SPLIT, Croatia – It was the moment of triumph, when they had beaten their opponents and gathered to collect medals, when some boys were overcome with sadness, when tears welled in their eyes.
The boys, a mix of 13 and 14 who represent one of the youth teams of the top Ukrainian football team Shakhtar Dontesk, had just won a tournament in Split, the Croatian city that provided them with a refuge from war. Each boy was awarded a medal and the team received a trophy to celebrate the victory.
The lucky ones were able to celebrate and pose for photos with their mothers. For most of the others, though, there was none, just another vivid reminder of how lonely life has become, of how far they are from the people they love and the places they know. It is in these moments that the adults around the players have understood, when the emotions are the most raw, when sometimes the tears come.
“As a mother I feel it,” said Natalia Plaminskaya, who was able to accompany her twins to Croatia but said she has feelings for families who couldn’t do the same. “I want to hug them, play with them, make them feel better”.
It almost all happened. In those hectic first days after Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year, Shakhtar Donetsk, one of Eastern Europe’s most powerful clubs, moved swiftly to evacuate its teams and staff members out out of trouble. Foreign players have reunited their families and found their way home. Parts of the first team ended up in Turkey, and then Slovenia, creating a base from which they played friendlies to raise awareness and money and keep Ukraine’s hopes for World Cup qualification alive.
But scores of Shakhtar youth academy players and staff members also needed protection. Phone calls were made. Buses were organized. But decisions had to be made quickly and only a dozen mothers were able to accompany the boys on the journey. (Wartime rules required that their fathers – all fighting-age men, in fact, between the ages of 18 and 60 – should stay in Ukraine.) Other families made different choices: to be with husbands and relatives , send the children away by themselves. All options were imperfect. None of the decisions were easy.
Three months later, the weight of separation, of loneliness – of everything – took its toll.
“It’s a nightmare, it’s a nightmare,” said Edgar Cardoso, who leads Shakhtar’s youth teams. He repeats his words to emphasize how fragile the atmosphere has become within the walls of the seaside hotel that has become the temporary home of the Shakhtar group. “You see the emotions are now at their peak.”
Nobody knows when all of this will end: not war, not separation, not uncertainty. No one can say, for example, even if they will stay together. More than a dozen top clubs across Europe, teams like Barcelona and Bayern Munich, have already chosen the most talented of Shakhtar’s stuck sons, offering to coach the best 14- to 17-year-olds in the relative safety of Germany and Spain.
Better understand the Russia-Ukraine war
The departures of those players left Cardoso with mixed feelings. On the one hand, their absence damages the quality of training. But there is also pride that others are so interested in the boys that Shakhtar has developed.
When, or if, they will return is unclear: the rule change that allowed Ukrainian players and potential customers fleeing the war to join other clubs was due to end on 30 June. But on Tuesday, FIFA extended the exemptions until the summer of 2023.
For Cardoso, the highly talented Portuguese manager who moved to Shakhtar eight years ago after a training spell in youth football in Qatar, the implications of the war mean he has now been pushed into a new role: father figure and focal point for dozens. of teenage boys displaced by their families and everything they knew.
Once the club enlivened it, its young boys, a handful of mothers and some staff from Kiev in Croatia, where they had been offered a new base by the Croatian team of Hajduk Split, Cardoso, 40, have decided to create an approximation of normality with whatever, and whoever, was available.
While in Ukraine, each generation of young players had two dedicated coaches, doctors, access to dedicated fitness instructors and analysts. In Split, the layout is considerably more rudimentary.
Now one female fitness instructor takes care of all the boys. One of the team administrators, a former player now in his 60s, helps manage daily training. Mothers help set up cones, supervise meal times, or accompany children on hikes, which typically means a short walk along a dusty path down to the local beach. About halfway along the path, a graffiti written in black letters marks the presence of the boys in Croatia: “Slava Ukraini”, it reads. Glory to Ukraine.
Along with Cardoso, perhaps the figure with the most importance in ensuring that things run smoothly is Ekateryna Afanasenko. Originally from Donetsk in her thirties and now in her 15th year with the club, Afanasenko worked in Shakhtar’s human resources department in 2014 when the team first fled after Russian-backed separatists attacked Donetsk, the hometown of the club in eastern Ukraine.
At the time, Afanasenko was part of the team’s emergency efforts, tasked with rescuing 100 members of the club’s youth academy. Once the team finally settled in Kiev, Afanasenko’s role evolved to include supervising education and administering a new facility where many of the displaced children lived.
Now in Split, after another escape from another Russian assault, the responsibilities for both Afanasenko and Cardoso have grown to such an extent that Afanasenko has a simple explanation for what they do: “We are like mother and father”.
Shakhtar has extended an open invitation to relatives of other boys to come to the camp.
Elena Kostrytsa recently arrived for a three-week stay to make sure her son Alexander wasn’t spending his 16th birthday alone. “I haven’t seen my son in three months, so you can imagine how it feels,” Kostrytsa said, as Alexander, dressed in training gear, observed. Her younger sister Diana had also made the 1,200-mile journey. But even this meeting was bittersweet: Ukrainian laws meant that Alexander’s father couldn’t be present.
The makeshift soccer field is now as much a distraction as it is an elite-level education for a career in professional sports. Making the best of him, Cardoso has divided the players into four groups, roughly separating them by age, and trains half at a time.
He holds two sessions at once, using time on the pitch with half the players to send the team bus – decorated with the Shakhtar logo – back to the hotel to pick up the rest of the interns. On the field, Cardoso barks orders with a voice made hoarse by the daily sessions, and without his translator.
Yet an air of uncertainty pervades everything for Shakhtar’s staff and young players, who are heading for the fourth month of Croatian exile.
“I’m not a guy to lie and 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 holed up at Hotel Zagreb can do is provide a safe environment for the players, preserve the bonds they share and reunite them with their families as soon as possible. There will be more waiting, more worries, more tears.
“Every day, morning and night, I start my day by calling my family and I finish my day by calling my family,” Afanasenko said. “I think each of these guys are doing the same. But what can we change? “