With fierce fighting between the Ukrainian military and rebel fighters on Monday, days after the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 about 50 miles away, Donetsk is by no means safe.
So it might come as no surprise that six South American players for the local soccer team, Shakhtar Donetsk, refused to return to Ukraine on Monday. Brazilians Alex Teixeira, Douglas Costa, Dentinho, Fred, and Ismaily, as well as Argentine Facundo Ferreyra, remained in France after participating in an international friendly match against Olympique Lyon over the weekend.
The team’s president, billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, said in a statement that the six are only hurting themselves by staying away.
“Players have contracts that they have to abide by,” he said in the statement, posted on the team’s website. “If they do not come, I think, they will be the first to suffer. Each of them has a minimum release clause, which is tens of millions of euros.”
Akhmetov acknowledged the danger of Donetsk but promised to provide security for the players.
“We will not take risks and in any case we won’t bring players to dangerous places,” he said. “We want to play in Donetsk very much, but unfortunately at the moment we cannot do it.”
Shakhtar is set to play rival Dynamo Kyiv on Tuesday in the Ukrainian Super Cup, but Donetsk’s Donbass Arena is not allowed to host games at the moment. Citing security concerns, the Union of European Football Associations’ (UEFA) Emergency Panel decided to allow additional games for the upcoming season to be played in other cities in Ukraine.
“The UEFA Emergency Panel has decided to allow UEFA club competition matches to be played in Dnipropetrovsk and Odessa, in addition to Kyiv and Lviv,” the panel said in a statement last week. UEFA also said it would not permit Russian and Ukrainian teams to play against each other in UEFA competitions.
UEFA did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast.
Shakhtar’s team captain, Darijo Srna, acknowledged the missing players’ security concerns Monday but said the team members who remained by his side before Tuesday’s game were true representations of the team’s integrity.
“We have a good team,” Srna said in a statement on Shakhtar’s website after saying he needed some time to think about the matter at hand. “Whatever happens, it can only unite us. Shakhtar has always strived and will strive for victory. Now we are preparing for a very important game.”
“He wants to make use of the situation in the country and get the players for free. But they have contracts.”
The team’s Romanian coach, Mircea Lucescu, was not so forgiving, blaming British-based agent Kia Joorabchian for the players’ decision to stay away from Ukraine.
“It is not the players’ desire, it’s their agents’ work,” Lucescu said in a statement. “A few hours before the kickoff of the game against Lyonnais, Kia showed up. And after the game, at 2 in the morning, he took our players away. The very talented ones: Teixeira, Douglas, Fred. The rest are not so important.
“He wanted to do the same to Adriano, Ilsinho, Marlos, and Taison. But they refused. His goal is to make the players free agents, just to make money. This is wrong. This is his alibi. He wants to make use of the situation in the country and get the players for free. But they have contracts.”
Collectively, the players’ market value is a reported $78 million, and they could be forced to pay millions to the club for refusing to fulfill their contracts.
“It’s not easy to play and not think about Donetsk,” Srna said. “Let’s see what will happen. But every player who is here will give his all for Shakhtar. We will do everything to take to the field [Tuesday] with a cool head and play our football.”