“Shakhtar’s stuck sons” in Donetsk.

SPLIT, Croatia – It was the moment of their victory when they defeated their opponents, gathered to collect medals, when some of the boys were saddened, when tears flowed from their eyes.

The teenagers, a mix of 13 և 14-year-olds representing one of Shakhtar Donetsk’s top Ukrainian youth football teams, had just won a tournament in Split, Croatia, which provided them with shelter from war. Each boy was awarded a medal, and the team received a cup to celebrate the victory.

The lucky ones were able to celebrate and take photos with their mothers. For most others, however, there was no one, just a vivid reminder of how lonely life has become, how far away they are from their loved ones, from places they know. It is in these moments that the adults around the players realize when emotions are most important, when 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.”

Everything happened so fast. In the first days after Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year, Shakhtar Donetsk, one of the strongest clubs in Eastern Europe, took swift steps to evacuate its teams and staff from danger. Foreign players gathered their families և found their way home. Parts of the first team ended in Turkey, then in Slovenia, creating a database from where they played friendly games, raised awareness, raised money, kept Ukraine’s hopes of qualifying for the World Cup bright.

However, many Shakhtar youth academy players and staff also needed asylum. Phone calls were made. Buses have been organized. But decisions had to be made quickly; only about a dozen mothers were able to accompany the boys on the road. (The rules of war required that their fathers, all men of military age, in fact men between the ages of 18 and 60, be allowed to stay in Ukraine.) The other families made different choices. to stay with spouses and relatives, to say goodbye to their sons alone. All options were imperfect. None of the decisions were easy.

Three months later, the burden of separation and loneliness was on him.

“It’s a nightmare, it’s a nightmare,” said Edgar Cardoso, who heads Shakhtar’s youth teams. He repeats his words, emphasizing how fragile the atmosphere has become inside the walls of the beach hotel, which has become Shakhtar’s temporary home. “You see, emotions are at their peak now.”

No one knows when all this will end – neither war, nor division, nor uncertainty. No one can say, for example, even if they stay together. More than a dozen top European clubs, such as Barcelona and Bayern Munich, have already selected Shakhtar’s most talented sons, offering to train the best youngsters aged 14 to 17 in the relative safety of Germany and Spain. .

The departure of these players left Cardoso with mixed feelings. Their absence on the one hand damages the quality of training. But there is also pride that others are so interested in Shakhtar’s developed boys.

It is not clear when or whether they will return. The change in the rules, which allowed Ukrainian players with the prospect of fleeing the war to join other clubs, was due to end on June 30. But FIFA on Tuesday. extended the exceptions until the summer of 2023.

For Cardoso, a highly regarded Portuguese travel coach who moved to Shakhtar eight years ago after the development of youth football in Qatar, the aftermath of the war means he has now moved to a new role – a father figure – a focal point for dozens of teenagers. Boys removed from families ամենը all they knew.

The club once reprimanded him, his young accusers, a handful of their mothers, several employees From Croatiawhere they were offered a new base by Croatia’s Hayduk Split, 40-year-old Cardoso decided to bring normalcy closer to who was available to him.

During their stay in Ukraine, each generation of young players had two dedicated coaches, a doctor, and access to special fitness instructors and analysts. The settlement in Split is much more basic.

Now the single female coach takes care of all the boys. One of the team administrators, formerly 60, helps with the day-to-day training. Mothers help set up cones, control lunch hours, or accompany children on excursions, which usually means taking a short walk along a dusty path to a local beach. In the middle of the road, a graffiti with the letters S marks the presence of boys in Croatia. “Slava Ukraine,” it says. Glory to Ukraine.

Along with Cardoso, the most important figure is Ekaterina Afanasenko. At the age of 30 in Donetsk, now in his 15th year at the club, Afanasenko worked at Shakhtar’s human resources department in 2014, when the team fled for the first time after Russian-sponsored separatists attacked the club’s hometown of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

At the time, Afanasenko was part of an ambulance team accused of shepherding 100 members of the club’s youth academy in a safe place. When the team finally settled in Ki, Afanasenko’s role developed, including overseeing education and managing a new facility where many of the displaced children lived.

Now in Split, after another escape from another Russian attack, the responsibilities of “Afanasenko” and “Cardoso” have increased so much that Afanasenko has a simple explanation for what they did. “We are like mother and father.”

Shakhtar has sent an open invitation to the other boys’ relatives to go to camp.

Elena Kostritsa recently arrived for three weeks to make sure her son, Alexander, does not spend his 16th birthday alone. “I have not seen my son for three months, so you can imagine how he feels,” Kostritsa said as Alexander, dressed in his sportswear, looked at him. His younger sister, Diana, also traveled 1,200 miles. But even this reunion was bitterly sweet. Ukrainian law meant that Alexander’s father could not be present.

Temporary soccer camp is now as diverse as elite-level training for a career in professional sports. Cardoso, doing what he can, divides the players into four groups, dividing them according to age, վում trains in half.

He spends two sessions at the same time, using his time on the pitch with half of the players, a team bus decorated with the Shakhtar brand, to be sent back to the hotel to pick up the rest of the trainees. On the pitch, Cardoso barks orders in a furious voice during daily sessions, without his translator.

However, there is an atmosphere of uncertainty for Shakhtar’s young players, who are in the fourth month of their Croatian exile.

“I’m not the guy to lie, to be overly optimistic, to say, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be back soon,'” Cardoso said. “I try to be realistic.”

In the foreseeable future, he, Afanasenko and others staying at the Zagreb Hotel can create a safe environment for players, maintain their connections and reunite with their families as soon as possible. There will be more waiting, more anxiety, more tears.

“Every morning, at night, I start my day by calling my family, I end my day by calling my family,” Afanasenko said. “I think each of these guys does the same thing. But what can we change? ”

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