‘The worst possible nightmare’: voices from Ukrainian football as war rages | Soccer

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Nika Sitchinava (Kolos Kovalivka)

On the day the war began, I was in Kyiv with my family. I have been injured recently, so could not train with the team. At 5am my young son awoke, and my wife got up to calm him. Then we heard the explosions, one after the other. We thought there had been an accident, but then we read online that the war had begun. We quickly began to gather our belongings. I am Georgian, and was in Georgia in 2008 when Russia attacked our country, so this is not the first time I’ve been through a war. I told my wife: “Let’s get ready more quickly.” I drove the car closer to our house, loaded it with things and then waited for a couple of my teammates. They are foreigners and also have young families. We drove away from Kyiv together.

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The cities of Zhytomyr and Bila Tserkva, which are being bombed, are not far away. Another nearby city, Vasylkiv, was bombed non-stop for three or four days. Only the sounds of the explosions reach us, lighting up the sky at night. We have gone to a village a safe distance away, and at the moment we are calm.

On the way, we stopped at the shops. There are children with us who need artificial nutrition. In the village there is only one open store: the adults buy food, while parents have stocked up on enough mixtures for the kids.

Almost all of the Kolos players are gathered here now. Everyone wanted to stay, but every day one or two people have left. Those who remain have nowhere to go; if they were to go anywhere then it would only be to places where the Russians shoot and bomb. It is hard to leave the country: there are checkpoints on the highways and queues everywhere. If you do not manage to reach a town where it is safe to spend the night then it will be dangerous to go out after 5pm because we have a curfew under martial law. 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 around.

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Kolos Kovalivka player Nika Sitchinava shows the inside of the shelter he is hiding in – video
Kolos Kovalivka player Nika Sitchinava shows the inside of the shelter he is hiding in – video

We are far from the border and cannot take risks: my wife is pregnant and many of the others have small children. I am still here and those who are with me will also stay. We hope everything will calm down and be all right.

We are all sticking together: the players, our families and other people who accompanied us. We sit together in the bunker, we eat together, we spend the difficult moments together. As long as there are no problems with food or water, we must not complain. There are others in worse situations: in Chernihiv, my parents and my in-laws are constantly being threatened by shells.

The help we are getting 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 assistance comes from the club president. He is close to us, and we to him; he is worried and has not gone anywhere. We know he is with us.

Alan Aussi (Veres Rivne, on loan from Dynamo Kyiv)

This has been the worst of weeks. My country and loved ones are in great danger. I am safe, but I cannot say that for all of my relatives and friends, and it worries me sick.

My grandmother is sitting in an apartment in Kyiv; she cannot go out to buy groceries because it may be her last walk. One close friend has joined the army; another somehow managed to leave Kharkiv and told me that there were tank battles near his house. A former academy teammate of mine who lives in Vinnytsia told me that, near his house, they caught a group of Russian saboteurs who had put marks down for the Russian army and air force – showing them where to land and where to drop bombs. It is the worst possible nightmare.

At Veres, some of the players are trying to help people by delivering food and water. Others tried to get jobs in the territorial defence force but were not taken because there was no space left. Then there are those who shelter in basements with their wives and children, hiding from the bombs and the invaders. It is scary.

The club cannot give us much help at the moment. The management asked us to understand that this is such a hard time and they cannot do anything. Some of the players are running out of money and have very little left. This is all happening 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’m still in Ukraine with my family: I can’t 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 else to go. We hope until the last. Women and children are able to go abroad, but men are not allowed to depart.

When the war began, we all received a call from the club and were told that everyone should go home for an indefinite period. We had felt 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 very last that such a thing could happen. The evening before it started, we all smiled and did not really believe it, but we folded our clothes so that we could be ready to leave straightaway.

We woke at about 7am to calls from our loved ones, saying that cities and military bases were being bombed. The morning began in a panic. We packed up and left to be with our families, so that we could make further decisions.

We have food, so there is no big problem with provisions. Everyone from our club went straight to their families, rather than going to fight. Let’s be honest: how can we help in that way if we don’t have any expertise, or own anything? We can assist 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 are fine, but nobody really knows what to do. Everyone is waiting for the situation to be resolved. Nobody can make plans about football; we just want to hear that peace has come. Many peaceful people are dying, and that is the most awful thing. The loss of lives is the most terrible disaster.

Denys Miroshnichenko (right) in action for Olexandriya against Gent in the Europa League in 2019.
Denys Miroshnichenko (right) in action for Olexandriya against Gent in the Europa League in 2019. Photograph: Reuters/Alamy

Evgeniy Budnik (Karpaty Lviv)

I am in Antalya, Turkey, with my teammates and we have nowhere to go. We arrived here on 11 February for a training camp before the season was due to restart and we were only supposed to be here for a couple of weeks. It is impossible to return to Ukraine, so we have to stay here and hope for the best. I know of four other clubs from our country that are in the area too.

There is still training every day, but the coach has been very clear that anyone who does not feel up to taking part should sit it out. On some days I do not feel like going anywhere near the pitch. My mind is not here: it is with my parents and brother in my home city, Kharkiv. There are attacks happening there every day. My family are just trying to survive, hiding in a basement. We are in contact constantly. As I speak, I am looking for ways to get them out as quickly and safely as possible.

I have an apartment in Kharkiv and on Wednesday it was shelled. Some people lost their homes altogether and windows were smashed all over the building. It feels terrible to be so far away. We heard that a youth team player from our club, Vitalii Sapylo, died in battle and felt distraught. Our country is united against Vladimir Putin and fighting for the freedom and independence of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, as footballers we worry about losing our jobs. We do not yet know whether our club can continue paying us. There is no hope of finding a club in Turkey, and it is hard to focus in any case. Somehow we will have to find a way to make money for our families, who need it so much.

This tragedy must stop now and the whole world must know exactly what is happening.

Mladen Bartulovic (assistant coach, Inhulets Petrove)

Ukraine is my second home: I came here from Croatia in 2006 at the age of 19, married a Ukrainian, had a daughter here and have lived happily in Dnipro. I love this country so much. What we are experiencing now is like some kind of terrible dream.

At 2am last Thursday morning our squad arrived at a hotel in Kyiv: we had been at a training camp and flew there because we were supposed to be playing Dinamo Kyiv. At 4am we heard of the first bombings and were shocked. No one believed Putin would do this at night, while people were sleeping.

Most of us left on the club bus, driving to our training base near Dnipro. Some of the guys stayed in Kyiv, or went elsewhere to their families, and the foreign players managed to leave the country. I went to our camp and then back to the family home. My wife had sent me details about bombings at Dnipro airport and a military base, not far from where we live. It was crazy, indescribable.

Since then, we have been lucky. Initially there was panic in the city: people buying all the petrol, pharmacy products and other goods they could. But in the last few days things have been OK, and we have all we need for now. Sometimes there are sirens, but nothing ends up happening. People worry when it happens, but it makes them ready to mobilise and fight for their country.

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I keep in touch with our players and other coaches every day, and with colleagues all across Ukraine. We are not concerned about football or training: we want to stop the war before coming back to the game we love. Nobody at the club has joined the army yet but you never know what will happen in the future. Perhaps if we are needed, we will go.

I think our club will be OK: it’s a young, ambitious club and the president is committed to supporting us. But many clubs in Ukraine could go bankrupt or fold after this war. Football will be far down the list of priorities as the country rebuilds.

This is the third war of my life; I am still only 35. I was five when the Yugoslavian war began, and still feel the impact on my family. I was here in Ukraine when war began in the Donbas in 2014. Now we are going through this. When I think about it too much, I just don’t know what to say.

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