By GRAHAM DUNBAR, AP Sports Writer
Ukrainian soccer club Shakhtar Donetsk will play a series of charity games on a government-backed “Global Tour for Peace” that will raise money for the country’s military in the war against Russia.
The depleted squad has gathered in Turkey to prepare for Saturday’s opening match against Greek league leader Olympiakos. The games will also raise money for Ukrainian refugees displaced by the war.
“Football diplomacy will help us involve millions of fans around the world in assisting Ukraine, which is really important,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Friday. “By this charity tour, we will continue attracting the world’s attention to Russian aggression against Ukraine and raise more funds for the Ukrainian army.”
Shakhtar is also set to play Fenerbahce, Hajduk Split and Lechia Gdansk, with other opponents still to be confirmed.
Soccer clubs around Europe have been offering to play games against Ukrainian clubs and host youth players after soccer in the country was shut down when Russia invaded in February.
Olympiakos has advertised the game as “Football For Peace – Stop war in Ukraine.” Tickets for the match in Pireaus cost 10 euros ($10.90).
“This shall be the opening match in a series of friendlies the Ukrainian outfit is going to play against top clubs in Europe and the U.S.,” the defending Greek champions said.
Shakhtar has not played a competitive game since mid-December. On Feb. 26, the league leaders were scheduled to resume the domestic season after a winter break. But two days before their game at Metalist Kharkiv, Russia launched its military invasion and Ukrainian soccer stopped.
Shakhtar typically provides several players to the Ukrainian national team, which was unable to play a World Cup qualifying playoff match against Scotland two weeks ago.
FIFA wants to stage that game in Glasgow in early June. The winner will play Wales several days later for a place at this year’s World Cup in Qatar. FIFA also removed Russia from the playoffs.
Shakhtar has relied on a core of Brazilian players to win 13 league titles over the past 20 years and become a regular in the Champions League. In December, Shakhtar finished last in a Champions League group that included Real Madrid and Inter Milan.
During the war, FIFA changed transfer rules to let players with Ukrainian clubs sign elsewhere. Shakhtar loaned Tetê to Lyon while Junior Moraes, who gained citizenship and played for Ukraine, went to Brazil to play for Corinthians.
The club’s success has continued despite being exiled from its home city Donetsk in 2014, when pro-Russia separatists took control of parts of eastern Ukraine. The team has been playing in Kyiv in recent years.
Nicknamed the Miners, the club is owned by billionaire Rinat Akhmetov and has become a symbol of its home region. The Donbass Arena hosted games at the 2012 European Championship.
The club said during the war it has so far provided 1.4 billion Ukrainian hryvni ($48 million) in “humanitarian aid to civilians, as well as assistance to the Armed Forces of Ukraine and Territorial Defense force in dozens of cities and towns.”
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