The stranded sons of Donetsk Shakhtar

SPLIT, Croatia – It was a moment of their triumph when they had defeated their opponents and come to collect medals, when some boys were sad when tears came to their eyes.

13- and 14-year-olds from Shakhtar Donteski, one of Ukraine’s top football teams, had just won a tournament in Split, Croatia, which has offered them refuge from the war. Each boy was awarded a medal and the team received a trophy to celebrate the victory.

The lucky ones were able to party and take pictures with their mothers. But for most others, there was no one – just another vivid reminder of how lonely life has become, how far they are from the people they love and the places they know. It is at these moments that the adults around the players realize when the emotions are the most raw, when there are sometimes tears.

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

It has all happened so fast. In those first frantic days after Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year, Shakhtar Donetsk, one of the most powerful clubs in Eastern Europe, quickly evacuated its teams and staff. The foreign players gathered their families and found their way home. Parts of the first team were completed in Turkey and then in Slovenia, setting up a base where they held friendlies to raise awareness and money and kept Ukraine’s hopes for a World Cup qualification alive.

But many players and staff at Shakhtar Youth Academy also needed shelter. Phone calls were made. Buses were arranged. But decisions had to be made quickly, and only a dozen mothers could accompany the boys on the journey. (Wartime rules required their fathers – all men of war age, actually 18-60 years old – to stay in Ukraine.) Other families made different choices: stay with their spouses and relatives, send the boys alone. All choices were imperfect. None of the decisions were easy.

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

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

No one knows when it will all end: no war, no secession, no insecurity. For example, no one can even say whether they will stick together. More than a dozen top clubs across Europe, such as Barcelona and Bayern Munich, have already selected the most talented of Shakhtar’s stranded sons, offering training to the best young people aged 14-17 to ensure comparative safety in Germany and Spain. .

These departures have left Cardos with mixed feelings. On the one hand, their absence impairs the quality of training. But there is also pride in the fact that others are so interested in the boys developed by Shakhtar.

It is not clear when or whether they will return: the change in the rules that allowed Ukrainian players and potential fugitives to join other clubs was due to expire on 30 June. But on Tuesday, FIFA extended the exemptions until the summer of 2023.

Cardoso, a much-traveled Portuguese coach who moved to Shakhtar eight years ago after developing youth football in Qatar, means the consequences of the war mean that he is now forced into a new role: the father figure and the focus of dozens of teenagers. the boys who had been excluded from their families, and everything they knew.

When he was excited about the club, 40-year-old Cardoso decided on his young wards, a handful of their mothers and some staff from Kiev to Croatia, where the Croatian team Hajduk Split offered them a new base. bringing normality closer to everyone and with whatever was available.

While in Ukraine, each generation of young players had two dedicated trainers, a doctor who had access to dedicated fitness teachers and analysts. In Split, the setting is much more rudimentary.

All boys are now cared for by a single female coach. One of the team’s administrators, a former player, now in his 60s, helps with daily training. Mothers help set up cones, watch meals or send children on excursions, which usually means a short walk along the dusty path to the local beach. About halfway down, the boys’ stay in Croatia is marked by a piece of graffiti written in black letters: “Slava Ukraini,” stands there. Au to Ukraine.

Alongside Cardoso, Jekateryna Afanasenko is perhaps the most important figure in ensuring the smooth running of things. Afanasenko, a 30-year-old from Donetsk who has been with the club for 15 years, worked in the Shhtar human resources department in 2014 when the team escaped for the first time after Russian-backed separatists attacked the club’s hometown of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

At that time, he participated in the emergency work of the Afanasenko team, which was tasked with sending 100 members of the club’s youth academy to safety. When the team finally settled in Kyiv, Afanasenko’s role in overseeing education and managing the new facility, where many displaced children lived, changed.

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

The mine has issued a public invitation to other boys’ relatives to go to the camp.

Elena Kostrytsa recently arrived on a three-week holiday to ensure that her son Alexander does not spend her 16th birthday alone. “I haven’t seen my son in three months, so you can imagine how it feels,” Kostrõtsa said as he looked at his training clothes. His younger sister, Diana, had also traveled 1,200 miles. But even that reunion was bitter: Ukrainian law meant Alexander’s father could not be present.

Temporary football camps are now as much a nuisance as elite education for a professional sports career. To the best of his ability, Cardoso has divided the players into four groups, broadly separated by age, and is training in half.

He holds two sessions at a time, using the time spent on the court with half the players to send a team bus bearing the Shakhtar brand back to the hotel to pick up the rest of the trainees. In the square, Cardoso barks orders with a voice that has become loud during daily sessions and without a translator.

However, there is all the uncertainty for Shakhtar staff and young players that is approaching the fourth month of their exile in Croatia.

“I’m not a man who would lie and show too much optimism and say things like, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be back soon,’ Cardoso said.” I’m trying to be a realist. “

In the near future, he, Afanasenko and others who have stayed at the Zagreb Hotel will only be able to provide players with a safe environment, keep in touch and reconnect with their families as soon as possible. There needs to be more waiting, more worry, 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 all these guys are doing the same thing. But what can we change?”

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