This Ukrainian football team’s escape from war is a story of refuge and generosity, pride and fear

On a bridge on the main road that leads into Kryvyi Rih, someone has installed a banner with five words written on it, draped down so that no one passing downstairs can miss them: “Welcome to hell, Russian resident”. South of the city, Kherson has been captured. To the east of Kryvyi Rih stands Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest. It is also under Russian control.

Kryvyi Rih is a mining town, the second largest in Ukraine by area. It is a crucial place in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because it is the only viable entry point to the Dnipro, one of the country’s leading industrial hubs. It has also become famous as the hometown of modern Ukraine’s most famous son.

Volodymyr Zelensky was born in Kryvyi Rih, where his father was a professor at the University of Economics and Technology, and his mother worked as an engineer. His comedy group and film production company was named after the apartment block Kvartal 95, where he lived as a child. His parents still own an apartment in the complex, even though they were moved on the eve of the war.

Kryvyi Rih is also home to FC Kryvbas. Its men’s team participates in the Ukrainian second row, but its women’s team was third in the highest division of Ukrainian women’s football and challenged for the title when the league was suspended.

On February 24, the team boarded a bus bound for the local airport – they flew to Belek in Turkey for a training camp prior to the end of the winter break in Ukraine. On February 24, Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. The same day, Russian forces knocked down two military installations in Kryvyi Rih with missiles, and everything changed.

That shift can best be seen in two Facebook posts from the team’s head coach Alina Stetenko less than 48 hours apart. The first discusses the plans for the heat camp and talks about playing three matches, working with game patterns with and without the ball. The other shares information from the Moldovan government about entering the country from Ukraine without an ID card or visa.

“It was early morning,” said Violetta Tian, ​​one of FC Kryvbas’ players. “We were incredibly scared. We heard three big explosions and we decided that the bus should drive us to a safer place in the center of the city where we would be in less danger. Our sanctuary was a hotel owned by the man who also owns our football club, so luckily the conditions were fine. We ate meals and we could sleep. We stayed there for two weeks. “

Their escape came via Artur Podkopayev, a 20-year-old citizen who had played in FC Kryvbas’ youth team as a child and won a national championship before moving to Germany. When the invasion began, he called his old coach Evhenii Arbuzov, who was now the club’s technical director, and asked him about the club’s situation. Arbuzov told him the news about the women’s team, and the couple worked on a plan to get the team to Germany. At that time, says Podkopayev, everything was settled. The team had to move to additional security.

“I have always wanted to go back to Ukraine to help people, but for various reasons it was not possible,” he says. “Ukraine will always remember the people who helped them during this war, both its own citizens and those from other countries. They will always have in their heads those who helped and those who did not. The message must be that we are stronger together, and with strength we can overcome evil. “

Podkopayev reached out to FC Køln, who deserve great praise for the haste and the extent of their welcome. Cologne, Podkopayev and Arbuzov worked with three charitable foundations in Cologne to organize accommodation for players and coaches, ensuring that food, clothing and supplies were readily available.

But leaving home with some time to prepare creates its own wounds. The players were not able to pick up extra belongings from their home. Tian says she could not say goodbye to her parents because they live in the northern part of the country, where the Russian army already had control. They are able to stay in touch through various messaging services and platforms and so far they are secure.

“Everything changed from one day to the next, and it also changes you emotionally,” says Anna Ivanova, the team captain. “You get to appreciate different things in different ways. Before the war, material possessions seemed important, and now they are meaningless. And the things that once seemed insignificant, everyday things now have a greater significance than we could ever have known. “

“It’s a shitty feeling to have to leave your house, not because you want to, but because you have been forced out,” Tian says. “We are incredibly grateful for the city of Cologne and FC Cologne and all the volunteers who have helped us in Germany. But the overriding feeling is that this does not feel like home. We just want to return to Ukraine, to Kryvyi Rih and play again for a club that plays in its home country. ”

The gratitude to FC Cologne is obvious; it is also deserved. The concept of a football family is wonderful in theory, but you sometimes doubt whether it is practical in the real world. Not here. Koln invited the team as guests of honor to both the men’s match against Dortmund and the women’s match against Bayer Leverkusen. They have also allowed them to use the club’s training complex as much as they like. The two young women have just arrived back at their residence after such a session.

Training has been welcomed as a way to pass the time, but the notion of football as an escape extends only so far. “When we train, it’s a wonderful distraction,” Ivanova says. “We can laugh and smile, and when we train, we only think about football. But as soon as we get back on the bus and read the news, it all comes back to us. We are back in reality again. ”

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It is impossible to imagine the fear that will haunt FC Kryvbas’ players in Germany. The clichéd image of a refugee is a person who is deeply grateful for their own safety; that is clearly true. But it is also always only half true. They – and so many others now scattered across Europe – were forced to leave under appalling circumstances. The fear does not disappear when you cross the border, and uncertainty about your new existence exacerbates it.

Some of the team are also persecuted for guilt because they are a few of the few while many others stay home. When the others include your immediate family and friends with whom you have shared at least half a life, guilt is mixed with anxiety and multiplied. Players have talked about a used insomnia, inability to sleep because you know that explosions and sirens also prevent millions of others from sleeping.

They can not escape the news from Ukraine, from Kryvyi Rih, Mariupol, Kharkiv and beyond. Nor do they want to, no matter how outrageous it may be. Despite regular updates from family and friends that they are safe and survive, their city in the epicenter of a war that their countrymen are fighting desperately to win against all odds. Having managed to find refuge, the thoughts inevitably turn to those who could not escape.

“When we were in Ukraine, we always watched TV because the news was on all day long,” says Tian. “When we moved abroad, we had less news. But we all always check social media. It is important for us to know how our cities and our country are doing. Even though we feel nervous or afraid of what we can read, we need to know what is happening to our home. ”

For now, Kryvyi Rih is being defended. On Monday, Oleksandr Vilkul, head of Kryvyi Rih’s regional state administration, announced that Russian troops had been forced back at least 40 km from the city. It is also still high on Russia’s list of next targets, and its people are preparing for street fights. Locals have taken up arms and are determined to do good under President Zelensky’s leadership. Zelensky was not universally popular in Kryvyi Rih before the election, but they have been surprised and impressed by his strength over the past month.

Players from FC Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih hold a peace banner on FC Cologne’s training ground (Photo: FC Köln)

What strikes most about Tian and Ivanova is the fierce pride they have over their country, doubled by the distance they now temporarily live away from. Both express their gratitude to President Zelensky, whom they see as an ordinary man doing extraordinary things. Think of the image of Zelensky created in Europe, the comedian who became the leader, who became the symbol of resistance, and multiply it several times.

“We are extremely proud of the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian people because I think they have become something completely unique: together,” says Ivanova. “With this mentality we believe we can win this war. It is the same mentality that we have in our team that everyone is one unit and takes care of each other and no one is left behind. That spirit of the country has brought us closer as a group. “

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“I want to say thank you to everyone who has helped, but also to everyone who has been interested and has spread the word about what is happening,” says Tian. “The international community has really focused on our situation, and we will be eternally grateful for that.”

They also insist that one no-fly zone to be installed over Ukraine. This is the first time they talk about each other, to reinforce the point. If they have one main message, it is that everyone can do something to help, to make a difference. If the skies over her city are not closed, Ivanova says, more women and children will die. “Please help us by doing so.”

I wonder what these two young women, these professional athletes forced out of their everyday normality from one day to the next and without their own fault, miss most about Kryvyi Rih. I am ready to expect answers regarding football: the first training session, the first match, the first goal, the first shared experience of absolute normality rather than a manufactured construction of it hundreds of kilometers from home.

But football is not mentioned once. Tian talks half about the streets you walk along and the houses you occasionally notice because you’ve never noticed them before. She happily thinks of the special conditions of her own home and the bizarre nature of missing an entire country, as if countries have their own distinct feeling.

“First of all, I look forward to seeing my family; it’s obvious, ”says Ivanova. “But beyond that, it’s the ability to do normal things without planning them first or worrying about whether they’s even possible, like sitting outside in the sunshine with a plate of food. More than anything else, I want to talk about meaningless topics that has nothing to do with war. “

But until then only war. Even in Germany only war. They train for battles that are not yet planned, because there is only war. And only the end of the war can bring a return to the life they once knew, and to the Ukraine they long to see again. “Our country is not really without peace,” as Tian says. “First comes peace. Then comes everything else.”

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