“It’s heaviest of all for the boys,” says Irina as she watches her son, Denys, play one-twos with a new teammate on an artificial surface in Warsaw’s northern suburbs. “His father is not here, and his older brother joined the army. It’s just the two of us. The language barrier is hard for me, but I’m willing to go through all the difficulties. Everything we’re doing now” – she motions to a fellow Ukrainian mother, standing along the touchline – “is for the sake of our children’s future.”
Denys is one of nine young Ukrainian footballers given a place to play by Turbo Academy, one of the most highly regarded setups in Poland. Most are 13 or 14; they held genuine hope of careers in the game before Russia invaded their country and, while safety was the primary consideration upon leaving, maintaining their prospects was a vital factor too. Football has virtually ground to a halt while Ukraine is defended but Turbo are among numerous clubs in Europe trying to help its budding stars.
“Back home, our boys would put football before everything else,” Irina says. “But now our house has been destroyed, the pitches bombed, and there is no way they can stay. Here, they are being given a chance.”
Most of Turbo’s intake are from the academy of the second-tier club FK Kramatorsk, 50 miles north of Donetsk in Ukraine’s intensely troubled east. Irina and Denys were exceptions: they had, in fact, moved to Kyiv shortly before the invasion. Denys was ready to join Shakhtar’s youth setup, which is based there, when life turned upside down. On 25 March the youngsters arrived, six with their mothers, at the Polish border town of Medyka. Turbo’s goalkeeping coach, Grzegorz Jedrzejewski, had learned from a contact that a group of Ukrainian players were looking to leave. With help from the Polish Football Association, I have arranged for a bus to collect them.
“We’d been waiting for a week to find out when they were coming,” Jedrzejewski says. “They had been sheltering in basements, but then they decided the time was right to leave because of all the bombs, and I got the call. They traveled from Kramatorsk to Kyiv, then on to Medyka. I waited at the border, at night, shouting out names from a list. It was a group of people who had no idea what they would be doing from one day to the next. Only when I got there did I fully understand what Putin has done.”
An intervention from the local mayor ensured that, once in Warsaw, the boys and their mothers could all be accommodated at a local boarding school. Sessions with Turbo, in an integrated group with the local players, are held every evening apart from Tuesday. “It was so important that we made sure they could live with their mothers, and offered something more than just training,” Jedrzejewski says. “Thankfully we managed that.
“The main thing is that, in every minute of their football training, they can forget about the war. We can see that they are smiling, not crying or appearing sad.”
A couple of thousands to the south, around the corner from the apartment she now shares with her son Dima, Oksana is drinking coffee and calmly outlining the decisions taken over the past two months. Dima turns 14 this summer but was a centre-forward for Metalist Kharkiv’s under-15s, and considered a major talent in his age group, when their city came under attack.
“He would wake up at 5am every morning and go to training,” she says. “He’d come home, shower, go to school and then train again in the evening. All he’s wanted to do since he was seven is become a footballer and his coaches think he can make it. I just hope that, through all this, he doesn’t lose his enthusiasm to play.”
Daily life had been “normal, I think like you have in Great Britain”. Oksana, erudite and watchful, worked as an administrator for a beauty salon and as a translator of technical documents from German to Russian. They left Kharkiv after five days of hearing missiles land nearby and aircraft roar overhead. She recounts the story of their escape, and subsequent journey: such tales have become horrifyingly familiar and each is as important as the next. At a Ukrainian army checkpoint near Vinnytsia a tall, burly officer was moved to tears when he heard the situation they had come from. Whenever Dima, who had been playing at a tournament in Mariupol with Metalist on 23 February, saw a football pitch during the 800-mile drive he would sigh: “I just want to play.”
He got his wish: one of the volunteers who had greeted the pair, a woman named Marta, had connections to the local club Poland. Dima was, remarkably, training there less than 24 hours after arriving in Poland; at the time of our meeting, Oksana was awaiting clearance that would allow him to represent them competitively. Metalist’s coaches are in frequent contact and have offered full support.
“The Poland coach likes him a lot, so we’re waiting for that,” she says. “In the meantime, he loves training and it’s good for him because it means his thoughts of him are far away from what’s happening in Ukraine.
“His school in Kharkiv has been destroyed by a bomb; we understand none of this will finish quickly and that we’ll have to build a new life here. If I had a younger child, in kindergarten, perhaps I would be in more of a rush to return. But I have to think about Dima’s life and his football career from him; the fact he will soon be old enough for university too. We ca n’t waste his time on him. ”
Oksana proudly shows off Dima’s ID card from the Ukrainian FA. Even as they prepared to leave Kharkiv she was in touch with Metalist, attempting to retrieve her birth certificate for her – the club had held it for the Mariupol competition – with a view of her playing her in Poland. Her dedication to her future is beyond reproach; she worries that Poland’s relatively spartan facilities may not serve Dima well in the longer run, although her gratitude from her to them is resoundingly clear.
Back at Turbo Academy, Irina and her companions are reflecting on the trauma that continues to be inflicted on their city. It is not long since Kramatorsk’s railway station, crowded with people who were intending to escape, was bombed by the Russians and an estimated 50 lives lost.
“I have acquaintances, former neighbors, who were killed by that strike,” Irina says. “This is real life, real people. The situation is horrible. Life is good here and we are being looked after, but our souls remain at home.”
Darkness has fallen and training is over. Denys and his teammates, the Ukrainian boys wearing dark colors while more orange club kits are ordered, deploy their collective strength and carry a full-sized goal back to its original spot. There is laughter; good-natured shouting; no suggestion of segregation.
“In the first squad meeting after they arrived, I introduced them to our boys as heroes,” Jedrzejewski says. “When you see and hear shooting all around you, it’s the end of your childhood. They are here as our friends and colleagues from a different, very difficult place. The football language is universal: we are one team.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism