Shakhtar fights to survive in the UCL, but its owner is in even more peril

More than 33,000 fans filter into Arena Lviv, in western Ukraine, on a late September day in 2014, but there is only one person whose attendance really matters. Over the past 20 years, Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's wealthiest figure, has utilized his fortune in coal and steel to transform his soccer team, Shakhtar Donetsk, into a club of international standing. Now that Shakhtar is to play a critical UEFA Champions League match against FC Porto, a club from Portugal's Primeira Liga, no one is sure if Akhmetov is even in the building. The club's press office isn't talking. His confidantes aren't going to be blamed for a leak. Once one of Ukraine's most public faces, with a ruddy complexion and thick head of strawberry-blond hair, Akhmetov has become a ghost.

And with good reason. In Ukraine, it is a time of invasion, of disappearances, a time of war with Russia. It is a war that has killed more than 8,000 people. In the eastern part of the country, Akhmetov's home city of Donetsk, located about 50 miles from the Russian border, has been the center of the conflict, the symbol of society's grave uncertainty. Himself, Akhmetov is just as embattled. In Kiev, people want to know if he, ruler of the east, has provided financing and support to the separatist enemy. In Donetsk, the Russia-funded rebels ask why he hasn't thrown in with their cause.

Life carries on, for those lucky enough to live it. Shakhtar has won the Ukrainian Premier League nine times in the past 14 seasons and has appeared in the UEFA Champions League group stage 11 times since Akhmetov took over as president of the club in 1996.

But it has no home. Donetsk has been battered by the fighting. The team's stadium has been strafed and looted. Shakhtar has played all of its home games on the road. With no ally on either side of the conflict, Akhmetov has also fled Donetsk, existing in internal exile. He used to attend Shakhtar practices. He used to cheer from the owner's box during games.

In Arena Lviv, the warm-ups end, and play is set to begin, but the owner's box is empty. Akhmetov knows that this is no safe place to stand.

This Wednesday Shakhtar plays Malmo FF, the 2014 Allsvenskan (Swedish) champion, in a desperate attempt to climb from the bottom of its group in Champions League play. Twenty years have passed since the events that placed Shakhtar in the hands of Rinat Akhmetov.

On Oct. 15, 1995, 8,000 or so fans wait for the game to start in Shakhtar Stadium, in Donetsk. Built 60 years earlier, the multipurpose track-and-field venue is showing its age. The Shakhtar Donetsk club has fared no better, winning just three of the season's previous 11 league games. But the team is in luck. Shakhtar faces a club from Crimea that has also met with hard times.

In the days leading up to the match, a crew of laborers, curiously, was seen working on the concrete walls near the owner's box. More policemen than usual now roam the grounds. But these aren't policemen; they only dress the part. They communicate by radio with two men sitting in a car in the stadium parking lot, one of whom clutches a remote control device.

They are all waiting for the team's then-owner to arrive. A gangland kingpin, Akhat Bragin has amassed more power and wealth than anyone in eastern Ukraine since the fall of Soviet Rule. Usually on game day, Bragin, known as Alik the Greek, occupies the VIP tribune, surveying his possession. But the Greek isn't there yet.

In the match's opening minutes, Bragin finally appears in the owner's box. Quickly, it happens. In the parking lot, a conspirator flips a switch on the remote control. A bomb detonates in the VIP loge. Eleven pounds of plastic explosives. Enough to send a tank into the air. As the shockwave resounds, the crowd erupts in panic. Fans jump the barricades, flooding the field, joining the players in frightened confusion. Dense black smoke fills the air.

As the clouds dissipate, a scene of carnage emerges. Body parts are strewn about the stadium seats. A foot, still with its sock and shoe. An arm. Splotches of entrails spattered on the stadium walls and girders. During the gory gangland saga of post-Soviet Donetsk, no one has seen anything like this. "All of the people killed were representatives of criminal structures in the city," a spokesman for the Interior Ministry would later announce.

In all, six people are dead. Police identify Alik the Greek by a gold Rolex watch affixed to a dismembered hand and forearm. They can find no more of him. Nor can they find Rinat Akhmetov; Shakhtar Donetsk's vice president has skipped the game.

