Since its inauguration in 2021, the TSC Arena in Backa Topola, in northern Serbia, has had the opportunity to host several international football matches. But the one playing on November 25, at 4:30 p.m., is very special. On the pitch, no club in the country, nor its national team. This Saturday, the Israeli club Maccabi Tel-Aviv is officially playing “at home” against the Ukrainians Zorya Louhansk, in the group stage of the Europa Conference League.

The meeting, counting for the 3rd day of the smallest of the European cups, should have been held a month earlier, at the Bloomfield stadium, in the coastal city of the Hebrew state, the traditional lair of the “Yellows”. But there was the attack carried out on October 7 by the Islamist movement Hamas on Israeli soil. Then the military response on the Palestinian enclave of Gaza. In this context, UEFA, the governing body of European football, has decided that no matches will be played in Israel “until further notice”. A security measure. For the same reasons, the game will also be played behind closed doors.

This forced exile, Maccabi Tel-Aviv’s opponents know it only too well: it has been nine years since Zorya Luhansk, a club from Donbass, in eastern Ukraine, last kicked the ball at the stadium Avanhard. The compound was partially destroyed during clashes between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces in the summer of 2014. This event, coupled with the rebels’ proclamation of the Republic of Luhansk (Russian name for Luhansk), the same year, forced the formation to take up residence in an area still under the control of Kiev, in Zaporizhia, 400 kilometers to the west.

As the local stadium – the Slavutych Arena – was not approved by UEFA, the team still had to travel hundreds of extra kilometers to play their European “home” matches. Almost 900 km to Odessa. More than 1,300 km to Lviv. So much so that on October 19, 2017, when Zorya hosted Herta Berlin in the Europa League group stages, the home side were further from home than their visitors.

“Let’s not collapse under pressure.”

With the invasion of the country by Russian troops on February 24, 2022, the club had to resolve to move further away. This time putting down its crampons outside its borders: in Lublin, Poland, where the first act of the double confrontation against Maccabi Tel-Aviv was held on November 9. That evening, the Ukrainians entered the field with the national flag on their shoulders. The opposing captain, Eran Zahavi, displayed the white banner with two blue stripes decorated with the Star of David; He and his teammates also wore a black armband with the number “240,” in reference to the number of hostages kidnapped during the Hamas attack.

After his team’s victory (0-3), Eran Zahavi explained that he was going through contradictory feelings. The joy of having imposed oneself. The pain and worry of seeing his country shaken by war. “We had to come here, do our job, show our mental strength and not crumble under pressure. I just hope we managed to make people happy at home,” he summed up.

“Football is not really important at the moment if we compare it to reality,” insisted the center forward at a press conference. On a sporting level, however, Saturday’s meeting is crucial for the future of the two clubs in the competition: with a match late in Group B, both can still hope to continue their European adventure. Maccabi Tel Aviv is currently in second place with 6 points, behind the Belgians La Gantoise (10 points); Zorya Luhansk is third, with 4 points.