SPLIT, Croatia – It was in their moment of triumph, when they had beaten their opponents and come together to collect their medals, when some of the boys were overcome with sadness, when the tears welled in their eyes.
The teenagers, a mix of 13- and 14-year-olds representing one of the youth squads of the top Ukrainian soccer team Shakhtar Dontesk, had just won a tournament in Split, the Croatian city that has provided them with a refuge from war. Each boy was presented with a medal, and the team received a trophy to mark the victory.
The lucky ones got to celebrate and pose for pictures with their mothers. For most of the others, though, there was no one – just another vivid reminder of how lonely life has become, of how far away they remain from the people they love and the places they know. It is in these moments, the adults around the players have come to realize, when emotions are at their most raw, when the tears sometimes come.
“As a mother I feel it,” said Natalia Plaminskaya, who was able to accompany her twin boys to Croatia but said she felt for families who could not do the same. “I want to hug them, play with them, 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 Eastern Europe’s powerhouse 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 wound up in Turkey, and then Slovenia, setting up a base from which they played friendly matches to raise awareness and money and kept alive Ukraine’s hopes for World Cup qualification.
But scores of players and staff members from Shakhtar’s youth academy needed sanctuary, too. Phone calls were placed. Buses were arranged. But decisions had to be made quickly, and only about a dozen mothers were able to accompany the boys on the journey. (Wartime rules required that their fathers – all men of fighting age, in fact, ages 18 to 60 – had to remain in Ukraine.) Other families made different choices: to stay with husbands and relatives, to send their boys off alone. All of the options were imperfect. 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 words to underline how fragile the atmosphere has become within the walls of the seaside hotel that has become the Shakhtar group’s temporary home. “You see that emotions are now on the peak.”
No one knows when all this will end: not the war, not the separation, not the uncertainty. No one can say, for example, even if they will remain together. More than a dozen top clubs across Europe, teams like Barcelona and Bayern Munich, have already cherry-picked the most talented of Shakhtar’s stranded sons, offering to train the best 14- to 17-year-olds in the comparative safety of Germany and Spain .
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Those players’ departures have left Cardoso with mixed feelings. On the one hand, their absence hurts the quality of the training sessions. But there is also pride that others are so interested in the boys Shakhtar has developed.
When, or if, they will return is not clear: The rule change that had allowed Ukrainian players and prospects fleeing the war to join other clubs was supposed to end June 30. But FIFA on Tuesday extended the exemptions until the summer of 2023.
For Cardoso, a well-traveled Portuguese coach who moved to Shakhtar eight years ago after a stint developing youth soccer in Qatar, the implications of the war mean he has now been thrust into a new role: father figure and focal point for dozens of teenage boys dislocated from their families and everything they knew.
Once the club had spirited him, his young charges, a handful of their mothers and a few staff members out of Kyiv to Croatia, where they had been offered a new base by the Croatian team Hajduk Split, Cardoso, 40, 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 setup is considerably more rudimentary.
Now a single female fitness coach looks after all the boys. One of the team’s administrators, a former player now in his 60s, helps run the daily training sessions. Mothers help set up cones, oversee meal times or accompany the children on excursions, which typically means a short walk down a dusty track to the local beach. About halfway down the path, a piece of graffiti written in black letters marks the boys’ presence in Croatia: “Slava Ukraini,” it reads. Glory to Ukraine.
Along with Cardoso, perhaps the figure with the most outsize importance in ensuring things run smoothly is Ekateryna Afanasenko. A Donetsk native 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 club’s home city in eastern Ukraine.
Back then, Afanasenko was a part of the team’s emergency efforts, charged with shepherding 100 members of the club’s youth academy to safety. Once the team eventually settled in Kyiv, Afanasenko’s role evolved to include oversight of education and administration of 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 travel to the camp.
Elena Kostrytsa recently arrived for a three-week stay to ensure her son Alexander did not spend his 16th birthday alone. “I haven’t seen my son for three months, so you can imagine how this feels,” said Kostrytsa, as Alexander, dressed in training gear, looked on. His younger sister Diana had also made the 1,200-mile trip. But even this reunion was bittersweet: Ukraine’s laws meant Alexander’s father could not be present.
The makeshift soccer camp is now as much of a distraction as an elite-level 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 works out half at a time.
He holds two sessions simultaneously, using the time on the field with half the players to send the team bus – emblazoned with Shakhtar’s branding – back to the hotel to collect the rest of the trainees. On the field, Cardoso barks orders in a voice made raspy through the daily sessions, and without his translator.
Yet an air of uncertainty pervades everything for Shakhtar’s staff and young players, heading into a fourth month in their Croatian exile.
“I’m not a guy to lie and to 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 the 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 they can. There will be more waiting, more worry, more tears.
“Every day in the morning and in the night, I start my day calling my family and end my day calling my family,” Afanasenko said. “I think every one of these boys is doing the same. But what can we change? ”