After the bombing, Akhmetov gained control of Shakhtar Donetsk, as well as the steel mines and coal mills that constituted the bulk of the Greek's wealth. In the ensuing decade, Akhmetov branched out beyond industry, into real estate, media, banking, and telecom, eventually consolidating a holding of more than 100 companies. His empire, the largest taxpayer in Ukraine, employed 320,000 people at its peak. Akhmetov was three times wealthier than the second-richest Ukrainian, and one of the wealthiest people in the world, with a personal fortune valued at up to $31 billion, according to Ukraine's Korrespondent magazine. Though he owned half of Ukraine's steel, iron ore, coal mining, and electricity properties, Akhmetov continued to live in his hometown of Donetsk, where he built a castle estate; in Kiev, he built another one. In London, he paid a record price for a UK residential property: reported at more than $210 million. He was also molding Shakhtar into a reflection of his own personal success. As Ukraine struggled to leave behind its rough wiseguy past, Akhmetov became the model.

"During the late '90s, and until 2014, Akhmetov became somewhat of a demigod in Ukraine," says Brian Best, a managing director at Dragon Capital, Ukraine's largest investment bank. "As a result of his huge economic interests, he gained a large political representation. He was able to orchestrate much behind the scenes, including the eventual presidential election of Viktor Yanukovych."

But in 2014, shortly after Kiev protests forced Yanukovych from office, Ukraine entered a new and dangerous period. The current government in Kiev aims to turn from Russia, pivoting west. The Russian state, under president Vladimir Putin, invaded the eastern part of Ukraine, turning Donetsk, Akhmetov's base, into the center of a brutal armed conflict.

This has placed 49-year-old Akhmetov in a vise. In Kiev, political leaders claim to possess evidence that he has funded anti-government forces. In Donetsk, the separatists call him a traitor to their cause. Last summer, angry crowds on both sides of the conflict stormed his homes in anger. Each camp threatens to confiscate the industrial possessions that undergird Akhmetov's empire. Some people consider Akhmetov an essential figure to Ukraine's future stability, others an obstacle to systematic reform.

The fighting has driven Akhmetov from Donetsk. He has retreated to Kiev, along with his soccer team, leaving each a refugee. Akhmetov is losing capital and power and position in the continuing struggle. "We have a Russian saying," says a former chief of Ukraine's anti-organized crime unit, who spoke with ESPN on condition of anonymity. "'Where you came from, that's where you're going to in the end.' Whether he's going to be poor or he's going to be dead, it's a dire prospect for Rinat."

During the Communist period, the Soviet Union resettled millions of people deemed ethnically undesirable. Many were sent to the Ukrainian Donbass (shorthand for the basin of the river Donets), an industrial region rich in coal and iron ore. There they were forced to work the mines in and around Donetsk. Georgians. Jews. Armenians. Volga Tatars. Russians too, many with lengthy criminal records. While Donetsk became one of the most ethnically diverse places in the USSR, a significant portion of its marginalized population gradually turned to crime. Three groups coalesced, along ethnic lines, these rivals ultimately controlling crime in the region.

The Dolidze brothers, Gennady and Gregory, from Georgia, specialized in economic crime. They held a sophisticated view of themselves, eventually establishing an office in Paris. The Russian Eduard Braginsky, known as Chirik, commanded a group that operated through brute intimidation. Then there was Alik the Greek, a Tatar, who went about identifying sharp young fellow Tatars whom he could turn into moneymakers. Among them was Rinat Akhmetov.

Akhmetov's father and brother worked in the mines. The family had little, not even an indoor toilet. Despite this poverty, Akhmetov was a good student, and he avoided trouble. When he finished school, he had little interest in heading down into the mines, instead developing other skills. Known to have particularly dexterous fingers, he is said to have become a successful card player.

"Rinat promised himself that he would get out of this life at any cost," says the former investigator. "He had very low self-esteem. Very similar to Steve Jobs. The whole world was against him. He had this feeling of injustice from his early days, that the Communist Party people, the mafia people could make so much money. Rinat has a very devious mind, very smart. He never threatened to kill anyone. For everyone, he was just a young guy who played cards well."

When he joined Bragin, Akhmetov's associations expanded. He met Viktor Yanukovych, at the time a regional transport manager who had served time for robbery and assault. The relationship would prove critical for both men, as Yanukovych was beginning to leverage his labor connections in the political sphere.

Great prospects were about to come for those properly positioned. Akhmetov was 25 years old when the Soviet Union collapsed. The Donbass warped in rapid, cataclysmic change. Ukraine's newly independent government, overwhelmed with steering a former command economy into the free market, was struggling to survive. With state power thus preoccupied, and the police available for purchase, Donetsk's criminal rivals brought their underworld tactics out into the open, killing each other in volume and brutality, battling to control the new society.

Bragin amassed capital through currency exchange, eventually muscling his way into control of the region's mills and mines. At the same time, his expansive payroll included high-ranking government officials, which enabled him to accumulate unrivaled political influence. "The Greek became the most respected criminal in Donbass, a Robin Hood of sorts," says the investigator. What Bragin's organization lacked was an honest face.

