SPLIT, Croatia — It was in their moment of triumph, when they defeated their opponents and came together to collect their medals, that some of the boys were overcome with sadness, when tears welled up in their eyes.
The teenagers, a mix of 13- and 14-year-olds who represent one of the youth teams of Ukraine’s top soccer team, Shakhtar Donetsk, had just won a tournament in Split, the Croatian city that has provided them with a haven from the war. Each child 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 of the others, however, there was no one, just another vivid reminder of how lonely life has become, how far away they are from the people they love and the places they know. It is at these moments, the adults around the players have realized, when emotions are raw, when tears sometimes flow.
“As a mother, I’m sorry,” said Natalia Plaminskaya, who was able to accompany her twins to Croatia, but said she felt sorry for the families who couldn’t do the same. “I want to hug them, play with them, make them feel better.”
Everything has happened so fast. In those first frantic days after Russia invaded 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 harm’s way. Foreign players gathered their families and found their way home. Parts of the first team ended up in Turkey, and then Slovenia, establishing a base from which they played friendly matches to raise awareness and funds and kept Ukraine’s hopes of qualifying for the World Cup alive.
But dozens of players and staff members from Shakhtar’s youth academy also needed shelter. Phone calls were made. Buses were arranged. But decisions had to be made quickly, and only a dozen mothers were able to accompany the children on the journey. (The rules of the war required that his parents, all men of fighting age, in fact 18 to 60 years old, must remain in the Ukraine.) Other families made different decisions: stay with their husbands and relatives, send their children alone. All options were imperfect. Neither decision was 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 manages Shakhtar’s youth teams. He repeats his words to underscore 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 emotions are running high now.”
Nobody knows when all this will end: neither the war, nor the separation, nor the uncertainty. No one can say, for example, even if they will stay together. More than a dozen of the best clubs from all over Europe, teams such as Barcelona and Bayern Munich, have already selected the most talented sons of Shakhtar and have offered to train the best youngsters aged 14 to 17 in security. comparison of Germany and Spain. .
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The departures of those players have left Cardoso with mixed feelings. On the one hand, his absence harms the quality of training. But there is also pride that others are so interested in the guys that Shakhtar has developed.
It is unclear when, or if, they will return: The rule change that had allowed Ukrainian players and prospects fleeing the war to join other clubs was supposed to end on June 30. But on Tuesday, FIFA extended the exemptions until the summer of 2023.
For Cardoso, a widely traveled Portuguese manager who moved to Shakhtar eight years ago after a spell developing youth football in Qatar, the implications of the war mean he has now taken on a new role: father figure and focal point. for dozens of teenagers. boys separated from their families and everything they knew.
Once the club took him, his young wards, a handful of their mothers and some of the staff from Kyiv to Croatia, where the Croatian team Hajduk Split had offered them a new base, Cardoso, 40, decided to create an approximation to normalcy with whatever and whoever is available.
While 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 a single physical trainer takes care of all the boys. One of the team’s administrators, a former player now in his 60s, helps run the daily training sessions. Mothers help place cones, oversee meal times, or accompany children on excursions, which usually means a short walk down a dusty path to the local beach. About halfway down the road, graffiti written in black letters marks the children’s presence 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 her 30s and now in her 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 city hometown of the club in eastern Ukraine.
At the time, Afanasenko was part of the team’s emergency efforts, tasked with guiding 100 members of the club’s youth academy to safety. Once the team finally settled in Kyiv, Afanasenko’s role evolved to include overseeing education and managing a new facility where many of the displaced children lived.
Now in Split, after yet another escape from yet another Russian assault, the responsibilities of 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 have extended an open invitation to family members of other boys to come to the camp.
Elena Kostrytsa recently arrived for a three-week stay to make sure her son Alexander didn’t spend his 16th birthday alone. “I haven’t seen my son for three months, so you can imagine how he feels,” Kostrytsa said, while Alexander , dressed in training clothes, watched. Her younger sister, Diana, had also made the 1,200-mile journey. But even this meeting was bittersweet: Ukraine’s laws meant that Alexander’s father could not be present.
The impromptu soccer camp is now as much a distraction as it is an elite education for a career in professional sports. Doing the best he can, Cardoso has divided the players into four groups, separating them roughly by age, and trains half at a time.
He runs two sessions simultaneously, using the time on the field with half the players to send the team bus, emblazoned with Shakhtar branding, back to the hotel to pick up the rest of the trainees. On the pitch, Cardoso barks orders in a raspy voice throughout the daily sessions, and without his translator.
However, an air of uncertainty pervades everything for Shakhtar’s coaching staff and young players, who are in their fourth month of Croatian exile.
“I’m not a guy who lies and shows too much optimism and says 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 other refugees at Hotel Zagreb can do is provide a safe environment for the players, preserve the connections 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 the day by calling my family and I end the day by calling my family,” Afanasenko said. “I think every one of these guys is doing the same thing. But what can we change?