Ukrainian football club Shakhtar begins peace-themed tour |


ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Wearing the names of heavily bombed cities on its shirts, Ukrainian soccer club Shakhtar Donetsk opened a series of charity matches as part of a government-backed “Global Tour for Peace” with a 1-0 loss to Greek league leaders Olympiakos on Saturday.

The tour aims to raise funds for the Ukrainian army in the war against Russia, and also to help Ukrainian refugees displaced by the war.

Shakhtar are also set to face Fenerbahce, Hajduk Split and Lechia Gdansk, with other opponents yet to be confirmed. Football clubs across Europe have offered to play matches against Ukrainian clubs and welcome young players after football in the country was shut down during the invasion of Russia in February.

Shakhtar had previously been moved from its original Donetsk home in 2014.

At the Karaiskaki stadium in Piraeus on Saturday, Shakhtar players replaced their names on the back of their shirts with those of cities bombarded by Russian forces, including Mariupol.

“The names of these towns, where so many died, will forever be in our hearts. The guys were crying in the locker room after the game,” Shakhtar captain Taras Stepanenko said. “We thank Olympiakos for giving us the opportunity to play the game… We hope we got our message across against war and for peace.”

Olympiakos coach Pedro Martins said he hopes Ukrainian teams will “soon return to European competitions and Ukrainians (will return) to normal”.

Shakhtar’s Italian coach Roberto De Zerbi was not present as he felt unwell a few hours before the match and doctors recommended that he stay at a hotel. He hopes to be a coach in the next match, against Polish team Lechia Gdansk on Thursday.

Shakhtar, who played in Lviv and Kharkiv before the war, had not played a game since December, and Stepanenko said his team had done well given the lack of preparation. The players trained in Turkey before flying to Greece. All foreign players in the squad have been released and replaced with players from the youth academy, Stepanenko said.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and Ukrainian Ambassador to Greece Sergii Shutenko attended the game.

The 32,000-seat stadium did not appear to be more than a quarter full. A lively contingent of Ukrainians occupied one end of the stadium. The opposite end, where hardcore Olympiakos fans normally sit, was empty. Their official fan club, called Gate 7, boycotted the match.

In a statement, Gate 7 said it “refused to take sides” and “play political games”.

A small section of seats was filled with 176 teddy bears and other children’s toys in memory of the 176 children Ukraine says have died in war since the February 24 Russian invasion.

After a minute’s silence for war victims, the match began and the warm camaraderie lasted for about five minutes before home fans started treating it like a normal football game and mocking their opponents.

Brazilian striker Tiquinho scored the only goal with a header in the 22nd minute in a game where scoring never really mattered.

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