For Ukrainians displaced by the Russian invasion, a soccer stadium can feel like a home from home.
Unable to play at its actual home because of the war, Ukrainian champion Shakhtar Donetsk is playing its Champions League home games in the German city of Hamburg this season, starting with a 3-1 loss to Porto on Tuesday.
Ukrainian supporters said it was a chance to raise awareness of Ukraine and provided a sense of community against the backdrop of the war.
“We have a difficult situation but despite that we come and show support because we are very proud of our team,” Valentyna Sushko, who is from the city of Kharkiv in north-eastern Ukraine and has been living in Hamburg since shortly after the invasion last year, told The Associated Press.
“I would like to say thank you to Hamburg for giving our team the chance to play in its stadium. A lot of Ukrainian people can come and feel a bit like they are at home.”
With some wearing the orange-and-black shirts of Shakhtar, and others wrapped in the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag, Ukrainian fans were prominent in the crowd of 46,729 at Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion. Germany has welcomed hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians since the invasion.
Locals flocked to the game, too. The usual home team, Hamburger SV, was European champion 40 years ago but is in a prolonged slump and hasn’t hosted European games since the 2009-10 season.
The crowd cheered a “Thank you, Germany” video message from Shakhtar captain Taras Stepanenko which played before the game on the stadium’s big screens. The pre-game playlist included Ukraine’s Eurovision Song Contest-winning song “Stefania” from 2022 with its mix of Ukrainian folk and hip-hop influences.
For Ukrainian fans, the Champions League is also a way to remind the world about their country and its cause.
“I love my Ukraine very much and it hurts, everything that is happening with our country. I came today with my family to support our country and our boys,” said Oresta Rohde, originally from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, which was hit by a Russian drone attack earlier in the day. “I hope that today the world once again hears Ukraine and helps us, and supports us.”
Shakhtar is still playing in the Ukrainian league but no fans are allowed at games there for security reasons. Tuesday marked Shakhtar’s first competitive game with a crowd since March.
“Although it’s like a home stadium, it’s still not a home stadium. (It’s) the first time here. I guess the second and third game will be easier for them here, but this game definitely will be hard,” predicted Dmytro Kutnyakhov, a Ukrainian physicist who has lived for 16 years in Germany, before kickoff.
Shakhtar is “keeping the level still high and they’re still able to play against such teams like Porto, Barcelona, all the best teams of Europe,” despite the war, he added. “They’re raising the Ukrainian flag all the time.”