Free Press Journal

Fans cheer for hosts at stadium in war-torn Ukraine

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Russia supporters react as they watch the Russia 2018 World Cup quarter-final football match between Russia and Croatia on a screen at a fan cafe at the Donbass Arena Stadium in Donetsk on July 7, 2018. Scores of Russia-supporting fans gathered in a cafe inside the disused Donbass Arena in conflict-stricken eastern Ukraine to watch their favoured team play Croatia in the World Cup on July 7. Some came with Russian flags in support of the country which they consider to be their homeland, jumping up and applauding until Croatia finally prevailed on penalties. / AFP PHOTO / Sega VOLSKII

Donetsk (Ukraine) :

Scores of Russia-supporting fans gathered in a cafe inside the disused Donbass Arena in conflict-stricken eastern Ukraine to watch their favoured team play Croatia in the World Cup.

Some came with Russian flags in support of the country which they consider to be their homeland, jumping up and applauding until Croatia finally prevailed on penalties.


It is six years since the arena hosted stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Andres Iniesta during Euro 2012, and four years since the outbreak of a deadly conflict in this eastern part of Ukraine. The war has left the arena in disrepair and locals are subject to a curfew.

But for a few nights at least, the curfew has been relaxed and fans have been able to enjoy broadcast games here. Three weeks after the World Cup kicked-off in mid-June, the pro-Russian separatist authorities finally fulfilled their promise to open a cafe at the stadium.

“All the tables are booked for the Russia-Croatia game,” Julia, the 27-year-old cafe administrator, said ahead of the match.

“The interest in this match is very big.” About a hundred fans packed into the cafe for the game.

But after Croatia sealed victory with the final kick of a penalty shootout in Sochi, the Donbass fans went quietly home, some in tears.

A group of about 20 stayed on in the cafe, yelling “Russ-i-a!”

The mere fact that football had returned — albeit in a small way — to the stadium was a miracle for many. It is not only the cafe that has come back to life during the World Cup.

Tours are being run of the stadium’s football museum, locker rooms, stadium bowl and football field.

It was 2014 when Sergei Serdyuk, a 26-year-old chef, last visited the stadium. He came back as part of a tour group ahead of Saturday’s match. “It is like a dream,” he said. He said he was following the World Cup and supported Russia “with all his heart”.

“I think it is common for all the Donetsk citizens to support the Russian national team,” Serdyuk said, speaking before Russia came up agonisingly short on Saturday.

“They are spoiling us, they are already in the quarters.”

The cafe’s interior was done out in the orange and black of Shakhtar Donetsk, who made their home in the stadium before the war. A sign hanging on the entrance reads: “Do not enter with weapons.” The stands which once echoed to the chants and cheers of miners and their families — fans of Shakhtar Donetsk — are long deserted. The turf has turned a sickly yellow in parts.