‘The worst possible nightmare’: the voices of Ukrainian football as the war rages on | Soccer
Nika Sitchinava (Kolos Kovalivka)
The day the war started, I was in Kiev with my family. I was injured recently, so I couldn’t train with the team. At 5 am my young son woke up and my wife got up to calm him down. Then we heard the explosions, one after another. We thought there had been an accident, but then we read online that the war had started. We quickly began to gather our things. I’m Georgian and I was in Georgia in 2008 when Russia attacked our country, so it’s not the first time I saw a war. I said to my wife, “Let’s get ready faster. I drove the car closer to home, loaded it up with stuff, then waited for a few of my teammates. They are foreigners and also have young families. We left Kiev together.
The towns of Zhytomyr and Bila Tserkva, which are bombed, are not far away. Another nearby town, Vasylkiv, was shelled non-stop for three or four days. Only the sounds of explosions reach us, illuminating the sky at night. We went to a village a good distance away and for the moment we are calm.
Along the way, we stopped at stores. There are children with us who need artificial feeding. In the village, there is only one store open: the adults are buying food, while the parents have stocked enough mixtures for the children.
Almost all Kolos players are gathered here now. Everyone wanted to stay, but every day one or two people left. Those who remain have nowhere to go; if they had to go anywhere, it would only be in places where the Russians were shooting and bombing. It is difficult to leave the country: there are checkpoints on the highways and queues everywhere. If you are unable to reach a city where it is safe to stay overnight then it will be unsafe to go out after 5pm as we have a martial law curfew. If you look suspicious, you could be shot. They are trying to purge Russian saboteurs from our cities, so we are advised not to move.
We are far from the border and cannot take any risks: my wife is pregnant and many others have small children. I am still here and those who are with me will stay too. We hope everything will calm down and be fine.
We are all in solidarity: the players, our families and the other people who accompanied us. We sit together in the bunker, we eat together, we get through the tough times together. As long as there is no food or water problem, no complaints. There are others in worse situations: in Chernihiv, my parents and my in-laws are constantly threatened by shells.
The help we receive comes from the president of Kolos and other club employees. They call, give us information, make sure we can eat and drink. We try to get food from the store ourselves, but most of our help comes from the club president. He is close to us, and we to him; he is worried and hasn’t gone anywhere. We know he is with us.
Alan Also (Veres Rivne, on loan from Dynamo Kyiv)
It has been the worst week. My country and my loved ones are in great danger. I’m safe, but I can’t say this for all of my relatives and friends, and it worries me deeply.
My grandmother sits in an apartment in Kiev; she can’t go out for shopping because it might be her last walk. A close friend joined the army; another managed to leave Kharkiv and told me that there were tank battles near his house. One of my former academy teammates who lives in Vinnytsia told me that near his home they caught a group of Russian saboteurs who had scored for the Russian army and air force – showing them where land and where to drop bombs. It’s the worst possible nightmare.
In Veres, some of the players try to help people by delivering food and water. Others tried to get jobs in the Territorial Defense Force but were not taken because there were no more places. Then there are those who shelter in basements with their wives and children, hiding from bombs and invaders. It’s frightening.
The club can’t help us much at the moment. The management asked us to understand that it was such a difficult time and there was nothing they could do. Some players are running out of money and there is very little left. All of this happens to us in real life, but our people are very united and everyone helps each other as best they can.
Denys Miroshnichenko (FC Oleksandriya)
I am still in Ukraine with my family: I cannot say exactly where, but fortunately we are safe. We are all worried and waiting to see how things develop. We hope there will be peace. This is our country and we have nowhere to go. We hope until the last. Women and children can go abroad, but men are not allowed to go.
When the war started, we all got a call from the club and were told everyone had to go home indefinitely. We had felt some tension over the previous month. People were constantly talking, warning that something bad could happen in the country, but they did not think until the last moment that such a thing could happen. The day before departure, we all smiled and didn’t really believe it, but we folded our clothes to be ready to leave right away.
