‘There Is No Football Family’: Broken Contracts Mar Soccer’s Return in Ukraine

Like his fellow chief executives at soccer clubs across Europe, Sergei Palkin of the Ukrainian team Shakhtar Donetsk spent weeks this summer negotiating player trades.

He and Fulham, a team newly promoted to England’s Premier League, settled on a fee of about $8 million for Manor Solomon, Shakhtar’s Israeli attacker. Then Palkin agreed to accept a payment around double that amount from Lyon, in France’s Ligue 1, for another of Shakhtar’s foreign-born stars, the 22-year-old Brazilian midfielder Tetê.

The deals were a financial lifeline for Shakhtar: They would deliver a vital cash infusion to club accounts battered by war with Russia in exchange for valuable talents who, in some cases, no longer wanted to play in Ukraine.

But just when the contracts for the deals, and others, were about to be signed, world soccer’s governing body, FIFA, announced that it had extended a regulation allowing foreign players under contract with Ukrainian clubs to temporarily go elsewhere without penalty. The rule — created in March as an interim measure when Ukraine’s season was suspended — would now remain in place for the entire 2022-23 season, FIFA said.

And with that, both Lyon and Fulham informed Palkin that they were scrapping the multimillion-dollar deals the sides had discussed. Instead, they would take the players for nothing.

“They just talk about the football family,” Palkin said. “But in real life there is no football family.”

The Shakhtar chief executive Sergei Palkin.Credit…Bradley Secker for The New York Times

A Lyon spokesman said the club disputed Palkin’s recounting of events, but declined to provide details. Fulham declined to comment.

Both teams abided by the rules, but the incidents — and others — have left Palkin frustrated and angry. In July, Shakhtar announced plans to sue FIFA for $50 million — the value, it says, of deals that vaporized when the rule allowing players to break their Ukrainian contracts was extended.

The situation is a far cry from the widespread messages of solidarity with Ukraine from soccer’s leaders and rival teams in the days and weeks after Russia’s invasion began in February. Instead, Palkin says he has been left with a distaste for the way some in the soccer community have treated Ukrainian clubs like Shakhtar. Shows of support and kind words have been replaced by broken promises and the poaching of players and youth prospects, all of it, in his view, driven by the oil that lubricates the industry: money.

Our Coverage of the Russia-Ukraine War

  • On the Ground: Analysts say that a new Ukrainian strategy of attacking logistical targets in Russian-held territory is proving successful — symbolically as well as militarily.
  • Trading Accusations: Russian and Ukrainian militaries accused each other of preparing to stage an attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. The United Nations issued warnings about the risk of a nuclear disaster and called for a demilitarized zone around the plant.
  • Crimea: Attacks by Ukrainian forces have tested security on the Black Sea peninsula, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014 and has become a vital staging ground for the invasion.
  • Visa Ban: A proposal to bar Russian tourists from countries in the European Union over the invasion has stirred debate inside the bloc, with some questioning whether it would play into Kremlin claims of persecution by the West.

Lyon, for example, recently offered to pay Shakhtar 3 million euros, or about $3.01 million, for the permanent transfer of Tetê, Palkin said — less than one-fifth of what Shakhtar believed it had agreed on as a fee for him earlier this summer. Palkin turned down the offer.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “It’s peanuts. It’s not respectful from FIFA or the clubs.”

FIFA said its position of allowing foreign players under contract with Ukrainian teams to play elsewhere temporarily is better than the alternative: players’ unilaterally breaking their contracts. But while there appears to be no sign that the war is ending, there is now also little likelihood that many of the players will ever return to their Ukrainian clubs.

When Shakhtar takes the field on Tuesday for its first game on Ukrainian soil since last December — part of the long-delayed restart of the country’s top league — very little will be the same beyond the team’s familiar burnt orange colors. For the first time in two decades, a team known for stocking its roster with imported stars will be almost exclusively Ukrainian. There will be no fans at the stadium in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital and Shakhtar’s latest temporary home, for the match against Metalist 1925. And the players from both teams will have gone through drills of what to do in the event they hear the air raid siren while they are on the field.

Nothing is normal, Palkin admitted, but for the sake of Ukrainian soccer, the games must be played. If the season does not start, he said, some soccer clubs in the country would probably fold.

Two clubs are already gone from the 16-team league: F.C. Mariupol and Desna Chernihiv, which both announced they their withdrawals ahead of this season. Chernihiv, near the border with Belarus, has been battered by Russian forces, and Mariupol, a southern port city, is now under Russian control. The city, besieged for weeks, has been described by the United Nations as the “deadliest place in Ukraine.”

Even in other cities, though, signs of war will be hard to avoid. Palkin said the threat of a Russian attack on matches cannot be discounted.

“They can target anything in Ukraine,” he said of the Russian military and its allies in the war. Shakhtar will play its games in Kyiv and Lviv, the city where, at the start of the war, the club helped pay to convert the soccer stadium it had been using into a shelter for refugees.

Families living inside the Arena Lviv, which will host some of Shakhtar’s matches when Ukraine’s top soccer league opens its delayed season this week.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Shakhtar also will play in Europe’s top club competition, the Champions League, but those games will be held in Warsaw because European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, has barred Ukraine from hosting international games as a safety precaution.

Shakhtar officials had proposed playing the Ukrainian league games outside the country, too. But the government overruled the idea, deciding that live games, even in empty stadiums and in the comparatively safer western part of the country, would serve as an important prong of the propaganda war.

“Ukrainian sports and the will to win on all fronts cannot be stopped!” Ukraine’s sports minister, Vadym Gutzeit, wrote on his Facebook page last week. His post, heralding the return of the Ukrainian Premier League, outlined a list of protocols that must be followed at each game, including evacuation plans, fixed shelters no more than 500 meters, or about 1,640 feet, from each stadium, and a script for stadium announcers in the event that air raid sirens sound: “Attention! Air alarm! We ask everyone to follow us to the shelter!”

While Gutzeit’s post highlighted the extraordinary conditions in which soccer will return to Ukraine, it also underlined why many players were not eager to return and take part.

Palkin said about 10 players from Shakhtar’s under-19 team had refused to return to Ukraine, where a youth league is also being organized. “I understand them,” he said. “I can’t guarantee they will be safe.”

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