The sounds of bombs, although he heard them, did not evoke memories in Darija Srna. These were air raid sirens.
When they echoed in Kiev on February 24, shortly after 6 am, Srna froze in horror. His mind was flooded with thoughts and memories of his childhood, of his first experience with the war, when the former Yugoslavia disintegrated in the 1990s.
Since then, football has taken Srna (39) far from his home in Croatia to a distinguished career, mostly at Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk, where he is currently the director of football, and to Champions League matches and two World Cups. But in an instant the sounds of sirens brought it all back.
“I started to panic,” he said. “You have some trauma for the rest of your life, for sure – deep inside. It’s something you’re trying to forget. But you can never forget things like that. ”
Shakhtar Donetsk had previously fled the bombs. In 2014, the last time Russian forces invaded Ukraine, missiles fell on Shakhtar Stadium. In a few days, the club packed up and headed west, starting a nomadic existence: a new home in Lviv, in the far west of the country, and then again east, in Kharkov, before settling in the capital Kiev.
Now Shakhtar is on the move again. Last week, after receiving a special permit to take able-bodied men out of the country, its players and coaches landed in Istanbul. As the war led to the suspension of the second half of the Ukrainian season, Shakhtar will soon become a visiting team, which will play exhibition matches – the first was Saturday in Greece – to draw attention to the plight of Ukrainians and raise money for war efforts.
Shakhtar Donetsk has never stopped being a team. Now, he hopes, it will also be 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 in these eight years.”
Shakhtar officials were convinced there would be no war, even as Russia amassed forces and equipment on Ukraine’s border; even when the players started to get upset; even as concerned family members called them daily at a winter training camp in Turkey with news, warnings, pleas.
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Thus, in February, Sergei Palkin, the executive director of Shakhtar, convened a meeting in an attempt to allay growing concerns.
“I said that everything would be fine because the president of Ukraine, everyone, said that there was no problem, there would be no war,” Palkin said.
The team returned to Kiev. But Palkin was wrong. Three days later, the Russian troops crossed the border, and instead of preparing to play the second half of their championship season, the management of the team suddenly found itself having to make completely different calculations.
While many Ukrainian Shakhtar 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 members took refuge in a hotel owned by team owner Rinat Akhmetov. From there, timely help and frantic phone calls helped make a plan to take the club’s foreign players and their families to safety.
Srna was a key conduit in those talks, which also involved players’ unions, Ukrainian and neighboring football federations and the governing body of the sport in Europe, UEFA. He said his own experiences – he was also a member of the team when she last escaped to safety, in 2014 – served as a guide.
“Unfortunately,” he said regretfully, “this is my third war.”
It was only after the players headed home to South America and elsewhere that Srna embarked on his journey: what turned out to be a 37-hour drive to Croatia, where much of his family still lives, to reassure them that it was safe. Two family members on his father’s side were killed after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, so they were not the only nerves that needed to be calmed down.
However, after touching the base, Srna quickly tackled a new task: how to move dozens of children housed in Shakhtar’s youth academy out of Kiev out of danger. The effort was professional, but also intensely personal: many children were only 12 and 13 years old, about the age of Srna when he first experienced war.
Hajduk Split, Srna’s first professional club, said it would be willing to receive the boys if they arrived in the city. Dinamo Zagreb, another Croatian team, said it would provide buses if Shakhtar brought players to Ukraine’s border with Hungary. The players and the rest of Shakhtar’s traveling company spent two days at Dinamo’s stadium, Srna said, where they were fed and examined by doctors before leaving for Split.
Today, thanks to the efforts, more than 80 children, some of their mothers and several elderly coaches and medical staff are safe in Croatia, far from the worst horrors of war, training and even replaying games.
“I just put myself in their situation,” Srna said of his engagement. “I did not want these children to stay and listen to the bombing and bullets all day.
“What I remember when I was a kid, I remember who gave me chocolate, who gave me a ball, who gave me water. And that was the most important thing. “
Like every other corner of the Ukrainian population, Shakhtar was touched by the war in more serious ways. The coach from the team’s academy died after his hometown was occupied by Russian forces in the first weeks of the war. Two staff members from the merchandising team took up arms.
Shakhtar’s training center in Kiev also bears the scars of the conflict. Pieces of his training grounds were excavated by shelling, and artillery fire opened sheds in which the team kept training equipment.
The conflict has also once again drawn attention to figures such as Ahmetov, Ukraine’s richest man. Like a handful of oligarchs in Russia, he has become immensely rich – sometimes amid questions of dubious means – in the wild and unpredictable consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Akhmetov noted that he is considered to contribute millions of dollars of his wealth to the war effort, and in an interview said he remained committed to his country and team. “All our efforts are focused on the only thing that matters – 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 – relations that have already helped Shakhtar overcome some unique obstacles. Before he could travel to Turkey, for example, the club needed special government exemptions from the emergency law, which prohibits able-bodied men from leaving the country during the war. Those approvals finally arrived on Wednesday afternoon. Now that he is in Istanbul, his tour will have several functions.
The matches, which begin with the one against Olympiacos in Athens on Saturday, are partly seen as a diplomatic tool, a chance to personalize Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis, raise money for the country’s military and provide humanitarian aid to its citizens.
But matches will also play an important sporting role. Several Shakhtar players from Donetsk are also members of the Ukrainian national team, and the matches will help them secure their condition before the key play-off qualifiers in June for the 2022 World Cup. (Shakhtar’s rival is playing, Dynamo Kyiv a series of exhibition games for the same reasons; both clubs have said they will invite players from other Ukrainian teams to complete their rosters, in part so that Ukraine has the best chance of qualifying for the June World Cup.)
The Shakhtar team that will take part in the upcoming tour – matches against Polish and Turkish clubs have been arranged, and matches against A-list opponents could follow – has lost much of its international talent: most of these players have used the option to temporarily sign with teams outside Ukraine after the war broke out. Most will never return. But some, like Brazilian defender Marlon, have said they will return, while others are considering their options.
“We are not angry, we are all human,” Srna said. “It’s important that they are safe with their family.”
The new season in Ukraine should start in July for now. With so much damage done to the country and the war still raging, the schedule seems to be a little more than a place. When football returns, as it will in the end, nothing will be the same.
It is not even clear whether Donetsk, Shakhtar’s home, will remain part of Ukraine, which could make the team’s temporary exile permanent. In any case, regardless of the conclusion, the team’s officials said that Shakhtar will never turn its back on its roots.
“They can put the flag they want in Donetsk,” Srna said. “But Shakhtar will always be from Donetsk; it is something that no one and nothing can change. ”
Wherever Shakhtar ends up calling home, whoever they play with in the meantime, one idea remains impossible to even think about: matches against Russian opponents. Palkin said that he was convinced that European football officials would ensure that Ukrainian teams would not cross paths with opponents from Russia in future competitions. But he had a simple answer as to whether Shakhtar had ever faced such a match. “We wouldn’t play,” he said.