Shakhtar Donetsk chief executive Sergei Palkin is sitting in his Kyiv office, making small talk ahead of this exclusive phone interview with ESPN when he casually recounts the last 24 hours. "We had a difficult night because of attacks," he says, matter-of-factly. "Even now, we have this alarm system switched on and everybody has been asked to go to the shelter because of incoming rockets from [the] Russian territory."
It seemed the least we could do was offer to rearrange our conversation for another time. "We can talk -- I hope that everything will be OK," he replies.
If you think your club had a difficult season and have a challenging transfer window ahead, think again. This is the fraught reality of a football club's existence in a war zone. Shakhtar have defied these daily threats to life, the inevitable exodus of foreign employees seeking safety -- including coach Roberto De Zerbi, along with half their squad -- and the €100 million departure of star winger Mykhailo Mudryk to become Ukrainian Premier League champions for the 14th time.
Their foundations have been shaken by the war with Russia, perhaps more so than any other Ukrainian club. Shakhtar were forced to leave their home, the Donbass Arena, when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014 -- a poignant reminder this conflict dates back much further than the February 2022 incursion -- and have been on the road ever since, moving to Lviv in the east of Ukraine, back to Kharkiv in the west, and now based in the country's capital, Kyiv.
Shakhtar were unable to play European matches in Ukraine because of UEFA's safety concerns, forcing them to switch to Legia Warsaw's Stadion Wojska Polskiego in neighbouring Poland, roughly 1,000 miles (1,600km) from Donetsk. "Since 2014, we are still running all over Ukraine," Palkin says. "We are still refugees."
Shakhtar have had offices in Kyiv for several years, and although the city is around 230 miles (380km) from the original Russian border, shelling has intensified in recent weeks. "It is not possible to feel safe," Palkin says. "Everybody is scared. For example, I arrived in Kyiv and we have been in Lviv. On the road, my mother called me, she is living in Kyiv, and she said for the first time since the beginning of the war, she is very, very scared because it was bombed quite hard. You hear it; you feel it. Your roof is moving on your house because of the waves of bombing.
"Our coach, the last time when he stayed here in a hotel, we had this alarm system, he had to go to the shelter. Sometimes you can stay there the whole night. It is difficult to concentrate on games because you are just trying to be safe. At the same time, you need to be professional, provide information, motivate the players, etc. It is a difficult time."
Focusing on football in this environment is a challenge for all 16 Ukrainian Premier League teams. Staff at some clubs in the country have spoken of hiding in their bathrooms during air raids; stories have circulated of players spending two weeks in bunkers to avoid attacks.
The 2021-22 season was halted on Feb. 24 last year, the day Russia began an all-out invasion of neighbouring Ukraine by land, air and sea. Shakhtar were two points clear at the top of the table with just over half the matches played. A decision to abandon the league altogether followed in April, but with the support of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the 2022-23 campaign started in August, its participants emboldened by the aim of bringing some joy to a war-torn nation.
"We understood one thing: if we did not start playing the championship or stopped it during this season, it will send messages to our population that you can come to the conclusion Ukrainian football will be dead," Palkin says. "Therefore, we must continue. It is very good that the president of our country allows us to play. It is good that all the Ukrainian clubs accepted this."
The resumption of the league took place without fans and in stadiums equipped with air-raid sirens and bomb shelters. On Aug. 23, Shakhtar took part in the first game, against FC Metalist 1925 Kharkiv, which ended in a 0-0 draw. That match passed uninterrupted, but every team had two or three games stopped over the course of the season as air-raid sirens went off and participants scurried towards underground shelters. Some games were halted on multiple occasions.
Then there is FIFA's controversial "Annex 7" amendment. In March 2022, FIFA reacted to the outbreak of war in the region by affording foreign players and coaches in Ukraine or Russia the chance to unilaterally suspend their contracts, initially until June 2022 before extending the provision by a further year, and then again until 2024. Any individuals affected could therefore seek a move elsewhere to continue their careers in a safe country.
FIFA argued this maintained the rights of those involved while also giving the clubs a degree of protection as an act of war may in many cases justify an immediate termination of contract under force majeure, meaning clubs would lose players for nothing. However, Shakhtar challenged the initial ruling, taking FIFA to the Court of Arbitration for Sport over what they believed was a gross infringement on their ability to operate successfully. CAS ruled in favour of FIFA, stating "that the measures adopted were not grossly disproportionate and remained within the sphere of discretion granted to FIFA by Swiss law."
