Stranded soccer stars, frantic calls and the race to escape Kyiv

Inside the windowless meeting room of the Kyiv hotel where football stars gather, anxiety is growing by the minute. An aborted escape attempt was a disaster. And the sound of war – mortar fire, rocket explosion, the sound of warplanes – provide a constant reminder of their precarious circumstances.

By Saturday morning, the group, consisting mainly of Brazilians but now increased by other South Americans and Italians, amounted to 70. The players had traveled to Ukraine to play football; A few weeks earlier, they had attended the Champions League, Europe’s most successful tournament. Now, when their season is paused and Russian forces enter the cityThey are gathering with family – wives, partners, young children, elderly relatives – and plotting how and when, to run for their lives.

“I hope everything will be fine,” one of the stranded Brazilian players, Junior Moraes, said Saturday morning in an interview with The New York Times. Moraes, a striker for Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk, explained how the group was rushed to the hotel by their team last week. In the days that followed, when first the country and then the city came under attack, their ranks expanded after foreign players from a rival club, Dynamo Kyiv, applied to join.

Concerned for their safety and that of their families, the players released a short video that quickly went viral. The players said food was in short supply. Necessities like diapers are gone.

“We are here to ask for your help,” Shakhtar player Marlon Santos said of the obstacle. “There’s no way we can get out.”

Evacuation plans were hatched and then quickly scrapped. Flights are not possible; Ukraine has closed its civil aviation store and Russian forces are attacking the airport. Gasoline is in short supply, and a group now numbering in the dozen knows it will be nearly impossible to get enough cars, or stay together in the midst of chaos.

Running away also carries its own risks, as it will require giving up their connection to the outside world. The hotel at least has a power supply and, equally important, a reliable internet connection, Moraes said.

In frantic phone calls, he and others on the team, including Shakhtar’s coach Roberto De Zerbi, an Italian, contacted consular and government officials back home. Empathy is abundant. The solution did not.

The players and their families are advised to try to get to the train station in Kyiv and join the crowds heading west towards Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, close to the Polish border, has become focal point for the exodus from Russia.

“At first, it seemed like a good idea,” Moraes said of the plan to make a splash for Lviv. “But look, we have babies and old people here. If you leave a hotel with internet and electricity that keeps us in touch with people, go to another city and stay with kids on the street, how long can we do that before it gets really bad? ”

Instead, the team turned its attention and hopes back to football. Shakhtar management arranged for the Brazilian players to stay at the hotel when the security situation in Ukraine worsened. (Team has been based in Kyiv for many yearssince it was forced to flee Donetsk in 2014 following an earlier Russian-backed attack.) But while group officials assured the group they were looking for a solution, it did. did not materialize.

The thought of spending another night in the conference room, Moraes said, brought some of those present to the brink of “psychological breakdown.” Several members of the group tried to get to safety by fleeing in the early hours of Saturday morning, he said, only to quickly return in a state of shock.

“When they got out, there was an explosion and they came back screaming in the room,” Moraes said. “It was panic, madness.”

Later, the Brazilian players and their families were joined by the Argentina and Uruguay national teams. Soon after, other Brazilians living in Kyiv – but not involved in football – contacted asking for shelter and were welcomed inside.

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

However, shortly before his conversation with The Times, Moraes received a phone call. Aleksander Ceferin, president of European football’s governing body, UEFA, spoke out and promised Moraes that “he is trying to find a solution”.

Worried Moraes said there are still no plans, but “in the last 48 hours, these have been the most comfortable three minutes of my life.”

Arriving at his home in Slovenia, Ceferin confirmed that he was calling anyone he thought could help and maintain contact with the trapped players. “I’m talking to them for hours,” he said.

Ceferin first tried to get support from the French government. He made a flash trip to Paris on Thursday to meet the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to solidify plans for move the Champions League final out of Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine. On Saturday, he got back in touch with Macron’s office, “but I’m not sure they can help,” he said.

In the end, salvation did not come from political ties but local ties: Officials from Ukraine’s football federation bought two buses and sent them to a hotel in Kyiv.

Calls have been made to players. Hurry up, they have been told. Pack your belongings and your family and get ready to move quickly.

Credit…Junior Moraes

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

Milling against the packed platform, the athletes, who in other circumstances might have been recognized and welcomed as local superstars, glanced nervously around. On Saturday, they were just a few more amid a sea of ​​worried faces.

Then, at 4:50 p.m. local time, the locomotive they had boarded briefly set off westward toward Romania, toward safety, away from the war. Stranded soccer stars, frantic calls and the race to escape Kyiv

Fry Electronics Team

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