The stranded sons of Shakhtar Donetsk

SPLIT, Croatia – It was in their moment of triumph, when they had defeated their opponents and gathered to collect their medals, when some of the boys were overwhelmed with grief, when tears welled up in their eyes.

The teenagers, a mix of 13- and 14-year-olds representing one of the youth squad of the best Ukrainian football team Shakhtar Dontesk, had just won a tournament in Split, the Croatian city that has given them a refuge from war. Each boy received 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, however, there was none – just another living reminder of how lonely life has become, of how far away they are from the people they love and the places they know. It is in these moments that the adults around the players have realized, when the emotions are at their worst, when the 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 has happened so fast. In the first hectic days after Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year, Shakhtar Donetsk, one of Eastern Europe’s power clubs, was quick to evacuate its teams and personnel from danger. Foreign players gathered their families and found homes. Parts of the first team ended up in Turkey, and then Slovenia, and created a base from which they played friendly matches to raise awareness and money and kept alive Ukraine’s hopes for World Cup qualifiers.

But crowds of players and staff from Shakhtar’s youth academy also needed a sanctuary. Phone calls were made. Buses were arranged. But decisions had to be made quickly and only a dozen mothers could accompany the boys on the journey. (The wartime rules required that their fathers – all men of military age, in fact between the ages of 18 and 60 – be forced to stay in Ukraine.) Other families made other choices: to stay with husbands and relatives, to send their boys away alone. All options were imperfect. None of the decisions were easy.

Three months later, the weight of separation, of loneliness – of all things – has taken its toll.

“It’s a nightmare, it’s a nightmare,” said Edgar Cardoso, who leads Shakhtar’s youth team. He repeats his words to emphasize how fragile the atmosphere has become inside the walls of the spa hotel that has become the Shakhtar group’s temporary home. “You see that the emotions are now at their peak.”

No one knows when all this will end: not the war, not the separation, not the insecurity. For example, no one can even say if they stay together. More than a dozen top clubs across Europe, teams such as Barcelona and Bayern Munich, have already picked out the most talented of Shakhtar’s stranded sons, and offered to coach the top 14 to 17-year-olds in the comparative safety of Germany and Spain.

The departure of these players has left Cardoso with mixed feelings. On the one hand, their absence damages the quality of the workouts. But there is also pride that others are so interested in the boys Shakhtar has developed.

When, or if, they will return is not clear: The rule change that allowed Ukrainian players and prospects fleeing the war to join other clubs was scheduled to end on June 30. But on Tuesday, FIFA extended the exemptions until the summer of 2023.

For Cardoso, a traveling Portuguese coach who moved to Shakhtar eight years ago after a frugality in developing youth football in Qatar, the consequences of the war mean he has now been thrown into a new role: father figure and point of contact for dozens of teenage boys moving away from their families and everything they knew.

Once the club had inspired him, his young charges, a handful of their mothers and a few employees from Kyiv to Croatia, where they had been offered a new base by the Croatian team Hajduk Split, Cardoso, 40, decided to create an approach of normality with what anytime, and anyone, was available.

While in Ukraine, each generation of young players had two dedicated coaches, doctors, access to dedicated training instructors and analysts. In Split, the layout is much more rudimentary.

Now a female training coach takes care of all the boys. One of the team’s administrators, a former player now in his 60s, helps to run the daily training sessions. Mothers help set up cones, monitor meal times or accompany the children on excursions, which usually involves a short walk along a dusty road 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 says. Glory to Ukraine.

Together with Cardoso, perhaps the figure who is most important in ensuring that things work smoothly, Ekateryna Afanasenko. A 30-year-old native of Donetsk and now in his 15th year with the club, Afanasenko worked in Shakhtar’s personnel department in 2014 when the team first fled after Russian-backed separatists attacked Donetsk, the club’s hometown in eastern Ukraine.

At the time, Afanasenko was part of the team’s emergency efforts, accused of bringing 100 members of the club’s youth academy to safety. As the team eventually settled in Kyiv, Afanasenko’s role developed to include the education and administration of a new facility where many of the displaced children lived.

Now in Split, after another escape from another Russian attack, responsibility for both Afanasenko and Cardoso has grown to such an extent that Afanasenko has a simple explanation for what they do: “We are like mother and father.”

Shakhtar has sent an open invitation to relatives of other boys to travel to the camp.

Elena Kostrytsa recently came for a three-week stay to ensure that her son Alexander did not spend his 16th birthday alone. “I have not met my son in three months, so you can imagine how this feels,” said Kostrytsa while Alexander, dressed in training clothes, watched. His younger sister Diana had also made the 1,200-mile journey. But even this reunion was bittersweet: the laws of Ukraine meant that Alexander’s father could not be present.

The makeshift football camp is now as much a distraction as an elite-level education for a career in professional sports. Cardoso does his best to divide the players into four groups, separating them roughly by age and training half at a time.

He holds two sessions at the same time and uses the time on the pitch with half of the players to send the team bus – adorned with Shakhtar’s brand – back to the hotel to pick up the rest of the trainees. In the field, Cardoso barks orders with a voice that is made raspy through the daily sessions, and without its translator.

Yet an air of uncertainty permeates 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 ‘Do not worry, we’ll be back soon,'” Cardoso said. “I try to be realistic.”

For the foreseeable future, everything he, Afanasenko and the others at Hotel Zagreb can create a safe environment for the players, preserve the contacts they share and reunite them with their families as soon as they can. There will be more waiting, more anxiety, more tears.

“Every day in the morning and at night, I start my day by calling my family and end my day by calling my family,” Afanasenko said. “I think all these boys do the same. But what can we change?”

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