Stuck sons of Shakhtar Donetsk

SPLIT, Croatia. It was their moment of triumph as they beat their opponents and came together to claim their medals as some of the boys were saddened as tears welled up in their eyes.

Teenagers aged 13 and 14, representing one of the youth teams of the best Ukrainian football team Shakhtar Donetsk, have just won a tournament in Split, the Croatian city, which provided them refuge from war. Each boy was given a medal and the team received a cup to commemorate the victory.

The lucky ones were able to celebrate and take pictures with their mothers. For most others, however, there was no one – just another stark reminder of how lonely life has become, how far they remain from the people they love and the places they know. It’s at times like these that the adults around the players realize that emotions are at their strongest when there are occasional tears.

“I feel it like a mother,” said Natalia Plaminskaya, who was able to accompany her twin boys to Croatia but said she sympathized with families who cannot do the same. “I want to hug them, play with them, make them feel better.”

Everything happened so fast. In those hectic first days after Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year, Shakhtar Donetsk, one of Eastern Europe’s strongest clubs, quickly evacuated its teams and staff from danger. Foreign players gathered their families and found their way home. Parts of the first team ended up in Turkey, and then in Slovenia, base creation of which they played friendly matches to raise awareness and money and keep Ukraine’s hopes of World Cup qualification.

But dozens of players and employees of the Shakhtar youth academy also needed shelter. Phone calls were made. Buses are arranged. But decisions had to be made quickly, and only about a dozen mothers were able to accompany the boys along the way. (Wartime regulations required that their fathers—all men of military age, 18 to 60—should remain in Ukraine.) Other families made a different choice: stay with their husbands and relatives, send their boys alone. All options were imperfect. None of the decisions were easy.

Three months later, the burden of separation, loneliness – everything – took its toll.

“It’s a nightmare, it’s a nightmare,” said Edgar Cardoso, head of Shakhtar’s youth teams. He repeats his words to emphasize how fragile the atmosphere has become within the walls of the seaside hotel, which has become a temporary home for the Shakhtar group. “See, emotions are at their peak right now.”

No one knows when all this will end: not war, not separation, not uncertainty. No one can say, for example, whether they will even stay together. More than a dozen top clubs across Europe, such as Barcelona and Bayern, have already chosen the most talented of Shakhtar’s stuck-up sons, offering to train top 14-17-year-olds in the relative safety of Germany and Spain. .

The departure of these players left Cardoso with mixed feelings. On the one hand, their absence harms the quality of training. But there is also pride in the fact that others are so interested in the boys brought up by Shakhtar.

When and if they will return is unclear: the rule change that allowed Ukrainian players and promising players fleeing the war to join other clubs was due to end on June 30. But FIFA on Tuesday extended exceptions until summer 2023.

For Cardoso, the well-travelled Portuguese manager who joined Shakhtar eight years ago after developing youth football in Qatar, the aftermath of the war means he has now been given a new role: a father figure and coordinator for dozens of teenagers. boys torn from their families and all they knew.

As soon as the club encouraged him, his young charges, a handful of their mothers and a few employees from Kyiv to Croatiawhere the Croatian team Hajduk Split offered them a new base, the 40-year-old Cardoso decided to create an approximation to normal with whatever and whoever was available.

Whereas in Ukraine every generation of young players had two dedicated coaches, doctors, access to dedicated fitness instructors and analysts. In Split, installation is much easier.

Now all the boys are looked after by one female fitness trainer. One of the team’s administrators, a former player now in his 60s, helps with daily practice. Mothers help set up horns, supervise mealtimes, or accompany children on excursions, which usually means a short walk down a dusty path to a local beach. About halfway through, graffiti written in black letters marks the presence of boys in Croatia: “Glory to Ukraine,” it says. Glory to Ukraine.

Along with Cardoso, perhaps the figure most important to ensure the smooth operation is Ekaterina Afanasenko. A native of Donetsk aged 30 and now 15 at the club, Afanasenko worked in Shakhtar’s personnel department in 2014, the first time the team fled after pro-Russian separatists attacked Donetsk, the club’s hometown in eastern Ukraine.

At the time, Afanasenko was involved in the team’s emergency operations, tasked with ensuring the safety of 100 members of the club’s youth academy. After the team eventually settled in Kyiv, Afanasenko’s role expanded to include overseeing the education and management of the new facility where many of the displaced children lived.

Now, in Split, after another escape from another Russian assault, the responsibility of both Afanasenko and Cardoso has grown to such an extent that Afanasenko has a simple explanation for what they are doing: “We are like mother and father.”

Shakhtar sent an open invitation to the relatives of other guys to go to the camp.

Elena Kostritsa recently arrived for three weeks to make sure her son Alexander doesn’t spend his 16th birthday alone. “I haven’t seen my son for three months, so you can imagine what it’s like,” said Kostritsa, while Alexander, dressed in a sports uniform, watched what was happening. His younger sister Diana also made the 1200 mile trip. But even this reunion was bittersweet: according to the laws of Ukraine, Alexander’s father could not be present.

A makeshift football camp is now as distracting as an elite education for a career in professional sports. Doing his best, Cardoso divided the players into four groups, roughly dividing them by age, and trains in half.

He runs two practices at the same time, using his time on the pitch with half the players to send the team bus, adorned with the Shakhtar logo, back to the hotel to pick up the rest of the players. On the field, Cardoso gives orders in a hoarse voice due to daily sessions and without an interpreter.

However, an atmosphere of uncertainty permeates everything for Shakhtar’s staff and young players as they approach the fourth month of their Croatian exile.

“I’m not the type to lie, show too much optimism and say things like, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be back soon,'” Cardoso said. “I try to be realistic.”

For the foreseeable future, all he, Afanasenko, and the others hiding in the Zagreb Hotel can do is provide a safe environment for the players, maintain common ties, and reunite them with their families as soon as they can. There will be more waiting, more anxiety, more tears.

“Every morning and evening, I start my day by calling my family and end my day by calling my family,” Afanasenko said. “I think every one of these boys does the same. But what can we change?