Nomadic Zorya Luhansk to 'host' Man United 600 miles from home ground
ODESSA, Ukraine -- It has now been more than two and a half years since Zorya Luhansk last played at home, so Manchester United's Europa League visit to Ukraine on Thursday is tinged with as much sadness as anticipation for the club known as "Lenin's team."
Zorya will host United for the first time, a box-office encounter that has ensured a 27,000 sell-out at Odessa's Chornomorets Stadium on the banks of the Black Sea.
But Jose Mourinho's team will be contesting the Group A fixture almost 600 miles from Luhansk because of the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has forced Zorya into a nomadic existence in order to fulfill their domestic and European fixtures.
Not since the visit of FC Hoverla in April 2014 have Zorya played in front of their own fans at the Avanhard Stadium, and with the 11,000-capacity arena suffering damage from shelling in the war-torn region -- there is a crater in the pitch and fire damage to the main stands -- there is no likelihood of a return home anytime soon.
So Thursday's meeting with United, the biggest game in Zorya's history, will be played on the other side of the country, while home fixtures in the Ukrainian Premier League are staged 230 miles from Luhansk in FC Metalurh Zaporizhia's Slavutych Arena. Zorya must host Europa League fixtures in Odessa because Slavutych Arena fails to meet UEFA standards.
"To leave the city where you have grown up is always difficult," Zorya official Pavlo Popenko told ESPN FC. "But it is even more difficult to live [at home during the war].
"Therefore we are grateful to Zaporizhia for their hospitality, but we remember and we love Luhansk. We hope that, sometime, we will return."
Shakhtar Donetsk, the most successful Ukrainian club in recent times, have also been forced to abandon their home city and five-star Donbass Arena because of the conflict in the eastern part of the country, with the Champions League regulars now staging home games in the western Ukraine city of Lviv.
Zorya, who go into the United game standing third in the UPL following Saturday's "home" defeat against Dnipro, have relocated their entire operation to Zaporizhia since leaving Luhansk in May 2014 as a result of intensifying fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian rebels.
Yuriy Vernydub's team train at facilities rented from Torpedo Zaporizhia, while the club's staff and squad have also been placed in accommodations in the city.
"There are still a lot of our relatives who live in Luhansk," Popenko said. "So our thoughts are always with our home city.
"When will we be able to go back? It is difficult to answer this question now, but all of us hope to come back home in the future."
It has proved to be a difficult move, with visiting supporters from Feyenoord and Fenerbahce being victims of attacks by Odessa-based hooligans during their trips to Ukraine's third-biggest city this season.
Such is the concern within United about the safety of the 900 fans due to travel from England; all those receiving tickets have been sent a letter from the club secretary urging caution and vigilance during their stay in Odessa.
Armed troops and police patrolled the streets of the city on Wednesday ahead of the arrival of the majority of the United supporters, with the heavy security presence due to be maintained until Friday.
But while there is a mood of trepidation around the city of a repeat of the attacks on the Dutch and Turkish fans from Feyenoord and Fenerbahce, Zorya are aiming to treat the United game as a celebration and a prestigious event in the history of a club founded on the insistence of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin in the 1920s.
"First of all, the game against United is about prestige and popularity for Zorya," Popenko said. "In addition, it is an opportunity to get unique experience. Manchester United is a world famous club, but to play with any rival in the Europa League is very interesting.
"All tickets for the match are sold out. Obviously, the most part of fans will be from Odessa. Some of them are interested, first of all, in Manchester United, because their visits to Ukraine are very rare. But most of all, they support our team. Fans of Zorya live in Luhansk and in other cities of Ukraine, but fans who live in Ukraine always visit our matches.
"Our supporters in Luhansk have some difficulties because the way from Luhansk to Zaporizhia takes a lot of time and money, but it is not a barrier to the real fan. Those who can't arrive watch our games on TV or read about it online on the official website."
The prospect of a fixture against United, with the likes of Mourinho, Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic set to face a Zorya outfit that was languishing in the third tier of Ukrainian football as recently as 2003, is also a symbolic moment for the club.
It is an opportunity for the plight of Luhansk to reach a wider audience and also, if only for 90 minutes, offer their supporters a distraction from the difficulties they continue to face.
"For all people in Luhansk, games of Zorya is a real holiday," Popenko said. "And it is pleasant for us to create for them a soccer holiday.
"Not only in the Championship of Ukraine, but also in the Europa League, with a game against Manchester United something very special for everybody in Luhansk."
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_