Fans cheer for Russia at stadium in war-torn Ukraine


Donetsk (Ukraine), July 8 (AFP) 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, told AFP 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!"

- Russia in the heart -


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 told AFP.

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 quarter finals." 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."

Shakhtar played their last match at the stadium in May 2014 and shifted their home base away from the city.

The beer glasses are still inscribed with the Ukrainian slogan "With Donbass in the heart".

- Curfew relaxed -


The curfew beginning at 11:00 pm local time was delayed this week to 1:00 am, allowing fans to meet outside their homes and watch the evening games. Seized by Russian-backed insurgents who are waging a conflict against Ukrainian state forces, the stadium is in a pitiful state.

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.

The 52,000-seat venue was state-of-the-art when it opened in 2009. Rinat Akhmetov, the richest person in Ukraine, had turned Shakhtar into champions and spent $400 million (350 million euros) on building the team a new home.

In June 2012 the stadium basked in the international spotlight as Spain beat Portugal on penalties there in the semi-final of the European championships. But two years later eastern Ukraine plunged dramatically into conflict that has claimed more than 10,000 lives.

Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Russia of channelling troops and arms across the border to fuel the conflict.

Moscow has denied the allegations despite evidence that it has been involved in the fighting and its explicit political support for the rebels.

As the conflict worsened, Shakhtar Donetsk and its stadium were affected as well.

Akhmetov tried to maintain control of the stadium. A charity he runs began using it as a distribution point for aid to residents of the rebel-controlled city.

But in March 2017 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.

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

Edited by PTI
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