Shakhtar prepare for home match 700 kilometres from home
But the spectre of war has cast a shadow over the match with the fans now expected to travel over 700 kilometres (435 miles) to watch their own team ‘at home’.
Victory over the visiting French side will see Shakhtar, the Ukrainian champions, book their place alongside Group F winners Manchester City in the last 16 of Europe’s top club tournament.
A draw will be enough for Lyon to progress at Shakhtar’s expense, so for the Ukrainians it is all or nothing.
Anticipation among the players and the fans of a packed and pulsating home stadium cheering the team to a place among the very elite of Europe was rising… until the match was moved last week to the capital Kiev.
Shakhtar will now host Lyon in a city over 700 kilometres away from home, the lair of one of their biggest rivals.
The reason? War. And the introduction of martial law.
In late November, Russia seized three Ukrainian navy vessels and detained 24 crew members in the most dangerous incident in years between the ex-Soviet neighbours.
In response, Kiev imposed martial law for 30 days in 10 regions that border Russia, including Shakhtar’s temporary home in Kharkiv.
That in turn prompted UEFA to move the Shakhtar-Lyon match to Kiev.
“It’s very hard for a club to play in an alien city,” Ruslan, a Shakhtar supporter from Donetsk, told AFP. “The team, of course, lacks all those fans… their support.”
– On the road –
Shakhtar fans have become used to having to travel to home games.
For the last two years, the club has been sheltering in Kharkiv, a mere 300 kilometres from their Donbass Arena in Donetsk, which they abandoned in 2014 when the region fell under the control of Russia-backed separatists.
Kharkiv was a step up for the fans as Shakhtar has spent two years travelling over 1,200 kilometres to play home games in Lviv on the other side of the country.
Shakhtar’s coach Paulo Fonseca has urged fans to support the team in the capital.
“We regret that the match venue has been changed, causing inconvenience for our fans who planned to attend the match in Kharkiv… We hope for your support in Kiev!” the Portuguese manager said in a statement to the fans on the club website.
The club even offered to book the best seats at the 70,000-seat Olympic Stadium in Kiev for those supporters who bought tickets to the Kharkiv arena, but now are willing to come to the capital.
The problem for the fans is twofold. Distance is certainly a factor but the other stumbling block for them is that they will have to play in the capital, home of their longtime rival Dynamo Kiev. They can hardly rely on local support.
“It would be better to play in Kharkiv. There are more of our fans there,” Shakhtar fan Sergiy Tsvelyov told AFP.
“I myself planned to go (to Kharkiv). But it will be very difficult for me to go to Kiev,” the 20-year-old student, who lives in a small town in eastern Ukraine, said.
– Players focused –
Fonseca and his players are doing their best not to be distracted by the switch and head into the match in good spirits.
“We do not feel any danger in the cities which we visit,” said Fonseca.
After retaining the Ukrainian title in May, Fonseca’s side are seven points clear of Dynamo Kiev in the current championship race. They beat FC Mariupol 3-0 away on Friday in their last match before the domestic league winter break.
The players echoed their coach but admitted the Lyon switch is a nuisance for their supporters.
“It didn’t create big problems for us (footballers),” midfielder Taras Stepanenko told AFP.
“This is a big problem for our fans.”
“We hope that the fans will have the opportunity to come… and support the team. It is very important for us.”
A win on Wednesday will make the journey all the more worthwhile.