Enter Shakhtar. Active in the Soviet leagues since the 1930s, Shakhtar had won the USSR Cup twice in the 1960s, and twice more in the 1980s. "Shakhtyor," an earlier name for the club, means "miner" in Russian. ("Shakhtar" is the Ukrainian version of the word.) More than any other public entity, the club -- named for the laborers who relied on it for emotional uplift -- carried the identity of the region. In 1989, as the Soviet Union liberalized under the perestroika initiative of General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, Shakhtar's players formed a co-op, gaining nominal control of the team. Akhmetov urged Bragin to take the club under their influence.

"Owning Shakhtar was more symbolic than anything else," Best says. "It had little economic impact for Akhmetov and Bragin. But it gave them huge influence throughout the country, changing the way they were perceived."

After the 1995 bombing at Shakhtar Stadium, Akhmetov saw to it that the mosque in central Donetsk was named in honor of his deceased patron. Otherwise, there was little time for reflection. Eduard Braginsky was already dead. Soon, the Dolidze brothers were gone, one killed outside of Donetsk, the other in Tbilisi. Additional Akhmetov rivals likewise disappeared from a scene that was rapidly losing its variety, coalescing under one man.

Although rumors about Akhmetov's involvement in the Greek's death have persisted over the years, Akhmetov's representatives deny such claims. "Akhat Bragin was a close friend to Mr. Akhmetov," says Jock Mendoza-Wilson, the director of international and investor relations for Akhmetov's company, System Capital Management (SCM). "Many people that he knew died during the difficult period around 1994-95, when there was a great deal of organized crime and conflict in Ukraine. Mr. Akhmetov has never been part of that. He was dreadfully distraught that his good friend and close colleague was murdered in such a brutal way."

With Bragin gone, Akhmetov expanded his business through the late 1990s and into the new millennium. Government privatizations and industrial takeovers made him the largest producer of iron ore in Ukraine. In politics, Akhmetov supported his old associate, Yanukovych, in a successful 1997 campaign for governor of the Donetsk region. The two men began appearing together publicly.

In 2000, Akhmetov consolidated his growing array of businesses into the SCM holding. As his national profile grew, it required refurbishing. He hired PricewaterhouseCoopers to audit SCM. He began recruiting white-collar professionals from France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., luring them to Donetsk with the promise of considerable company resources.

These Westerners helped SCM become the most professionally administered company in Ukraine. In 2011, the U.S. Agency for International Development praised Akhmetov and SCM for its corporate responsibility. Akhmetov's reputation had transformed, and most people in Ukraine allowed for it, wanting to forget the troubling times of the recent past. "Rinat is thought of as the enlightened one of all the oligarchs," says a former SCM manager. "He treats his people really well."

As SCM's fortunes grew, so did those of Shakhtar Donetsk, largely due to the attention of the club's president. Involved in player selection and strategy, Akhmetov set about making his club from remote Donetsk into a team that could compete with Europe's elite.

"Football is his passion," says a current SCM manager who is close to Akhmetov. "For him, it's the main part of his life. He spent 90 percent his time talking and thinking about the players, talking to the coach. All of the decisions regarding players were between him and the coach. Nothing was done without him. In the business, I could make a deal for tens of millions of dollars without his approval. But I could not imagine the same with the football club."

In 2001, Shakhtar Donetsk advanced to the UEFA Champions League group stage for the first time, and the club would win its first Ukrainian Premier League title a year later. Hungry for even more success, Akhmetov initiated a strategy following the 2002 season that would advance club fortunes, dispatching Shakhtar scouts to target young, raw talent in Brazil's domestic leagues. That year, he signed his first Brazilian, the forward Brandao and would later sign dozens more, including Fernandinho, Willian and Douglas Costa, all of whom now play for giant European clubs.

Akhmetov was caught up in the club's progress. On Shakhtar Donetsk game days, he would refuse to discuss SCM. "You couldn't talk to him about business before or after a match," says the current SCM manager. "He was obsessed." One could hardly blame him, since a gripping story was playing itself out on the field. In 2008-09, Shakhtar won the UEFA Cup. In 2011, Shakhtar reached the Champions League quarterfinals, competing alongside the best clubs in the world: Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Chelsea.

"I came to Shakhtar in 2003 when nobody had heard of it," says Darijo Srna, who serves as captain of both Shakhtar Donetsk and the Croatian national team. "I had never heard of it. I thought it would be a steppingstone. We made this club from zero to 10."

