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Ghost of football past stalks abandoned Ukraine arena

Donbass Arena, the home stadium of Shakhtar Donetsk football club in eastern Ukraine, pictured in 2014 © AFP/File / PHILIPPE DESMAZES

DONETSK, Ukraine, Jun 27 – In its halcyon days, the Donbass Arena in eastern Ukraine was a gleaming temple to football, welcoming some of the sport’s biggest names through its portals.

But while star players are now lining up in the Confederations Cup tournament across the border in Russia, the Arena is wasting away.

Seized by insurgents waging a bloody three-year conflict against Kiev, the venue is in a state of pitiful decline.

The stands which once echoed to the chants and cheers of miners and their families are long deserted. The once-hallowed turf has turned a sickly yellow in parts.

The floodlights died long ago, and the shop that showcased the merchandise of host club Shakhtar Donetsk is empty.

The 52,000-seat Donbass Arena was state-of-the-art when it opened in 2009, back when the city of Donetsk was another place © AFP/File / Alexander KHUDOTEPLY

“It is very sad that we are no longer able to get to the stadium,” local supporter Yury Zhavoronkov told AFP in an empty sports bar nearby.

“It was our football mecca where we all met together,” the 50-year-old grey-haired fan lamented.

The 52,000-seat venue was state-of-the-art when it opened in 2009, back when the city of Donetsk was another place.

The former Soviet mining hub was undergoing a mini-boom as local-boy-made-good Rinat Akhmetov ploughed huge sums into the city.

Akhmetov, a metals tycoon who rose to become the richest person in Ukraine, had turned local club Shakhtar into champions and decided to splash some $400 million (350 million euros) on building the team a fitting new home.

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He hired the top designers behind Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena and the “Bird’s Nest” stadium in Beijing and got megastar Beyonce to sing at a glitzy unveiling.

In June 2012 the stadium basked in the international spotlight as it hosted the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez as Spain beat Portugal on penalties in the semi-final of the Euros championship.

– Rebel seizure –

Gardeners work near the Donbass Arena, the home stadium of Shakhtar Donetsk football club, in eastern Ukraine © AFP/File / PHILIPPE DESMAZES

But that high point would soon turn out to be a bittersweet memory for Ukrainian football fans.

Under two years later Donetsk and the surrounding region plunged dramatically into bloodshed that almost no one saw coming.

After the February 2014 ouster of Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed leader by protesters in Kiev, Moscow seized the Crimea region and was then accused of masterminding a rebellion that engulfed the east of the country.

As the conflict — which has now claimed some 10,000 lives — worsened, so inevitably Shakhtar Donetsk and its stadium were impacted as well.

In May 2014 the club halted matches at its stadium as international organisations demanded game stop in a war zone and the club upped sticks definitively and shifted its home base away from the city.

While the footballers moved out, Akhmetov — who has been accused of playing off both sides in east Ukraine’s murky conflict — trod a fine line as he tried to maintain control over his stadium.

A charity he runs began using the venue as a distribution point for aid to the hard hit residents of the rebel-controlled city.

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But eventually even that tenuous link was severed and in March this year the rebels officially took over the arena as they seized a string of Akhmetov’s properties in a dispute over a trade blockade of their territory.

The rebel move saw the remaining financing from Akhmetov dry up and the staff who were still there to maintain the stadium dwindle.

Now the venue is yet another monument to the ruinous impact of Ukraine’s conflict.

Luckily the stadium’s glass front has largely survived the shelling that pock-marked much of Donetsk.

But while the Moscow-backed rebel leadership claims they want to start using the arena again they have not said how they would fund it or set any timeframe.

For now the venue — like much of the rest of the insurgent-held lands — remains trapped in a limbo of depression and uncertainty.

And with the conflict in east Ukraine showing little sign of coming to a conclusion it looks like there is no chance that crowds of fans or international stars will be back any time soon.

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