There are some things Andriy Shevchenko cannot talk about. The feeling generated by the wailing of an air raid siren. The fear, instilled by learning how many missiles were aimed the night before at you, your loved ones, your home. The feeling of knowing another swarm of drones is on its way, the only hope that each one can be shot out of the sky.
Shevchenko does not want to repeat everything he heard from the Ukrainian soldiers posted to the battlefield, that rift that runs through places that were once close and familiar but now foreign, part of a terrible front line. He starts and stops, swallowing hard, unable to go on. “I don’t want to talk about what’s going on,” he said.
One of the stories he can’t quite tell comes from Irpin, a town on the northwest edge of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, which was the scene of some of the bloodiest, most intense fighting in the early days of the war. Its streets were struck by airstrikes. A mass grave was found in neighboring Bucha.
When Ukrainian forces, after a month-long counteroffensive, took back control of the city, they found it scarred beyond recognition. Some estimates had it that 70 percent of its structures were destroyed or damaged. Among them was the city’s football stadium.
A few months later, Shevchenko went to visit. As he walked around the broken shell of the place – the artificial turf pockmarked with the scars of war, the damage standing charred black – he saw a group of children playing soccer, doing their best to put on a game despite the devastation all around. them, and at least slightly unaware that Shevchenko, the greatest player their country had ever produced, was watching.
Shevchenko found one of the strengths that Ukrainians generally discovered during the war is an ability “to adapt to circumstances, to react to the situation as it is now.” There it was, playing in front of him.
When he asked the kids what it was like to have to play here, in a place where there used to be a stadium, they answered in that matter-of-fact way that is the natural tone of the pre-teen: They might not have a stadium, they said, but that didn’t mean , that they didn’t want to play soccer.
As the fighting escalated in Irpin, Heorhiy Sudakov – a brilliant young midfielder with Shakhtar Donetsk – like many in Ukraine sought shelter wherever he could find it. He sent one of his former coaches a photo of an air raid bunker. In the picture, his pregnant wife, Lisa, rested her head on his shoulder.
Just over a year later, Sudakov spent two weeks announcing himself as one of the brightest talents in European football. He helped drive Ukraine’s teams to the semi-finals of the European Under-21 Championship in Georgia, scoring three times in five games, including two in the quarter-final win over France.
That Ukraine was unceremoniously eliminated in the final four by Spain – who will face England in the final this weekend – would, under normal circumstances, have acted as a kind of barcode to their tournament. Ukraine’s circumstances, however, are anything but normal. In that light, its performance was a resounding, uplifting triumph.
“What the under-21s have done is an incredible achievement,” Shevchenko said in an interview this week. “Ukraine has always provided great talent – maybe not every year, but every few years, we have a young player who can go to the senior squad. You have to build that platform. Looking at what they did in this tournament gives us hope, and to the next generation, for the future.”
Nobody in Ukraine knows, of course, what that future looks like. Since the country’s football league resumed last August, Ukraine’s clubs have been used to playing against the eerie backdrop of empty stadiums. Games were interrupted by those same airplane sirens that still send shivers down Shevchenko’s spine. Dozens of foreign players have left the country after being given a dispensation by FIFA to break their contracts.
Several teams, including Shakhtar, have temporarily moved their academy systems abroad – encouraging players and members of their families outside the country – to protect them from the Russian invasion. Some clubs, Shakhtar foremost among them, continue to find themselves exiled from their homes, their traditional territories now on the other side of the front line.
It’s impossible to say when, or if, any of this will change. Like everything else in the country, every person in every aspect of life, Ukrainian football has no idea what tomorrow will bring.
“We live in the moment,” Shevchenko said. “Everything depends on the war. The situation could change every day. We try to make plans, sometimes short, sometimes a little longer. But we have to react every day.
“We are doing everything possible to let the athletes train, to help them be ready to play – that’s what we all, every club, are trying to do. We have the resources to do that at the moment. But we can’t plan anything for the future, because in the moment we do, everything could change. That’s what we have to do. There’s no other way. We just have to keep living and try to do the best we can.”
In light of everything that is happening in Ukraine, soccer is not a priority, nor should it be. It’s hard, in many ways, to think it matters at all. But talking to Shevchenko is reminiscent of Jürgen Klopp’s old aphorism: Perhaps it is the most important of the least important things.
Sports, after all, remain a powerful way to remind people of what Ukraine has been through – is going through. They are a way of keeping the country uppermost in the fickle thoughts of the outside world, a shining example of what the historian Eric Hobsbawm described as the “imagined community of millions seeming more real as a team of eleven named people.”
