The Stranded Sons of Shakhtar Donetsk

SPLIT, Croatia – It was in their moment of triumph, when they had beaten their opponents and come together to collect their medals, when the boys had overcome with sadness, when the tears welled in their eyes.

The teenagers, a mix of 13- and 14-year-olds representing one 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 are. It is in these moments, the adults around the players have come to realize, when the tears are sometimes coming.

“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 couldn’t do the same. “I want to hug them, play with them, make them feel better.”

It all happened so fast. Shakhtar Donetsk, one of Eastern Europe’s powerhouse clubs, moved quickly to evacuate his 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 for a 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 the decisions on the journey were to accompany the boys. (Wartime rules required that their fathers – in fact, ages 18 to 60 – have to remain in Ukraine.) Other families made different choices: 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 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. Shakhtar’s talented teams have been selected to offer the best 14- to 17-year-olds in the comparative safety of Germany and Spain .

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 the Shakhtar boys have developed.

When, or if, they will return are not clear: The rule change that 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 to develop youth soccer in Qatar, the implications of the war have now turned into a new role: boys dislocated from their families and everything they knew.

Once the club had spirited him, his young charges, 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 has two dedicated coaches, doctors, access to dedicated fitness instructors and analysts. In Split, the setup is often 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 usually 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, Ekateryna Afanasenko is perhaps the figure with the most outsourcing importance in making things run smoothly. 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 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 has finally settled in Kyiv, Afanasenko’s role has evolved to include oversight of education and administration of a new facility where many of the displaced children lived.

Now that the Spaniards have grown up to such an extent, Afanasenko has a simple explanation for what they do: “We are like a 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. “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 at. His younger sister Diana had also made the 1,200-mile trip. But even this reunion was bittersweet: Ukraine’s laws so Alexander’s father couldn’t be present.

The makeshift soccer camp is now as much a distraction as the 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 – emblazoned with Shakhtar’s branding – back to the hotel to collect the rest of the trainees. On the field, Cardoso barks orders in a daily session, 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 who lies and shows too much optimism and says things like, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be back soon,’” Cardoso said. “I try to be realistic.”

For the foreseeable future, Afanasenko and the others must provide a safe environment for the players, preserve the connections they have 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 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? ”

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