In February, one of the best soccer teams in Ukraine rushed its youth academy players away from the war zone. Many of the boys are still in a lonely limbo months later.
When they had won and were getting their medals, some of the boys were sad and their eyes filled with tears.
The 13- and 14-year-olds were part of one of the youth soccer teams for Shakhtar Donetsk, one of the best soccer teams in Ukraine. They had just won a tournament in Split, Croatia, which has been their safe haven during the war. Each boy got a medal, and the team was given a trophy to show that they had won.
Those who were lucky got to party and take pictures with their moms. Most of the other people, though, didn’t see anyone. It was a stark reminder of how lonely their lives have become and how far they are from the people and places they love. Adults around the players have learned that these are the times when emotions are at their most raw and tears sometimes fall.
Natalia Plaminskaya, who was able to go to Croatia with her twin sons, said, “As a mother, I feel it.” She said she felt bad for families who couldn’t do the same. “I want to give them hugs, play with them, and cheer them up.”
Everything has moved so quickly. When Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year, Shakhtar Donetsk, one of the best clubs in Eastern Europe, moved quickly to get its teams and employees out of harm’s way. Players from other countries got their families together and found their way home. Parts of the first team ended up in Turkey and then Slovenia, where they set up a base and played friendly games to raise money and awareness and keep Ukraine’s hopes of qualifying for the World Cup alive.
But many players and staff from Shakhtar’s youth academy also needed a safe place to stay. There were phone calls. Buses were set up. But decisions had to be made quickly, and only about a dozen of the boys’ mothers could go with them. (Wartime rules said that their fathers, who were all men between the ages of 18 and 60 and could fight, had to stay in Ukraine.) Other families made different decisions, like staying with their husbands or relatives or sending their boys away by themselves. All of the choices were not good enough. None of the choices was simple.
After three months, the weight of being apart, being alone, and everything else has caught up with them.