Football generally accepted that role. “It has the power to unite people,” Shevchenko said. “Sending a message of solidarity.” Stadiums across Europe were decorated with Ukrainian flags. Messages calling for peace appeared on television screens and billboards — a gesture that is, no doubt, too small, a cowardly way out from Europe’s ever-compromised football authorities, but a gesture nonetheless.
When Shevchenko, with his successor as the captain of the national team of Ukraine, Oleksandr Zinchenko – both ambassadors for United24, the country’s official fundraising platform – decided to organize exhibition game to help rebuild a school in the village of Chernihiv, support was immediate and enthusiastic. Chelsea, one of Shevchenko’s former clubs, offered the use of Stamford Bridge for the match, called Game4Ukraine, on August 5. DAZN and Sky agreed to air it. A parade of stars quickly agreed to play.
“It’s a good opportunity for us to remind people that the war is still going on,” Shevchenko said. “Oleksandr and I did a lot of interviews, to try to keep it in the news, so that the rest of the world doesn’t forget, so that people continue to help, because we need them to know that we can’t do this without them. . “
But soccer is important for another reason. It is noteworthy that the success of Ukraine’s under-21 team – as well as an encouraging start as national team boss for Serhiy Rebrov, Shevchenko’s old strike partner – has not gone unnoticed within Ukraine, that the achievements of Sudakov and his team-mates have been celebrated , even when the sirens sounded.
“There is still room for life, there is still room for sport,” said Shevchenko. “That’s why we fight: for the right to have a normal life. Even during the war, we try to live as best we can. It has to be day to day.”
The conversation he had with the children in Irpin inspired Shevchenko. When he left, he set out to raise the money — about 600,000 euros, or $650,000 — needed to make sure they could both play soccer and have a stadium. He threw a party in Milan, the city he had long called home. The club where he became a superstar, and perhaps the best striker of his generation, AC Milan, kicked in €150,000 to the project.
The plan is to start work on the stadium this summer. It is impossible, of course, to plan anything with absolute certainty. Ukrainians, in the course of 18 scary, challenging, painful months, got used to the idea that things can change in an instant. They don’t know what tomorrow will bring. But they know there will be tomorrow.
This week brought an unfortunate, but undeniable, turn in the tone of correspondence. This is, as we all know, a conspiracy age — the false flags, the deep state, the thing about orcs ganging up and attacking boats — and that paranoia now seems to have filtered down to the last bastion of Enlightenment thinking: my inbox.
“Writing that Botafogo, RWD Molenbeek and Lyon are linked without mentioning Crystal Palace,” excited. Nicholas Armstrong wrote after receiving last week’s newsletter, “it’s like saying whales, dolphins and porpoises are connected without mentioning any other more familiar mammal.”
I’m not quite sure which mammal is missing from that list – sharks, maybe? — but I stand by my completely deliberate omission: not because I still haven’t forgiven Palace for the whole Alan Pardew thing in 1990, but because, unlike that particular set of clubs, Palace is not owned exclusively by John Textor. It is, instead, a partial member of two networks: one belonging to Textor, and one operated by Bolt Football. And that would be confusing.
Paul Gerald, meanwhile, pondered an inexplicable, at least to him, coincidence. “When there is a neutral playoff, each team always attacks the end containing their fans in the second half,” he wrote.
He added, “There are three ways this could happen: a crazy coincidence; teams simply always choosing that way, regardless of who wins the coin toss; or prearrangement.” In this scenario, he suggested, “no real coin flip ever happens.”
There is, I suspect, a slightly simpler explanation: Both teams go into the coin toss intending to kick their own fans in the second half. However, there is a possibility that some confirmation bias is at play here as well. I would guess it happens less often than you believe – you just notice when it does.
Victor Gallo, fortunately, wants to return to the world of facts. Last week’s newsletter taught him that the Colombian league is divided into Apertura and Clausura stages. “I thought only Mexico used that division,” he wrote. “I imagine it’s not just Mexico and Colombia. But what is the reason behind splitting the season?”
That’s a great question, and not one I’ve considered before. Do you mean you can hand out more trophies? Does it deliver satisfaction faster? Do you mean you can stage a big finale at the end? If anyone can shed any light it would be extremely helpful.
And finally, with a nod to William Ireland, confession Last week’s newsletter claimed that no one – apart from Red Bull – has so far really made the multi-club model work in soccer. “Best practices are shared, discounted transfer fees, places to park players all sound good,” he wrote. “None seem to actually happen in any of the multiclubs, and I’m not sure how they would.”
Neither am I, but there was one element I neglected to mention (and was pointed out to me, anonymously, by an executive at one of the teams involved in networking). Off the field, the benefits are legion. Adding more clubs allows a group to increase the value of each asset – building infrastructure, improving performance, pooling resources – which helps the value of the entire business grow. It may be that this is the real purpose of the whole exercise.