Sunday , July 3 2022

The psychological scars run deep but we will not abandon Mariupol FC | Soccer

Before 24 February, we had everything to look forward to at FC Mariupol. We were struggling in the Ukrainian Premier League but there was a bigger picture: our infrastructure was one of the country’s most developed, and we had ambitions to build a team that would reach the Europa League. In the last four years, we played in the qualifiers twice: we felt we were on the brink of something special.

We had one of the best playing surfaces around, with a new hybrid pitch; our stadium was well kept, with plans for a major redevelopment in 2025, and we had three full-sized training pitches at our base near the Sea of Azov. Young players at our academy could train on artificial turf and our facilities were expanding all the time. Now almost all of it is likely to be ruined.

Last week one of my colleagues visited our facilities for the first time since Russia’s invasion. They are unrecognisable. The windows of the club offices have been smashed, doors broken in and debris scattered everywhere; things get worse when you see the state of our indoor arena. As for our stadium, we do not even know for sure. Locals cannot move around Mariupol without passing through Russian checkpoints and none of our staff have been able to reach it. There are rumours that it has been hit by air strikes, but we can only hope for the best. Realistically everything will have to be rebuilt and our club, a symbol of our city and country, will begin again from scratch.

The evil being perpetrated in our city is barely imaginable and there is only one emotion upon seeing what Russia has done to us: sheer hatred for the murderers who are trying to kill our dreams, freedom and aspirations. When Mariupol was freed from Russian-backed separatists in 2014, our government did its best to make it a bright and beautiful showcase for Ukrainian democracy, in contrast to the occupied city of Donetsk nearby. Our club shares those values, and now we fight for their return.

A damaged Mariupol FC Stadium after the Russian invasion of Ukraine
Mariupol FC Stadium is left damaged after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photograph: Courtesy of Andriy Sanin

Our short-term situation is bleak. All of our income streams disappeared when the city was, in many areas, razed to the ground: we recently had to suspend all contracts with football players and staff until peace is restored, using new wartime laws, and nobody knows when normality will return. We continue our life as a legal entity, but things may look very different when we begin operations again.

Initially we were able to loan most of our first-team players to foreign clubs, so they could get match practice. On the day Russia invaded they were due to return from a training camp in Turkey but, when the sky over Ukraine was closed, their flight was cancelled. Back in the Mariupol suburbs, where I lived with my family, the sound of shelling and missiles was constant. We were able to arrange, with considerable help from the Ukrainian and Turkish FA, for the players to live, train and eat. They were in comfortable conditions and largely escaped the horrors of war, but it has not been the same elsewhere in the club.

Mariupol FC’s indoor stadium covered in debris
Mariupol FC’s indoor stadium is covered in debris following the destruction of the city. Photograph: Courtesy of Andriy Sanin

Other departments have had to drink this cup to the very bottom. Before the war started we suspended all work in our academy and asked parents to take their children home – we have 300 in total – but some of them were not picked up. Our youth coaches stepped up and took them in as if they were their own children, living together in horrendous conditions where food, water, electricity and heating were almost nonexistent. Somehow, they eventually managed to take our young players away from the epicentre of the fighting. We are now trying to gather our academy boys in Zaporizhzhia, which is relatively safe, in order to transfer them abroad, but the logistics are dangerous and complicated. I am intensely proud of my colleagues: they are real heroes.

I experienced all the invasion’s horrors personally. The worst aspect is not hunger or thirst: you can put up with those. It is the expectation of death at every waking moment, and constant fear that your loved ones may die too, that is simply impossible to bear. My wife, son and I stayed in Mariupol until 21 March, melting snow in the yard for drinking water and cooking simple meals on a fire in our yard. The gunshots around us rarely let up. I walked to nearby villages to ask for food, and people helped. Eventually the devastation and number of casualties around us gave no choice but to try to leave: after a terrifying 10-hour journey, during which a young boy ran out and stopped us going down a road strewn with mines, we eventually reached Zaporizhzhia. I am now safe and my family have been evacuated to Croatia as refugees.

Our home has since been destroyed and, like this football club, we will one day have to start again. The psychological scars will run long and deep for everyone who survives but the city will not be abandoned, and nor will FC Mariupol. I am certain that, with the support of a united democratic world, we will overcome this situation and be able to reconstruct everything. I dream that Mariupol will be rebuilt, becoming even more beautiful and comfortable than it was before the invasion. And I cannot imagine a quiet and peaceful life in Mariupol without football, and our club, which is so proud to be a part of the incredible community it represents.

Andriy Sanin is vice-president of FC Mariupol, who played in the recently curtained Ukrainian Premier League.

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