An inevitable exodus followed. De Zerbi left, eventually to join Premier League side Brighton, and Shakhtar hired Croatian manager Igor Jovicevic -- who played at the club for 11 years, winning the UEFA Cup in 2009 -- from Dnipro-1 to replace him. FIFA's ruling left Shakhtar with around 15 players to start the 2022-23 season, a campaign that included a tough Champions League group comprising Real Madrid, RB Leipzig and Celtic.
"We started to bring players back from loan and invite Ukrainian players playing abroad," Palkin says. "We started contacting former players playing in different championships and invited them here because we could not start a championship and Champions League season.
"We won 3-0 at our main competitor for the championship [Dnipro-1 on May 28] and for the first time in our history, we had 11 Ukrainian players. This championship for us was the most difficult and important in the whole of our history. We had to build everything from scratch and nobody believed Shakhtar would win the championship. Why it is the most important in our history is because we became champions during the war. We will remember this for many, many years."
With their home matches in Warsaw, Shakhtar finished third in Champions League Group F -- their sole victory a 4-1 victory at RB Leipzig in September -- before beating Rennes in the Europa League playoff round, only to succumb 8-2 on aggregate to Feyenoord at the round-of-16 stage, including a 7-1 defeat in the second leg.
"To get to Rotterdam, where we played, we spent 20 hours on the bus and planes," said Palkin. "When we arrived in Rotterdam, it is difficult from a physical and mental point of view. In order to reach any European city to play Champions League, we need to travel for a minimum of one day. Travelling and travelling and when you arrive to the city, it is not fair. Everybody supports fair play, but this is not fair play because we are in a position where our players are very, very tired but at the same time they still need to go on the pitch and get results."
Whether Shakhtar can play next season's European home matches in their own country depends on the war's progression and in any case, FIFA's decision to extend Annex 7 is a more immediate concern. Shakhtar believe they have already lost €40m in revenue, not least due to what they perceive are cut-price deals for departed players as other clubs act ruthlessly in the knowledge Ukrainian sides have lost all leverage in negotiations while the war continues.
Two examples from last summer include Brazilian duo David Neres, who joined Benfica for a reported €15m, and Dodo, who left on loan for Fiorentina with obligation to sign permanently for €14.5m. De Zerbi, meanwhile, joined Brighton in September after Graham Potter took the vacant Chelsea job and has gone on to prove himself one of the brightest coaching prospects in Europe.
Shakhtar now believe they risk losing a further €40m in revenue from the prolongation of Annex 7, prompting Palkin's fresh legal challenge after talks involving the European Club Association (ECA) acting as an intermediary with FIFA have failed.
"FIFA don't provide any support for Ukrainian clubs," he says. "This is the biggest problem, and this is why we try and struggle with them for so long and fight with them. OK, you are giving help to foreign players -- and that I understand -- what about Ukrainian football itself? What about Ukrainian players? ... In all speeches, they always say 'we are one football family,' but Ukraine has been out of this football family since the beginning of the war."
Sources have told ESPN that each player's situation is judged on a case-by-case basis. Various adjustments to Annex 7 have also been made with Ukrainian clubs' financial health in mind. They include the clause that players and staff wanting to use Annex 7 must inform their team in writing by July 1, and those who extended their contracts after March 7, 2022 cannot now suspend their agreements. Sources say FIFA are confident CAS will back their judgement, but Palkin remains defiant.
Nevertheless, sources say Shakhtar have lodged an appeal with the European Commission over the terms of Annex 7 and they are preparing a case at the Swiss Federal Tribunal to contest CAS' decision.
"We are still in legal dispute with FIFA, we go to court," Palkin says. "I would like to send a message to those clubs who are trying to sign our players without paying a transfer fee, Shakhtar will file claims for unjust enrichment against players or clubs who have enriched themselves and benefitted by obtaining a financial advantage. We believe these clubs who enrich themselves at Shakhtar's expense will be obliged to pay restitutions. Those clubs should understand what they do when they decide to sign our players."
One such player caught in the middle is Manor Solomon. The Israeli winger suspended his Shakhtar contract and spent last season on loan at Fulham. Sources have told ESPN that Tottenham are interested in a free transfer move for the 23-year-old this summer.
"I contacted Solomon and his agent and invited him back to our club," Palkin says. "I said, 'You can play all the games in Champions League, you will be in the starting XI,' but he doesn't want to move, and I believe he will stay in England. Finally, where he will go, I don't know. In any case, if he goes to Tottenham, we will deal with Tottenham in court in this case. Everything comes to a simple situation: it sounds like unjust enrichment.
