SPLIT, Croatia – It was in their moment of triumph, when they beat their opponents and came together to collect their medals, when some of the boys were overwhelmed with sadness, when tears welled up in their eyes.
The teenagers, a mix of 13 and 14-year-olds representing one of the youth teams of Ukraine’s top football team Shakhtar Donetsk, had just won a tournament in Split, the Croatian city that provided them with refuge from war . Each boy received a medal and the team received a trophy to mark the victory.
The lucky ones were able to celebrate and pose for photos with their mothers. For the most part, however, there was no one there.
“As a mother, I feel it,” said Natalia Plaminskaya, who was able to accompany her twins to Croatia but said she felt for the families who couldn’t do the same. “I want to hug them, play with them, make them feel better.”
In the frantic first days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, Shakhtar Donetsk, one of Eastern Europe’s most powerful clubs, moved quickly to evacuate their squads and its personnel out of harm’s way.
But dozens of Shakhtar youth academy players and staff also needed sanctuary.
Phone calls were made. Buses have been organized. But decisions had to be made quickly, and only a dozen mothers were able to accompany the boys on the trip. (Wartime rules required that their fathers—all men of fighting age, in fact, between the ages of 18 and 60—had to stay in Ukraine.) Other families made different choices: to stay with husbands and parents, send their boys alone. All options were flawed. 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 remarks to underline how fragile the atmosphere has become within the walls of the seaside hotel in Croatia that has become the temporary residence of the Shakhtar group. “You see the emotions are now at their peak.”