Kids hanging around the hotel which is the lodgings for their national team, to bag some autographs and photos, is the norm in international football.
ut there’s nothing normal about Ukraine preparing for a ‘home’ Nations League game against Ireland in the Polish city of Łódź.
They should be playing 900km away in Kviv but with dark skies over the country, home comforts have to be found on foreign soil. The kids and teens who were happy to get selfies with heroes like Andriy Yarmolenko, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Vitaliy Mykolenko are not football tourists, but refugees from a war, not in Łódź by choice but forced from their homeland.
Łódź has welcomed them, Ukrainian flags dotted across the city, and the Ukrainians are thankful for the support, unlike the scenario in Yerevan where, due to Armenia’s deep political and cultural ties to Russia, there is not a single Ukrainian flag to be seen. History hangs in the air: Ukraine’s team hotel is on a street named after Marshal Józef Piłsudski, a national icon in Poland mainly for his role in leading the army in the resistance of the newly established Polish state to an invasion by the Soviet Red Army in 1920: fighting off invaders from Russia then and now.
A short walk from their hotel is a monument dedicated to the Victims of Communism, crimes that were often carried out by Poles but on orders from Moscow. At another spot near the city’s Jewish cemetery, where the bodies buried there point to the Holocaust and the tens of thousands of Jews murdered in this city, the Polish and Ukrainian flags fly side by side outside a centre for reconciliation, with posters from the Second World War proclaiming, in Polish, that “freedom is the most important” and “remembering is the most important”. This Ukraine side value their freedom to come and play for the national team but are also here to make sure that the world does not forget, does not switch off from war fatigue.
Even the build-up is abnormal: at the press conference in the match stadium, a brand-new 18,000-seater, there were no male journalists from Ukraine, as men between 18 and 60 are not allowed leave the country, and the footballers need a special dispensation to travel abroad.
But after a five-game series of matches, which has seen them get to within 90 minutes of the World Cup finals only to lose out, and then beat Armenia and Ireland in the Nations League, normality, or the closest thing to a normal life, returns. After tonight, Ukraine coach Oleksandr Petrakov packs his bag and leaves the peace of Poland, and the intensity of international football, and heads back. “I can speak only for myself but I will return home to Kyiv, to my family, I love my country. I am going home,” he said.
Lodz is their home but it should not be. “If the team was playing in Ukraine it would be much better,” says Everton defender Vitaly Mykolenko. Playing for Ukraine right now is the hardest job in international football.
In normal times, the fact that a bug ripped through the squad and made the majority of the players ill for a time, an issue in training when two players clashed heads and suffered injury, and injuries to key men like Yarmalenko would have the nation of Ukraine in a panic.
But football is secondary now, team news irrelevant on a day when a story emerges of the discovery of a mass grave outside Kyiv, police saying that “seven civilians were tortured by the Russians and brutally executed with bullets in the head”.
So no moans about match fatigue. “For the players, it is hard, but we do it not for us, but for the whole country because this is our work and how we play, we can support the soldiers and those who stay there,” said their coach.
“I’m not thinking about being tired. Playing for the national team, I can’t be tired. I play for my whole country and I do it to support my country in these hard times,” said Mykolenko.
The Everton defender spoke very highly of club-mate and international rival Séamus Coleman, telling a story of how just after his move to Everton late last year he was in his hotel, alone, on New Year’s Eve and his mood was lifted by a text from Coleman to say that he was there if the new signing needed anything.
“For this whole five months, he has always helped me and was there for me. He is a great person and a great captain,” Mykolenko said.
He was relaxed, or as relaxed as any Ukrainian can be, in Poland as the ‘home’ side hope it’s a happy home. “It was my decision to play here, I feel this connection and it was incredible as a lot of people came to give support, after the game I was with some of my friends in the city centre, a lot of people came to see us and thanked us and what we do, these emotions were incredible,” says Petrakov, who led Ukraine to success in the World Youth Cup here in Lodz.
After tonight, it’s back home and back to normal as Ukraine aim to bring another win back to their war-ravaged people.