"In our case, in this moment, we won the Ukrainian championship, and this gives us the chance to play in the group stage of the Champions League and we anticipate some kind of bonuses from UEFA. Therefore, this will help us to run the club."
This year, clubs were guaranteed an initial €15.64m for reaching the group stage -- plus a further €2.8m for each victory and €930k for a draw. What also helped was the €80m upfront fee (plus €20m in add-ons) which Chelsea paid to sign Mudryk in January. The 22-year-old was born in Krasnohrad, a city between Poltava and Kharkiv in the west of Ukraine -- therefore Annex 7 was not applicable. Shakhtar were able to negotiate on a fair footing with Arsenal before Chelsea pipped their London rivals to secure an agreement.
"The major difference between the clubs [Chelsea and Arsenal] was for example when we were talking about payments," Palkin, who regularly travelled to London to hold in-person talks with representatives of both clubs, explains. "[The] bonuses we discussed [with Arsenal], it was sometimes unreal to reach. With Chelsea, we have real bonuses, fair bonuses and understandable bonuses. We believe that we will receive them in two or three years, definitely.
Kay Murray and Luis Miguel Echegaray praise Mykhailo Mudryk's performance after he came off the bench to make his Chelsea debut vs. Liverpool.
"The biggest part of this money [for Mudryk] goes on repaying our debt. Before the war, we signed six or seven players, and when you sign players, you always pay [the transfer fee] over two, three or four years. When [the] war started, I tried to communicate with FIFA 'how is this possible, you have taken players from us, we cannot generate money' but at the same time you require from us to pay all these debts. Some of these debts are under bank guarantee. I must pay, otherwise the bank will have problems, therefore this money we will spend partially to recover all those debts, to be satisfied with creditors.
"We can talk a lot about the war, the support, but sometimes when you start to discuss some kind of financial issues to help Ukrainian football, it is very, very difficult to reach some results. This is quite painful. I don't know why. It depends -- case by case is different. It is better to ask those clubs and organisations. For me it is difficult to explain."
Shakhtar are due to play Chelsea in a friendly agreed as part of the Mudryk deal, while sources have told ESPN that at least one other Premier League club is in talks over a separate preseason game with the aim of raising funds for Ukrainian clubs.
They would also, of course, like to sign players of their own but that presents its own challenges. Shakhtar were able to convince some foreign players to join the club mid-season -- including winger Khusrav Toirov from Tajikistan, forward Kevin Kelsy from Venezuela, and defender Giorgi Gocholeishvili from Georgia -- but many are inevitably sceptical of moving to Ukraine given the bigger picture.
Croatian midfielder Neven Djurasek joined Shakhtar from Dinamo Zagreb in July 2022 on a two-year deal. The 24-year-old had previously played in Ukraine before the war's escalation last year for Dnipro-1, and he told ESPN: "Of course the war was a big problem in my final decision about joining Shakhtar, but when my family and my girlfriend backed me and approved my decision to go to Ukraine, for me it was much easier -- when you know you have support from your family and the closest ones.
"To be honest, I knew a lot about the region and I knew more or less what to expect. Of course, I was very positive that the championship would be played to the end and that this project of Shakhtar would move on. Some days are better, some days are worse. It depends on the air alarms and explosions. Of course, it affects a football player because you cannot just concentrate on football. You have to worry about the things that you essentially cannot affect but they are highly disturbing. It was not easy."
Ultimately, Shakhtar continue to long for a return home to the Donbass Arena, which was shelled during fierce fighting in 2014. Built in 2009 for around $400m, the 52,000 capacity stadium hosted five matches at Euro 2012, but has been abandoned for the past nine years with Russian state media claiming it had been struck again in 2022. With the Donbass Arena in territory controlled by the Russian military at time of writing, Palkin does not know its current condition.
"From the beginning when we left our city in 2014 it was our dream to return back, otherwise there was no sense to continue," he says. "Every club should have their own town, their own city, fans and stadium."
For now, Shakhtar and all who associate with them remain nomads.
"Many of our fans left the Donetsk region as well," Palkin says. "Today we drove from Lviv to Kyiv and stopped in one petrol station. A guy came up to me and asked for a picture. He said: 'I am from Donetsk, and I am a fan of your club.' These stories are everywhere. The people from Donetsk region live everywhere in Ukraine, so we have fans not just from Donetsk, we have fans from many cities. Our club is strong. But we believe one day we will return home."