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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Stranded soccer stars, frantic phone calls and a race to flee Kyiv

Players from Shakhtar Donetsk, joined by coaches, family members and rivals from Dynamo Kyiv, pleaded for help in a video that went viral.

By Tariq Panja

Inside the windowless conference room of the Kyiv hotel where the soccer stars had gathered, the anxiety was growing by the minute. An aborted attempt to flee Ukraine had been a disaster. And the sounds of war — mortar fire, rocket blasts, screeching warplanes — provided a near constant reminder of their precarious circumstances.

By Saturday morning the group, made up mostly of Brazilians but now swelled by other South Americans and Italians, numbered as many as 70. The players had come to Ukraine to play soccer; weeks earlier, they had taken the field in Champions League, Europe’s richest competition. Now, with their season suspended and Russian forces advancing on the city, they were huddled with their families — wives, partners, young children, aging relatives — and plotting how, and when, to make a run for their lives.

“I hope everything will be OK,” one of the stranded Brazilian players, Junior Moraes, said Saturday morning. Moraes, a forward for the Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk, explained how the group had been hustled to the hotel last week by their team. In the days that followed, as first the country and then the city had come under attack, their ranks expanded after foreign players from a rival club, Dynamo Kyiv, asked to join them.

Fearing for their safety and their families’, the players had released a short video that quickly went viral. Food was in short supply, the players said. Necessities like diapers had already run out.

“We are here asking for your help,” Shakhtar player Marlon Santos said, citing the obstacles. “There’s no way we can get out.”

Plans to evacuate were hatched and then quickly scrapped. Flights were impossible; Ukraine had shut down civilian aviation, and Russian forces were attacking the airport. Gasoline was in short supply, and a group now numbering in the dozens knew it would be nearly impossible to arrange enough cars or stay together amid the chaos.

Making a run for it carried its own risks, too, since it would have required surrendering their connection with the outside world. The hotel at least had a supply of electricity and, just as crucially, a reliable internet connection, Moraes said.

In frantic phone calls, he and others in the group, which included Shakhtar’s coach, Roberto De Zerbi, an Italian, had made contact with consular officials and governments back home. Empathy was abundant. Solutions were not.

The players and their families were advised to try to make it to the train station in Kyiv and join the throngs heading west toward Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, closer to Poland’s border, that had become a focal point for the exodus from the Russian advance.

“In the beginning it seemed like a good idea,” Moraes said of the plan to make a dash for Lviv. “But look, we have babies and old people also here. If you leave the hotel with the internet and electricity keeping us in contact with everybody, and go to another city and stay with kids in the street, how long could we do that before it is very bad?”

Instead, the group turned its attention, and its hopes, back to soccer. Shakhtar’s management had arranged for the Brazilians to stay at the hotel as the security situation in Ukraine degenerated. (The team has been based in Kyiv for years, since it was forced to flee Donetsk in 2014 after an earlier Russian-backed assault.) But while team officials assured the group that they were working on a solution, none had materialized.

The thought of passing another night in the conference room had brought some of those present to the brink of a “psychological collapse,” Moraes said. Several members of the group had tried to make it to safety by fleeing early Saturday, he said, only to quickly return in a state of shock.

“When they went outside there were explosions, and they returned screaming in the room,” Moraes said. “It was panic, crazy.”

By then the Brazilian players and their families had been joined by a contingent from Argentina and Uruguay. Soon, other Brazilians living in Kyiv — but unconnected to soccer — reached out asking for shelter and were welcomed inside.

Moraes said De Zerbi, 42, and his assistants had refused to abandon the group. “They had two opportunities to leave us,” Moraes said, “and the coach said, ‘No, I stay here until the end.’”

Shortly before his conversation with the Times, though, Moraes had received a phone call. Aleksander Ceferin, president of European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, was on the line and promising, Moraes said, that “he was pushing to find a solution.”

There was still no plan, a worried Moraes said, but “in the last 48 hours, this was the most comfortable three minutes in my life.”

Reached at his home in Slovenia, Ceferin confirmed he was calling anyone he thought could help, and maintaining contact with the stranded players. “I am speaking with them every hour,” he said.

Ceferin first tried to get assistance from the French government. He had made a lightning trip to Paris on Thursday to meet with France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, to firm up plans for moving the Champions League final out of Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. On Saturday, he contacted Macron’s office again, “but I’m not sure they can help,” he said.

Salvation, in the end, came not from political connections but local ones: Officials from Ukraine’s soccer federation had procured two buses and sent them to the hotel in Kyiv.

Calls were placed to the players. Hurry, they were told. Gather your belongings and your families and be prepared to move quickly.

The buses rolled up, the athletes and their families scrambled aboard, and the group was quickly ferried to one of the city’s train stations.

Milling on the packed platform, the athletes, who in other circumstances might have been recognized and greeted as local superstars, glanced around nervously. On Saturday, theirs were just a few more among a sea of anxious faces.

Then, at 4:50 p.m. local time, the locomotive they had boarded gave a short jerk and set off west toward Romania, toward safety, away from war.

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