While endearing to fans, Akhmetov's fixation on Shakhtar left senior staffers in his holding's other divisions with grave doubts. "Managers at SCM were frustrated," says a former employee. "When we were keeping different businesses afloat, at the end of the day, the football club was No. 1. It wasn't a venture that was supposed to generate profit. The club was heavily subsidized. It had a $70 [million] to $100 million club budget. And no matter what, that money had to be there."

In 2006, Akhmetov broke ground on his grandest project: the Donbass Arena. Ultimately, the project would cost more than $400 million. FIFA awarded the stadium a category 4 venue, its highest rating. As much as any team victory, the Donbass Arena cemented Shakhtar's iconic status in the region. "When I came, we started with 5,000 people in attendance," says Mircea Lucescu, Shakhtar's head coach. "Now it's 50,000." The stadium opened on Aug. 29, 2009, with a special guest performer. No doubt, it was the first time Beyoncé had played a concert to commemorate Miners Day.

At the time, Akhmetov was funding the presidential campaign for Yanukovych. In 2010, Yanukovych won the election, clearing Akhmetov's path to greater wealth and influence.

On June 19, 2012, the president of Ukraine and the president of Shakhtar took in a soccer game from the owner's box at the Donbass Arena. Wayne Rooney would score the winning goal for England, beating Ukraine, 1-0, in the group stage of the European championship, hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine. A disappointing outcome, but the moment itself meant more than a single game. Akhmetov had transformed Donetsk, bringing the world to his palace in the heart of industrial Ukraine. He was still young, in his mid-40s. He had survived the mafia wars of the 1990s, as well as the political battles of the ensuing decade. He had a brand-new stadium, and his old friend was running the country. It must have felt like a new beginning. That year, SCM had revenues of $23.5 billion, with assets valued at $31 billion. Akhmetov held 100 percent of company shares.

Flush times wouldn't last. On Nov. 21, 2013, President Yanukovych rescinded his pledge to sign a document that had sparked considerable debate, the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. The signing of this document would have marked a critical step toward Ukrainian integration into the European Union, taking the country out of Russia's sphere of influence. Following Yanukovych's announcement, Kiev erupted in protest. Then in violence.

In February 2014, the shooting started, with snipers -- who remain unidentified -- killing more than 100 people in the Kiev crowds. On Feb. 22, 2014, Yanukovych fled Ukraine. Taking advantage of the power vacuum, Russia annexed Crimea, the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula. One month later, tensions in the Ukrainian east escalated into open conflict. On one side were Ukrainian forces. On the other, Russian troops commingled with informal groups of locals pressing for autonomy from Kiev. In Rinat Akhmetov's hometown, this group took a name: the Donetsk People's Republic, or DNR.

These were not the blindly devoted Shakhtar fans that Akhmetov had in mind when he built his soccer club into the international symbol of the Donbass. Backed by Russian military and financial assistance, these people were now making demands. They wanted to know where Akhmetov stood: for or against them. Kiev pressed for an answer to the same question -- especially after Ukrainian troops allegedly stopped Nikolai Levchenko, an Akhmetov confidante, on his way to Donetsk, with a car trunk full of cash. This fueled speculation that Akhmetov was paying off separatists in order to protect his industry. Meanwhile, Moscow and its proxies had their own suspicions. They reasoned that Akhmetov was no democrat. He was one of them. He had risen to power on ideals they all shared. Why wasn't he supporting independence -- or Russian accession -- for eastern Ukraine? Akhmetov became a symbol of Ukraine's inability to settle the stalemate within its borders.

"When the crisis in the east started, many people looked to Akhmetov for a solution," Best says. "After all, his political control and his control over the economy in the region should have given him the ability to influence events. As a result of his failure to have any influence on the situation, the region has suffered. So has SCM. I would guess that the company has lost more than 50 percent of its value since the fighting started."

In May of 2014, Akhmetov finally talked. In a short video produced by SCM, he wore a wide-lapelled blue suit and a silver tie. He spoke like a politician addressing his constituency, his delivery rehearsed, polished of the street lingo of his earlier days. Akhmetov dismissed the DNR: "No one in the world recognizes it." He also dismissed the notion of joining Russia. "I deeply believe that the happiness of Donbass can only be in a united Ukraine." Sincere though it may have been, Akhmetov's video failed to silence doubts about his convictions.

Last summer, when Shakhtar Donetsk was in France for a preseason exhibition against Lyon, the Ukrainian conflict reached its nadir. On July 17, 2014, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down east of Donetsk. Corpses and debris lay scattered in fields just outside the city. U.S. and German intelligence blamed Russian-led forces for the catastrophe. The Russian government, in turn, accused Kiev.

