(Refiles to fix spelling of Donetsk in paragraphs 4 and 20)
By Sergei Kirichenko
DONETSK, Ukraine -Seven years after Ukraine lost control of this industrial city to heavily armed Russian-backed separatists who still rule Donetsk today, residents are split over who to support at the European soccer championships.
The question cuts to the heart of the war-ravaged area’s identity with some residents feeling closer to Russia despite living on territory internationally recognised as Ukraine and others cheering on the Ukrainian national team which is due to face England in Rome on Saturday.
Donetsk is now the capital of a self-proclaimed pro-Russian separatist republic carved out in vicious fighting that erupted in 2014. The conflict, which is ongoing, has killed some 14,000 people and displaced thousands more.
The European soccer championships have a special significance for many people here who recall when Donetsk in 2012 hosted some of the tournament’s matches, including an England-Ukraine one which saw the English side triumph 1-0.
Sergei Rudenko, 45, was at that game and is still fuming over what he said was the referee’s decision not to recognise a Ukrainian shot that crossed the English goal line.
“Maybe this time fairness will prevail,” said Rudenko, dressed in a jersey of local team FC Shakhtar Donetsk.
Others are thrilled at the prospect of a Ukraine-England rematch reminiscent of more peaceful times.
“There are players from Donetsk on the (Ukrainian) team, so we support them,” said 52-year-old Andrei Salko.
“I cheer for strong teams. With the match coming up, we will be supporting Ukraine.”
Other residents switched their sporting allegiance after the region’s political transformation and supported the Russian national soccer team, not Ukraine, at the tournament.
Russia was knocked out by Denmark last month in a 4-1 defeat.
“It was bad when Russia, our guys, lost,” said Denis, a 42-year-old construction worker.
“I was supporting Russia but they exited the tournament,” Viktor, a 70-year-old pensioner said. “Then I began to support France, but then they too were eliminated.”
Rudenko said this year’s tournament made him nostalgic for 2012, the year Donetsk hosted some Euro matches.
“We had signs on billboards, there were signs all over the roads, cars would honk. Now there is less of that,” he said.
Donbass Arena, once home to FC Shakhtar Donetsk, has not been in use since the fighting erupted in 2014.
The conflict forced the club to play away from its home ground, and the area surrounding the once buzzing 52,000-seat stadium is now empty and unkempt.
“It used to be ready to host matches but so much time has passed since anyone has played there,” said Viktor, the pensioner. “We don’t even know what’s there anymore.”
The Ukrainian government, which wants Donetsk and the wider region back, has used the tournament to try to unify the country.
After Ukraine won its spot in the quarter-finals with a dramatic extra-time win over Sweden, Ukrainian President Zelenskiy said Ukraine was a team representing 40 million people stretching from the separatist-held regions in its east to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
Ukraine last month also unveiled a Euro jersey that featured the country’s borders, which included Crimea.
Russia, which says Crimea is part of its territory despite still being internationally recognised as Ukraine, objected to the jersey.
After Ukraine won a place in the quarter-finals, Zelenskiy and his ministers all wore the jersey in a cabinet meeting in a show of national unity.