August 20, 2022

SPLIT, Croatia – It was in their moment of triumph, when they beat their opponents and came together to collect their medals, when some of the boys were overwhelmed with sadness, when tears welled up in their eyes.

The teenagers, a mix of 13 and 14-year-olds representing one of the youth teams of Ukraine’s top football team Shakhtar Donetsk, had just won a tournament in Split, the Croatian city that provided them with refuge from war . Each boy received a medal and the team received a trophy to mark the victory.

The lucky ones were able to celebrate and pose for photos with their mothers. For most others, however, there was no one there – just another vivid reminder of life’s loneliness, of the distance that separates them from the people they love and the places they know. It’s in those moments that the adults around the players have come to realize, when the emotions are at their rawest, when the tears sometimes come.

“As a mother, I feel it,” said Natalia Plaminskaya, who was able to accompany her twins to Croatia but said she felt for the families who couldn’t do the same. “I want to hug them, play with them, make them feel better.”

It all happened so fast. In those frantic first days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, Shakhtar Donetsk, one of Eastern Europe’s most powerful clubs, moved quickly to evacuate its teams and staff members out of danger. Foreign players have reunited their families and found their way home. Parts of the first team found themselves in Turkey and then Slovenia, establishing a base from which they played friendlies to raise awareness and earn money and keep Ukraine’s hopes alive to qualify for the World Cup.

But dozens of Shakhtar youth academy players and staff also needed shelter. Phone calls were made. Buses have been organized. But decisions had to be made quickly, and only a dozen mothers were able to accompany the boys on the trip. (Wartime rules required that their fathers—all men of fighting age, in fact, between the ages of 18 and 60—had to stay in Ukraine.) Other families made different choices: to stay with husbands and parents, send their boys alone. All options were flawed. None of the decisions were easy.

Three months later, the weight of separation, of loneliness – of everything – has taken its toll.

“It’s a nightmare, it’s a nightmare,” said Edgar Cardoso, who leads Shakhtar’s youth teams. He repeats his remarks to emphasize how fragile the atmosphere has become within the walls of the seaside hotel that has become the temporary residence of the Shakhtar group. “You see the emotions are now at their peak.”

Nobody knows when all this will end: neither war, nor separation, nor 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 selected the most talented of Shakhtar’s stranded sons, offering to nurture the best 14-17-year-olds in relative safety. from Germany and Spain. .

The departures of these players have left Cardoso with mixed feelings. On the one hand, their absence affects the quality of training. But there is also pride that others are so interested in the boys Shakhtar has developed.

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

For Cardoso, a widely traveled Portuguese coach who moved to Shakhtar eight years ago after developing youth football in Qatar, the implications of the war mean he has now been thrust into a new role: figure paternal and focal point for dozens of teenagers. boys separated from their families and everything they knew.

Once the club trained him, his young proteges, a handful of their mothers and some staff from Kyiv in Croatia, where they were offered a new base by Croatian side Hajduk Split, Cardoso, 40, decided to create an approximation of normality with whatever was available.

In Ukraine, each generation of young players had two dedicated coaches, doctors, access to fitness instructors and dedicated analysts. In Split, the setup is considerably more rudimentary.

Now only one fitness coach takes care of all the boys. One of the team’s administrators, a former player now in his sixties, takes part in running the daily training sessions. Mothers help set up cones, oversee mealtimes or accompany the children on excursions, which usually means a short walk down a dusty track to the local beach. About halfway there, 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 most important figure in ensuring things run smoothly is Ekateryna Afanasenko. A native of Donetsk in his 30s and now in his 15th year with the club, Afanasenko was working 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 bringing 100 members of the club’s youth academy to safety. Once the team finally settled in Kyiv, Afanasenko’s role grew to include overseeing education and administering a new facility where many displaced children lived.

Now in Split after yet another escape from another Russian assault, Afanasenko and Cardoso’s responsibilities have grown so much that Afanasenko has a simple explanation for what they are doing: “We are like mother and father.”

Shakhtar has issued an open invitation to parents of other boys to attend the camp.

Elena Kostrytsa recently arrived for a three-week stay 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 how that feels,” Kostrytsa said, as Alexander looked on, dressed in training gear. Her younger sister Diana had also made the 1,200 mile trip. But even this meeting was bittersweet: Ukrainian laws prevented Alexander’s father from being present.

The impromptu soccer camp is now as much a distraction as it is an elite-level education for a career in professional sports. Doing his best, Cardoso divided the players into four groups, separating them roughly by age, and working half at a time.

He holds two sessions simultaneously, using the time spent on the pitch with half the players to send the team bus – branded as Shakhtar – back to the hotel to pick up the rest of the trainees. In the field, Cardoso barks orders in a hoarse voice over the course of the daily sessions, and without his translator.

Yet an air of uncertainty pervades everything for Shakhtar’s staff and young players, who are heading into a fourth month in their Croatian exile.

“I’m not one to lie and be too optimistic 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 locked in Hotel Zagreb can do is provide a safe environment for players, preserve the bonds they share and reunite them with their families as soon as they can. There will be more waiting, more worrying, more tears.

“Every day, 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 is doing the same thing. But what can we change?