Shakhtar Donetsk and the ATO Controversy

Shakhtar Donetsk and the ATO Controversy

Manuel Veth –

This week Ukrainian football has once again been influenced by the complicated politics of the country. This week the nationalist Ukrainian veterans group ATO criticised Shakhtar Donetsk for not supporting their charity action ahead of a game.

Currently, three clubs, Olimpik and Shakhtar Donetsk, as well as Zorya Luhansk, play in exile due to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. A fourth club FC Mariupol, which is also located in Eastern Ukraine, has also at times felt the impact of the conflict in the country.

The position of the Ukrainian Premier League clubs in exile has been viewed critically at times. Shakhtar Donetsk’s owner Rinat Akhmetov, in particular, has been the focus of both sides in the conflict. The oligarch has been accused by both sides that he is supporting the respective other side financially.

Rinat Akhmetov Finds Himself in a Difficult Political Position

The reality is that the oligarch has been an advocate of decentralisation that has been seen critical in the nationalist regions of the country. Akhmetov has also been seen critical of running charity organisations and also been accused of secretly supporting the separatists.

At the same time, the oligarch has seen his offices in the Donbass attacked, and Pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region and Luhansk region seised control of companies owned by energy conglomerate DTEK and steel company Metinvest in March 2017. The situation has affected the club that is currently unable to return to Donetsk, not just because of the security situation, but also because it would legitimise the political parties that now run the People’s Republic of Donetsk.

It is, however, a small line the club is walking on. Shakhtar players and officials have thus far refrained from taking part in any action that could be viewed as overly patriotic. Ahead of matchday 17 in Ukraine ATO launched a campaign “My Dad – My Hero” and sent shirts to all clubs of the Ukrainian Premier League to be worn ahead of kickoff.

According to ATO, all clubs complied except for Shakhtar Donetsk, who refused to wear the shirts ahead of their match against city rivals Olimpik. Olimpik had worn the shirts ahead of their matchday 16 encounter against Chornomorets Odesa. But Shakhtar according to ATO simply refused to answer any communication requests.

ATO Accused the FFU of Unpatriotic Behaviour

Furthermore, ATO stated that the Football Federation of Ukraine intervened on behalf of Shakhtar Donetsk. The statement from the official ATO homepage read: “The reaction by the FFU again caused only negative feeling and shows that the lice from Moscow nits within Ukraine, which continues to drink blood from simple-Ukrainian patriots and debases heroes, who are risking their own lives to protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

Karpaty Lviv players wearing the ATO shirt. (Image from Federatsiya Futbolu Uchastnikiv ATO)

Karpaty Lviv players wearing the ATO shirt. (Image from Federatsiya Futbolu Uchastnikiv ATO)

Shakhtar President Sergey Palkin in the meantime refuted that the club forbad its players to wear the shirts. Nonetheless, the damage by Shakhtar’s refusal to wear the ATO shirts was done. Shakhtar’s bus was stopped by nationalist ultras in Kharkiv, who demanded to the players to wear the ATO shirts in their next game against Veres—according to Tribuna Taras Stepanenko and Yaroslav Rakitskiy, who spoke to the ultras, gave in to the demands.

The entire situation has put Shakhtar in a difficult position. Since the start of the war, Shakhtar have been careful about making political statements that could offend either side of the conflict. The reason for that is simple: although exiled Shakhtar still maintain links as well as property in the occupied areas and therefore are much more restricted in expressing the club’s true political motives.

Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and social media editor at He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada.  Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.