We woke up around 7 a.m. to calls from our relatives, saying that towns and military bases were being bombed. The morning began in panic. We packed our bags and left to join our families, so that we could make other decisions.
We have food, so there’s no big supply problem. Everyone from our club went straight to their families, rather than going to fight. Let’s be honest: how can we help in this way if we have no expertise or own nothing? We can help in a different way: we help the army, we go to the soldiers with food.
Periodically, people from the club call and ask if we’re okay, but no one really knows what to do. Everyone is waiting for the situation to be resolved. No one can plan football; we just want to hear that peace has come. A lot of peaceful people are dying, and that’s the most awful thing. The loss of life is the most terrible catastrophe.
Evgeny Budnik (Karpaty Lviv)
I’m in Antalya, Turkey with my teammates and we have nowhere to go. We arrived here on February 11 for a training camp before the season resumed and we were only supposed to stay here for a few weeks. It is impossible to return to Ukraine, so we have to stay here and hope for the best. I know four other clubs in our country who are also in the region.
There are still practices every day, but the coach has been very clear that anyone who doesn’t feel ready to participate should sit out. Some days, I don’t feel like going near the field. My spirit is not here: it is with my parents and my brother in my hometown, Kharkiv. Attacks occur there every day. My family is just trying to survive, hiding in a basement. We are constantly in contact. As I speak, I’m looking for ways to get them out as quickly and safely as possible.
I have an apartment in Kharkiv and on Wednesday it was bombed. Some people lost their homes completely, and windows were smashed all over the building. It’s terrible to be so far away. We have learned that a player from our club’s youth team, Vitalii Sapylo, died in battle and felt distraught. Our country is united against Vladimir Putin and fights for the freedom and independence of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, as footballers, we fear losing our jobs. We don’t know yet if our club will be able to continue paying us. There is no hope of finding a club in Turkey, and it is difficult to concentrate in any case. One way or another, we will have to find a way to earn money for our families, who need it so much.
This tragedy must end now and the whole world must know exactly what is happening.
Mladen Bartulovic (assistant coach, Inhulets Petrove)
Ukraine is my second homeland: I arrived from Croatia in 2006 at the age of 19, married a Ukrainian, had a daughter here and lived happily in Dnipro. I love this country so much. What we are experiencing now is like some kind of terrible dream.
Last Thursday at 2 am our team arrived at a hotel in Kyiv: we were in a training camp and we went there because we were supposed to play against Dinamo Kyiv. At 4 am we heard about the first shelling and were shocked. No one believed Putin would do this at night while people were sleeping.
Most of us left on the club bus, heading to our training base near Dnipro. Some of the guys stayed in Kyiv, or moved to other places with their families, and the foreign players managed to leave the country. I went to our camp and then returned to the family home. My wife had sent me details of the bombings at Dnipro airport and at a military base not far from our house. It was crazy, indescribable.
Since then, we have been lucky. At first there was panic in the city: people were buying as much gasoline, pharmaceuticals and other goods as they could. But the last few days, everything is fine, and we have everything we need for the moment. Sometimes there are sirens, but nothing happens. People get worried when this happens, but it makes them ready to step up and fight for their country.
I stay in daily contact with our players and other coaches, as well as with colleagues from all over Ukraine. We are not concerned with football or training: we want to stop the war before returning to the game we love. No one at the club has joined the army yet but you never know what will happen in the future. Maybe if we’re needed, we’ll go.
I think our club will be fine: it’s a young, ambitious club and the president is keen to support us. But many clubs in Ukraine could go bankrupt or close after this war. Football will be far down the priority list as the country rebuilds.
This is the third war of my life; I am still only 35 years old. I was five years old when the war in Yugoslavia broke out and I still feel the impact on my family. I was here in Ukraine when war broke out in Donbass in 2014. Now we are going through this. When I think about it too much, I don’t know what to say.