Following Shakhtar's exhibition with Lyon, five of the club's Brazilian players, along with one Argentine, refused to return to Ukraine for the start of the season. Akhmetov suspected that their agents were leveraging the crisis in order to elicit offers from clubs in Western Europe, writing as much on Shakhtar's website: "Players have contracts that they have to abide by. There won't be a clearance sale."

The crisis ultimately forced Akhmetov's hand. With fighting only intensifying in Donetsk, he relocated the team to Kiev, and the players agreed to return. Shakhtar's players, coaches, and administrators now live in Kiev's Opera Hotel (owned by SCM). The team plays its home games in Lviv, the largest city in the Ukrainian west, about 40 miles from the Polish border.

One crisis averted, another threat emerged. Roughly half of Akhmetov's mills and factories are located on DNR territory. Rebels have converted several of his industrial assets into fortifications. The railroads servicing his businesses in the region have been significantly destroyed, with a resulting bottleneck starving what factories of his continue to operate. SCM's Azovstal iron and steel works is producing at just one-third capacity. Minefields occupy the no-man's land between the two warring sides. On Aug. 23, 2014, two explosions rocked Donbass Arena. Shells ripped through the stadium's northwest façade, damaging communications and electrical infrastructure. Akhmetov's palace was under attack.

While DNR leaders have hinted that "basic industries should be kept under state control," the power in Kiev hasn't yet figured out how to handle Akhmetov. He still runs the most professional company in a country that desperately needs to recover its economic capacity. "If this country is going to survive, it needs him," says a current SCM manager. "Ukraine needs investment. Who will invest in Ukraine right now?"

Those close to Akhmetov have found him increasingly preoccupied. "I usually have lengthy discussions with him," says the same manager. "His mind now is elsewhere. He only gives yes and no answers. People want to tear him apart." The manager adds one final note of emphasis, which may reveal more about Akhmetov's state of mind than any other evidence: "This is the first time he's not obsessed with Shakhtar."

The former head of Ukraine's anti-organized crime unit provides his own assessment of Akhmetov's fate: "A lot of the war in Donbass is driven by the remnants of Rinat's competition who are now bringing their vengeance against him any way they can. They would cooperate with Russians, Ukrainians, as long as they are against Rinat. This is how Rinat is going to end his days. The mafia is going to get him in his own bathroom."

As it turns out, Akhmetov isn't at the 2014 game against Porto. He hasn't attended any of Shakhtar's games in Lviv. "He made a promise to himself," says the SCM manager. "The first match he will attend will be in Donetsk, at the Donbass Arena. For the people, it will be a sign that we can go back to Donetsk."

And now there is talk among the players that a return may be approaching. As Russia establishes a military presence in Syria, reports have emerged that Putin is transferring troops there from eastern Ukraine. "I don't want be cynical," says the SCM manager, "but for us, it's good. They are leaving our home and going somewhere else."

But before anyone can get comfortable with the idea of returning home, reality encroaches once more. On the morning of Oct. 6, 2015, security at the Donbass Arena received a bomb threat. The target: the Rinat Akhmetov Humanitarian Centre.

Lviv -- with its opera house and the Market Square and its chapels that resemble Prague and Budapest more than anything east of here -- provides a picture of what Ukraine might have looked like. Oddly, for a city that has been Austro-Hungarian, and Polish, and Soviet, Lviv appears to be the most Ukrainian city of all. This is the center of Ukrainian nationalism, the idea that Ukraine could -- and should -- exist apart from Russia, despite the countries' shared heritage.

As play begins in Arena Lviv, in the rain, Shakhtar's Brazilians dance around the field with energized flair. Banners are draped around the stadium. "Glory to Ukraine," one reads. Another: "Glory to Heroes." The war in the east is as present in the atmosphere here as the competition on the field. A flag hangs over a loge. One half is Ukrainian blue and yellow, while the other half is the orange and black of Shakhtar.

Midway through the game, the crowd stands. There are more than 33,000 fans here. While play continues on the field, they begin to sing the Ukrainian anthem: "Ukraine's freedom has not yet perished, nor has her glory." Rain pours down, along with the anthem. Luiz Adriano kicks the ball back to Shakhtar's goalie, Andriy Pyatov. Pyatov, in turn, kicks it, launching the ball on a high arc downfield, its wet panels catching the lights as it sails into the stadium's squall of words. "Souls and bodies we'll lay down, all for our freedom." The game will end in a tie.