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‘We are alive’: Mariupol footballers stay strong as season begins

Demydiv (Ukraine) (AFP) – As Ukraine’s football season kicked off on Tuesday despite the ongoing Russian invasion, players from a Mariupol club are hoping to do their devastated city proud after a dramatic escape from their home.

FSC Mariupol are warming up in the tiny village stadium of Demydiv 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Kyiv — hundreds of kilometres from their base in the strategic port hub on the Sea of Azov.

Oleksandr Yaroshenko, the club’s president, told AFP that he motivates the team’s players by telling them: “You don’t just play football. You have to play because we are Mariupol.”

Yaroshenko remembers that the club played a friendly two days before the February 24 invasion.

Nobody at the time believed Russia would attack.

Two days later, the first bombs fell on the city and Russian forces surrounded it within days.

When electricity and running water began to be cut off at the beginning of March due to the constant shelling, players and coaches began to converge on the club’s base in the city centre.

Yaroshenko, who also owns a medical business, said he volunteered to coordinate medical facilities in the city — which has seen some of the most intense fighting in the past six months of war.

Yaroshenko initially asked the players to leave on a club bus — a big black coach with the inscription “Mariupol” above the windshield parked metres from the stadium.

But, not wanting to leave their relatives or fearing to come under fire along the way, most of the players refused to flee.

– Morale boost –

Only a week later, the players and their relatives eventually decided to go. 

“Our aim was to get out of Mariupol. We were not going to be somewhere together,” Yaroshenko said.

But they only managed to get to Berdyansk, a Russia-occupied town, from where everyone dispersed in different directions, including the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula, Georgia and Poland.

FSC Mariupol will be playing in Ukraine’s second tier and its first game of the season will be against Lviv club Karpaty in western Ukraine.

The city’s main club, FC Mariupol, which is in the Premier League, has been allowed to skip the season with a right to return in the next one.

Premier League rival Desna from the northern city of Chernigiv whose stadium was hit by a Russian rocket, received the same exemption.

The decision to begin the season reportedly came from President Volodymyr Zelensky himself in order to give the country a morale boost.

Matches will be held without spectators due to security reasons, many clubs will play their home games not in their own cities, but largely in the safer western or central regions.

– Against all odds –

The war has had a devastating effect on football clubs, particularly smaller and less financially secure ones.

Only 10 of FSC Mariupol’s players eventually reached their new base in the Kyiv outskirts.

The team was completed with young players from other clubs, including other teams from the war-ravaged Donetsk region.

“Now the most important thing is participation,” Yaroshenko said of the club’s decision to play the season against all odds.

“We do not know whether the game that has begun will end or not, whether the championship will end or not.”

“Today it is more of an ideological team, which is built on the philosophy that this is Mariupol and that we are alive.”

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