He was running the biggest soccer club in Ukraine. After war broke out, his life changed forever

The noise of fighter jets zipping overhead is a sound that Serhii Palkin finds difficult to forget – even two years on.

Like every Ukrainian, the 49-year-old lived through the “nightmare” that unfolded as Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

While he scrambled to keep his young family safe amid the near constant bombardment, Palkin also had the responsibility of looking after Ukraine’s most successful soccer club, Shakhtar Donetsk.

You would never guess Palkin is living through a war when you first meet him. He’s calm, measured and quick to quip a joke as he sits down in an unassuming meeting room in London to reflect on how his personal and professional life has changed forever.

“We are all suffering from everything that’s going on. Two years is a huge term to stay in these kinds of conditions … a very big impact on your psychological stability, on your moral aspects,” the softly spoken Palkin tells CNN Sport.

“Mentally, it’s difficult to survive, day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month. Almost two years we have been in these kinds of conditions.”

Palkin was named Shakhtar Donetsk’s CEO in 2004, taking charge of the most decorated club in Ukraine. In addition to its domestic dominance, the team regularly competes in the UEFA Champions League, alongside the biggest names of the sport.

While previously occupied with the daily running of the business, the former accountant now confronts issues of life and death on a daily basis.

Soccer, all of a sudden, wasn’t important. People’s lives became the biggest priority.

Shakhtar Donetsk now plays its games as much for Ukraine as for anything else. - Milos Bicanski/Getty Images
Shakhtar Donetsk now plays its games as much for Ukraine as for anything else. - Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

While his own family sought refuge abroad in the early stages of the invasion, Palkin hunkered down in the besieged city of Kyiv and didn’t leave until every one of his players were safely out of harm’s way.

Since the conflict began, though, six people with direct ties to the club have died, according to Palkin.

“My life completely changed and I started to be involved in crisis management. This is the most important thing I dealt with and deal with now,” he says, explaining the new demands on his role.

“Because of the war, we have this crisis everywhere.”

Soccer returns

By the end of 2022, soccer returned to Ukraine as the country’s Premier League resumed – albeit without fans.

While some matches were paused because of air-raid sirens, and despite the obvious risks of staging a competitive sporting event during the invasion, soccer was deemed an important part of the war effort.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said as much, allowing players to travel around Europe in order to represent the country on the global stage.

Soccer was now a symbol of hope amid the misery of conflict.

Palkin says everything the club did, and still does, is in order to help win the war – whether that be raising money by playing charity matches or providing some good news to the soccer-mad population of Ukraine.

“If they allowed us to leave the country in wartime, it means that we need to give huge feedback for people living in Ukraine,” he says, referring to how the club travels to play exhibitions around the world and its home games in Germany.

“It means that, yes, you can lose, but you should play from the heart and you should show the best football you can, attacking football, you know, beautiful football, like our DNA.”

Shakhtar has certainly done that at times – most recently beating FC Barcelona 1-0 in the Champions League group stage in November.

It was a result made all the more impressive given the logistics involved with the club playing games in wartime.

Logistical nightmare

In truth, Shakhtar has been an itinerant club since 2014 when it was forced out of its home in the Donbas region amid Russia’s forceful annexation of Crimea. But even this club was tested after the full-scale invasion.

With flying in and out of Ukraine impossible, the team often spends days traveling on buses in order to reach their location for matches. Palkin looks exhausted as he reels off the long-list of practicalities that need to be addressed, including ordering food for the team and ensuring they are always as safe as possible.

Palkin admits the team is often not on a level playing field when it plays in European competitions. How can a player, for example, be expected to compete at the highest level when he’s just spent two days sitting on a bus?

“For us to continue to play football and to concentrate 100% on the game is very difficult because you’re always thinking about what’s going on at home, with your parents, with your family,” he says.

“If you look at the life of our players, it’s not normal. Everything that we are doing today in our football life in Ukraine, it’s not normal.

“From a physical point of view and from a mental point of view, it’s very difficult to live [let alone] show good, attractive football […] our players have shown themselves like real heroes.”

Palkin is busy trying to rebuild his squad while hoping for peace in Ukraine. - Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Palkin is busy trying to rebuild his squad while hoping for peace in Ukraine. - Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The soccer world has largely stood by Ukraine, showing public signs of support and raising millions of dollars for the relief effort.

However, Palkin is critical of world soccer’s governing body, FIFA, who he says has forgotten his club.

The root of his criticism lies in FIFA’s decision to adopt a ruling which allowed international players and coaches to suspend their contracts with Ukrainian and Russian clubs.

Shakhtar’s strategy has long been focused on bringing young players, notably from Brazil, to the club, developing them and then selling them on for a profit.

Former Manchester City midfielder Fernandinho is the perfect example, moving to Ukraine from Brazilian club Atlético Paranaense in 2005 before joining the Premier League giant for around $40 million in 2013.

But many of those players, which the club had invested in before the war, left Shakhtar for free as a result of the ruling.

Palkin said he was happy to facilitate players leaving the club, but argued the ruling allowed some clubs to take advantage – signing Shakhtar players for nothing, before recouping a profit after moving them on.

Palkin says the club was left with debts of over $43 million.

Shakhtar was part of a group that appealed FIFA’s decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) but the case was dismissed in January 2023.

The club then filed a complaint with the EU’s European Commission last year, as Palkin continues to fight for “justice.” The European Commission told CNN it was “currently assessing” the complaint “based on our standard procedures.”

“We are one football family and, if one member of the family has a problem, everybody should support,” says Palkin, praising English Premier League club Chelsea for its conduct when signing young star Mykhailo Mudryk from Shakhtar in 2023, for an initial $75 million.

“You see a lot of positive words of support, but in some cases, when you need the support, there is no support.

“The situation with FIFA, for me, it’s very strange and not understandable at all.”

FIFA referred CNN to the CAS decision when asked for comment.

Power of sport

While the war means Palkin is unable to plan for more than a month in advance, his focus is on building the squad back to its former glory.

He admitted that signing players amid the uncertainty is difficult, but not impossible. Even when players are keen, he said, it’s another question when it comes to convincing parents and family members to let their child go.

“I don’t have any case when we couldn’t sign because of the war. There can be different issues, but the war is not a major one,” he says.

Despite all the challenges, the Shakhtar CEO is confident his club can come out of this impossible time in a strong position.

Shakhtar Donetsk beats Barcelona in the Champions League at November 7 last year. - Marvin Ibo Guengoer/GES Sportfoto/Getty Images
Shakhtar Donetsk beats Barcelona in the Champions League at November 7 last year. - Marvin Ibo Guengoer/GES Sportfoto/Getty Images

Not least because Shakhtar is a team playing for more than just points. Palkin has witnessed how the sport he loves can offer temporary reprieve from the darkest of times and how the money raised from charity matches can have a tangible impact on supporting those trying to rebuild their lives.

“Football has unbelievable world level influence,” he says, a smile breaking out on his face.

“Believe me, this influence can change anybody and we live through this and we understand this because we feel it and we see the reactions.

“It’s above everything, you know? And if we all stay together and go in one way, I can tell you 100% we can positively change any area of humanity.”

Shakhtar Donetsk failed to qualify for the knockout rounds of the Champions League this year but dropped into this season’s Europa League, Europe’s secondary club competition, instead.

It faces French side Marseille on Thursday in first leg of the play-off match. The game will once again take place in Hamburg, Germany.

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