VYNNYKY (UKRAINE) - Ukrainian team Dynamo Kyiv are forced to play all their European home matches away because of the war in their country -- and the burden of constant travel and the absence of their fans is taking its toll.
After two matches in their Europa League group B, Ukraine's most successful club are currently in last place without a single point.
After Benfica ended their hopes in the Champions League playoffs, Dynamo's last-minute 2-1 defeat to Turkish club Fenerbahce in Istanbul last month was not viewed as a surprise.
But Dynamo did raise eyebrows a week later when they lost to more modest opponents, AEK Larnaca of Cyprus, in a game played in Poland.
Only a few thousand spectators attended the match at the 15,000-seat Cracovia Stadium in Krakow, and the 'hosts' from Dynamo had to travel for hours from Ukraine to reach the venue.
"It is physically difficult, because we are constantly travelling, by bus, then by plane. Also we always need to return to Ukraine to play the championship here," Oleksandr Karavayev, a 30-year-old Dynamo midfielder, told AFP at the team's training base in Vynnyky near Lviv in western Ukraine.
The training base is just another transit point for Dynamo.
Last weekend, after the training sessions there, the team had to take a long bus trip to the neighbouring Zakarpattia region for a domestic game against local side Mynai on Sunday.
After the match, a 1-0 victory, the club faces another long bus journey for a flight to France for their next Europa League match against Rennes on Thursday.
Such long journeys have become an exhausting routine for Dynamo since airspace over the country was closed following the Russian invasion in February.
"It's tiresome. We use all possible types of recovery," Karavayev said.
"We travel a lot more now and it’s exhausting a lot more. We are not based in one place, but constantly on the move," another player, Vladyslav Kabayev, told AFP.
- No feeling of home -
The Dynamo players complain that in Poland they have little support, although they accept that the situation is again exacerbated by the war.
Since the conflict began, men of military age are forbidden to leave Ukraine, so the stadium in Krakow was mostly filled with women and children.
"We understand that the situation now is such that many people are not up to football," Karavayev said. "But we have to play if we have the opportunity."
Kabayev echoed him, saying that "there is no feeling of a home stadium when we play in Poland."
"We are grateful to the fans for coming, but it would be much better and more pleasant to play in Kyiv," he added.
In addition to the absence of their fans at the stadium, Dynamo players hate the long separation from their loved ones.
"It is psychologically difficult. Our families are not around. We spend very little time together," 27-year-old midfielder Kabayev said.
Domestic top-flight football, which had been suspended since the war began, returned to Ukraine in August.
But Dynamo, who were considered the pre-season favourites to win the Ukrainian Premier League, are now in ninth place with just six points after four matches.
However, despite all the current difficulties, the players are determined to show some fight.
"We play and show that we are a club from Ukraine and that we are strong and that nothing will break us," Karavayev said.
"The war puts a lot of pressure on football players and our families. Of course, it is very difficult for us," his teammate Kabayev added.
Dynamo have had a little more time to prepare as club football gave way to national team matches over the last two weeks.
"We have been training a lot and we strongly believe that this two-week break will benefit us."