The players at Bayern Munich, one of the best soccer teams in the world, are modern athletes, used to traveling great distances in the quest to new reach audiences. But many will be experiencing a first today—playing in a war zone.
Germany’s Bayern are playing Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champion’s League—though they cannot play in Donetsk because it is currently held by pro-Russian rebels as the conflict rumbles on. Bayern’s World Cup-winning forward Thomas Muller labelled it “surreal,” adding: “You know there is this terrible war out there, but you don’t really realize it because you don’t really know such a situation.”
Shakhtar haven’t played in their own stadium since July—their own Donbass Arena has been hit multiple times in the fighting and non-Ukrainian players refused to return to the city. At first, the team played at a tiny stadium in Kiev, meaning they had to get used to going from the raucous atmosphere of 52,000 fans to around 1,000.
Currently, the team is playing at a 34,900-seat stadium in Lviv—750 miles from their own home. Some rival fans mock them as “Shakhtar Lviv.” The team is currently second in the Ukrainian league, but the players aren’t happy. “You don’t have the power like you have at the Donbass Arena,” one player said. “It is something special – it’s our stadium, it’s our fans, it’s our city.”
Still, this is not as bad as Russian soccer team Anzhi Makhachkala, based in the volatile region of Dagestan. Because of the violence—car bombs were once placed outsides the team’s stadium—the players live and train near Moscow and then fly 800 miles to Makhachkala for home games. Last month, a 20-year-old player was killed.