13 years old, about the same age as Srna when he first survived the war.
Hajduk Split, Srna’s first professional club, said it would be ready to accept the boys if they could get to the city. Another Croatian team, Dinamo from Zagreb, has stated that it will provide buses if Shakhtar can deliver players to Ukraine’s border with Hungary. The players and other Shakhtar players spent two days at the Dinamo stadium, Srna said, where they were fed and examined by doctors before moving to Split.
Today, thanks to the efforts of more than 80 children, some of them mothers and several elderly coaches and health workers are safe in Croatia, away from the worst horrors of war, training and even playing games again.
“I just put myself in their situation,” Srna said of his involvement. “I didn’t want these kids to stay and listen to the bombings and bullets all day.
“What I remember as a child, I remember who gave me chocolate, who gave me a ball, who gave me water. And that was the most important thing. “
Like any other part of the Ukrainian population, Shakhtar was affected by the war more seriously. The coach from the team’s academy died after his hometown was captured by Russian troops in the first weeks of the war. Two employees of the team’s merchandising department took up arms.
There are also scars of conflict on the Shakhtar training ground in Kyiv. Pieces of her training fields were smashed by shelling, and artillery fire tore open the canopies where the team stored training equipment.
The conflict has also once again drawn attention to people like Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man. As a handful of oligarchs in Russia, he has become extremely rich – sometimes against dubious means – in the wild and unpredictable consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Akhmetov noted that he had contributed millions of dollars of his fortune to hostilities, and in an interview he said he was still loyal to his country and team. “All our efforts are focused on the only important thing – to help Ukraine win this war,” he said.
The efforts of Akhmetov and his football team are now intertwined with the efforts of the Ukrainian government – a relationship that has already helped Shakhtar overcome some unique obstacles. For example, before the club could travel to Turkey, it needed special government exemptions from the emergency law, which prohibits men of military age from leaving the country during the war. These permits finally arrived on Wednesday afternoon. Now that he is in Istanbul, his tour will perform several functions.
The games, which begin with a game against Olympiacos in Athens on Saturday, are seen in part as a diplomatic tool, a chance to personalize Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis, raise money for the military and provide humanitarian assistance to citizens.
But matches will also play an important sporting role. Several players of Shakhtar Donetsk are also members of the national team of Ukraine, and these games will help ensure their physical shape before the key qualification for the playoffs in June before the 2022 World Cup. (Shakhtar’s opponent, Dynamo Kyiv, plays). a series of exhibition games for the same reasons; both clubs have said they will call up players from other Ukrainian teams to add to their rosters, in part because Ukraine has the best chance of reaching the World Cup in the June playoffs.)
The Shakhtar team, which will take part in the next round – matches have been arranged with Polish and Turkish clubs, as well as games with opponents from list A – has lost much of its international talent: most of these players used a temporary option. sign with teams outside Ukraine after the war. Most will never return. But some, like Brazilian defender Marlon, have said they will return, while others are considering options.
“We are not angry, we are all human,” Srna said. “It’s important that they are safe and with their family.”
The start of the new season in Ukraine is scheduled for July. With so much damage to the country and war still raging, the schedule seems a little more than a placeholder. If football comes back like it did in the end, nothing will be the same.
It is even unclear whether Donetsk, Shakhtar’s home, will remain part of Ukraine, which could make the team’s temporary expulsion permanent. In any case, regardless of the conclusion, the team said that Shakhtar would never turn away from its roots.
“They can put up any flag they like in Donetsk,” Srna said. “But Shakhtar will always be from Donetsk; it is something that no one and nothing can ever change. ”
Wherever Shakhtar called home, with whomever they played in between, one idea remains impossible to even think about: games against Russian opponents. Palkin said he is confident that European football officials will ensure that Ukrainian teams do not meet rivals from Russia in future competitions. But he had a simple answer if Shakhtar ever faced such a fight. “We wouldn’t play,” he said.