Split, Croatia – It was at the moment of their victory, when they defeated their opponents and gathered to collect their medals, when some of the boys were exhausted with grief, when tears welled up in their eyes. Big.
A mix of youngsters, 13- and 14-year-olds who represent one of the youth squads of Ukraine’s top football team Shakhtar Donetsk, had just won a tournament in the Croatian city of Split Provided. Each boy was presented with a medal, and the team received a trophy for victory.
The lucky ones got a chance to celebrate and take pictures with their mothers. For most others, though, no one was there – just another clear reminder of how lonely life has become, how far they live away from the people they love and the places they know. It is in these moments, the adults around the players have realized, when the emotions are at their most raw, when the tears sometimes come.
“As a mother, I feel this way,” said Natalia Plamanskaya, who could have gone to Croatia with her twin sons, but said she felt for families who could not. “I want to hug them, play with them, make them feel better.”
It all happened so fast. In the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, Shakhtar Donetsk, one of the Eastern European powerhouse clubs, moved swiftly to rescue its teams and crew members. The foreign players gathered their families and found their way home. Parts of the first team merged into Turkey and then Slovenia, from where they played friendly matches to raise awareness and raise money and kept Ukraine’s hopes of qualifying for the World Cup alive.
But several players and staff members of Shakhtar’s youth academy also needed shelter. Phone calls made. Buses were arranged. But decisions had to be made quickly, and only a dozen mothers could travel with the boys. (Wartime rules required that their fathers – all men of combat age, in fact, between the ages of 18 and 60 – must remain in Ukraine.) Other families made different choices: husbands and relatives. Living with relatives, sending your boys alone. All options were incomplete. No decision was easy.
Three months later, the weight of separation, loneliness – everything – has taken its toll.
“It’s a nightmare, it’s a nightmare,” said Edgar Cardoso, who leads Shakhtar’s youth team. Reiterating his words, he points out how fragile the atmosphere inside the walls of the beach hotel has become, which has become the temporary home of the Shakhtar group. “You see, emotions are on the rise now.”
No one knows when it will all end: no war, no separation, no uncertainty. No one can say, for example, whether they will stay together. Teams from more than a dozen top clubs across Europe, such as Barcelona and Bayern Munich, have already selected the most talented of Shakhtar’s trapped sons, the best 14- to 17-year-olds in the comparative safety of Germany and Spain. Are offering to train. .
Russia better understand the Ukraine war.
The departure of these players has left Cardoso with mixed feelings. On the one hand, their absence undermines the quality of the training session. But it is also a matter of pride that others are so interested in the boys that Shakhtar has prepared.
It is unknown at this time what he will do after leaving the post. But FIFA on Tuesday extended the waiver until the summer of 2023.
For Cardoso, a Portuguese coach who left Shakhtar eight years ago to develop youth football in Qatar, the implications of the war mean he has now been added to a new role: the father’s personality and dozens. A focal point for young people. The boys deviated from their families and everything they knew.
Once the club encouraged him, his young charges, his handful of mothers and a few crew members left Kyiv for Croatia, where he was offered a new base by the Croatian team Hajdok Split, Cardosu, 40. Decided that the usual estimate with whatever, and whatever, was available.
While living in Ukraine, each generation of young athletes had access to two dedicated coaches, doctors, dedicated fitness instructors and analysts. In Split, the setup is much more rudimentary.
Now a single female fitness coach takes care of all the boys. One of the team’s organizers, a former player now in his 60s, helps run daily training sessions. Mothers help with cones, monitor meal times or go for walks with children, which usually means a short hike on a dusty track to the local beach. About halfway through, a piece of graffiti in black letters indicates the presence of boys in Croatia: “Slava Ukrainian,” it says. The glory of Ukraine.
With Cardoso, the most important person in making things run smoothly is Ekaterina Afanasenko. A native of Donetsk in the 1930s and now in his 15th year with the club, Afanasenko was working in Shakhtar’s human resources department in 2014 when the club’s hometown of Donetsk in Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The team escaped for the first time after being attacked.
At the time, Afanasenko was part of the team’s emergency efforts, which were accused of protecting 100 members of the club’s youth academy. Once the team finally settled in Kyiv, Afanasenko’s role included overseeing education and managing a new facility where many homeless children lived.
Now in Split after escaping another Russian invasion, both Afanasenko and Cardoso’s responsibilities have grown to the point where Afanasenko has a simple explanation of what they did: “We are like mothers and fathers.”
Shakhtar has openly invited the other boys’ relatives to visit the camp.
Elena Costresa recently came for a three-week stay to make sure her son Alexander did not spend his 16th birthday alone. “I haven’t seen my son in three months, so you can imagine how it feels,” Costa Risa said, as Alexander, dressed in training equipment, watched. Her younger sister Diana also traveled 1,200 miles. But even this reunion was bitter: Ukrainian law meant that Alexander’s father could not be present.
Temporary football camps are now as much a nuisance as elite-level education for a career in professional sports. Performing his best, Cardoso divided the players into four groups, segregating them by age, and doing half the work at a time.
He conducts two sessions at a time, using time on the field with half the players, sends the team bus – which is adorned with Shakhtar branding – goes back to the hotel to collect the rest of the trainees. On the field, Cardoso, without his translator, shouted orders in one voice through the daily sessions.
Despite this, uncertainty pervades Shaktar’s staff and young players, who are in the fourth month of Croatia’s exile.
“I’m not a man who lies and is very optimistic and says, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be back soon.’ “I try to be realistic.”
For the foreseeable future, what he, Afanasenko and others hiding in the Hotel Zagreb can do is provide a safe environment for the players, keep their shared contacts safe and get them back as soon as possible. Join families. There will be more waiting, more worries, more tears.
“Every morning and night, I start my day by calling my family and end my day by calling my family,” said Afanasenko. “I think every one of these guys is doing it. But what can we change?”