NEXT Thursday, Manchester United travel to Ukraine to face Zorya Luhansk in the Uefa Europa League group stage.
The city of Luhansk currently forms the centre of the self-proclaimed ‘Luhansk Peoples’ Republic’ and the surrounding area has been ravaged by a war which continues to this day.
Our reporter, Stefan Jajecznyk – who has Ukrainian heritage and regularly travels to the country – answers some of the questions Manchester United fans may ask prior to travelling to Ukraine.
“When we were in England we were only in Manchester and I did not like the city. It was very dirty. It was bizarre for me to see men walking down the street and kissing. I did not like it.”
Zorya Luhansk’s Chief Executive, Sergei Rafailov, was clearly unimpressed by Manchester when his team visited at the end of September for the 1-0 defeat.
To avoid any kind of similar ‘upset’, we thought we could dispel a few rumours whilst letting United fans know what they can expect when they travel to Ukraine.
Why Not Luhansk?
Despite the team’s name, the match will not be taking place in Zorya’s traditional home of Luhansk.
The East-Ukrainian city is currently occupied by Russian and separatist armies who have illegally declared ‘independence’ from Ukraine and are looking toward Russia for political direction.
Much like their Eastern neighbours, Shakhtar Donetsk, Zorya were forced to leave their home city, stadium and fans behind as a separatist war erupted in 2014.
As shells and mortars rained down on the city, the club was forced to make the difficult decision to leave, with the club’s stadium being hit only several days after the team left (below right).
The club now play their home league games in the South-Eastern city of Zaporizhia, whose stadium is not suitable for European fixtures – a problem, which further disrupts the team in their preparation.
To add some perspective, this is the equivalent of United playing their home games in Luxembourg.
Instead, the match will be hosted by the southern port-city of Odessa.
So what can United fans expect from this city and why are they travelling somewhere nearly 800km away from where their opponents are actually based?
Can fans expect to be safe in Ukraine?
Despite the ongoing conflict in the East, Ukraine is largely as safe as any other European country.
Many fans will be familiar with the BBC’s 2012 documentary, ‘Stadiums of Hate’, which included former Arsenal defender Sol Campbell’s sombre warning to fans travelling to Euro 2012 that they “…might return in a coffin”.
The tournament proved that Ukraine was safe for visitors, with England fans eventually parading a coffin through the streets of Donetsk, mocking Campbell’s earlier assertion.
However, since 2012 Ukraine has seen a huge shift in its social and political climate.
The 2013 popular uprising saw the violent removal of a dictator and sparked the annexation of Crimea as well as the separatist war.
Despite this, the rest of the country still proves to be a popular destination for tourists and is a safe and welcoming place for visitors.
Ukrainian cities are regularly featured by travel writers as top destinations for prospective tourists.
There is little indication of the ongoing conflict outside of the Anti-Terrorist Operation zone , the name given to the conflict region by the Ukrainian government.
The Ukrainian Consulate in Edinburgh supported this, saying: “Everyday life is peacefully going on but please adhere to Foreign travel advice from the Foreign Commonwealth Office.”
The streets and boulevards of major cities like Kyiv, L’viv and Odessa are bustling despite the uncertainty – with restaurants and bars full with people sheltering from the bitterly cold winter air.
Unlike Luhansk, the historic port-city of Odessa has a prestigious history having been a major industrial trading hub for the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and in present-day Ukraine.
The city is used to foreigners, with football famously arriving in Ukraine after British sailors taught locals how to play whilst on shore leave in the city.
According to the Odessatourism.org “more than 130 nationalities reside in Odessa,” which gives the city an unmistakeably multicultural feeling, where visitors are welcomed wherever they come from.
United fans should expect to find plenty of entertainment in the city’s central district, centred around Deribasivskaya Street.
What are United’s chances?
With a crucial Premier League tie against Tottenham just three days after the arduous trip to Ukraine, it is likely that manager Jose Mourinho will rest several of his star players for this final group stage fixture.
Despite this, the weight of expectation will be as heavy as ever.
We spoke with Petro Chymera, who writes for UK-based Ukrainian football blog ‘DonetskWay’, and asked for his perspective on the fixture.
“Reputation wise, United will come into the match as heavy favourites,” he accepted.
“Despite this, Zorya put up a spirited performance in the match at Old Trafford and can consider themselves unlucky to have lost that tie.
“Yuriy Vernydub has his team well organised and hard to break down so United shouldn’t expect to blow them away.”
Chymera also maintained that the club’s hometown disruption hasn’t affected the side as much as many may expect.
“Despite having to flee their home, Zorya have close links with Shakhtar and have been able to bring in several loan players who have definitely helped their cause.
“Zorya’s success means the club will have extra funding which in times of trouble, are proving very helpful.”
More importantly for Chymera though, is the positive attention Zorya’s success brings to Ukraine: “It is an important matter that the teams from the Donbas region continue to be successful.
“It serves a reminder to the world that these regions belong in Ukraine and has been something of a
uniting factor in Ukraine itself.”