Inside the windowless conference room of the Kiev hotel where soccer stars gathered, anxiety was growing over time. The failed escape attempt was a disaster. And the sounds of war- Mortar shells, missile explosions, aircraft screeching – It provided a semi-constant reminder of their precarious circumstances.
By Saturday morning, the group, made up mostly of Brazilians but now the largest number of South Americans and Italians, had reached 70. The players came to Ukraine to play football; Weeks ago, they entered the stadium for the Champions League, the richest competition in Europe. Now, with their season pending and Russian forces are advancing in the cityThey gather with their families—wives, partners, young children, elderly relatives—and plot how and when to flee for their lives.
“I hope all is well,” one of the stranded Brazilian players, Junior Moraes, said Saturday morning in an interview with the New York Times. And Moraes, striker for the Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk, explained how the team moved to the hotel last week by their team. In the days that followed, with first the state and then the city under attack, their ranks expanded after foreign players asked a rival club, Dynamo Kiev, to join them.
Fearing for their safety and their families, players released a short video that quickly went viral. The players said that food was scarce. Essentials like nappies are already out of stock.
“We are here asking for your help,” said Shakhtar player Marlon Santos, citing the obstacles. “There is no way out.”
Evacuation plans were planned and then quickly canceled. Flights were impossible; Ukraine had shut down civil aviation, and Russian forces were attacking the airport. There was a shortage of gasoline, and a group of dozens now knew that it would be nearly impossible to arrange enough cars, or to stay together in the midst of the chaos.
Doing a run for him also carried its own risks, as it would have required abandoning their relationship with the outside world. Moraes said the hotel had at least a power supply and, just as important, a reliable internet connection.
In frantic phone calls, he and others in the group, including Shakhtar’s Italian coach Roberto De Zerbe, made contact with consular officials and governments back home. Sympathy was abundant. The solutions are not.
Players and their families were advised to try to get to the train station in Kiev and join the crowds heading west towards Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, closer to the Polish border, which has become a focal point of the mass exodus from the Russian advance.
“At first it seemed like a good idea,” Moraes said of the Lviv plan making a dash. “But look, we have kids and elders here too. If you leave the hotel with internet and electricity keeping us in touch with everyone, and you go to another city and stay with kids on the street, how long can we do that before it gets so bad?”
Instead, the group turned its attention and hopes to football. The Shakhtar administration had arranged for the Brazilians to stay in the hotel as the security situation in Ukraine deteriorated. (the team Lived in Kiev for yearssince it was forced to flee Donetsk in 2014 after an earlier attack with Russian support). But while team officials assured the group that it was working on a solution, none of it materialized.
The thought of spending another night in the boardroom, Moraes said, put some of the attendees on the brink of a “psychological meltdown.” He said that many members of the group tried to reach safety by fleeing in the early hours of Saturday morning, but quickly returned in shock.
“When they came out there were explosions and they came back screaming in the room,” Moraes said. “It was panic, insanity.”
By then, a squad from Argentina and Uruguay had joined the Brazilian players and their families. Soon, other Brazilians living in Kiev – but not connected to football – reached out to seek shelter and were welcomed inside.
Moraes said de Zerbe, 42, and his aides refused to abandon the group. “They had two chances to leave us, and the coach said, ‘No, I’m going to stay here until the end,'” Moraes said.
Shortly before his conversation with the Times, Moraes received a phone call. Aleksander Ceferin, UEFA president, was on the line and promising, as Moraes said, “was pushing to find a solution”.
Understand the Russian attack on Ukraine
What is the origin of this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine from the inside its natural sphere of influenceHe has been exasperated by Ukraine’s proximity to the West and the possibility of the country joining NATO or the European Union. While Ukraine is not part of either, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.
There hasn’t been a plan yet, said the anxious Moraes, but “in the past 48 hours, these have been the most restful three minutes of my life.”
After arriving at his home in Slovenia, Ceferin confirmed that he was calling anyone he thought could help, and maintain contact with the stranded players. “I talk to them every hour,” he said.
Ceferin first tried to get help from the French government. He had made a whirlwind trip to Paris on Thursday to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron to make plans for… UEFA Champions League Final Transfer Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. On Saturday, he called Macron’s office again, “but I’m not sure they can help,” he said.
In the end, salvation came not from political ties, but from local ones: officials of the Ukrainian Football Federation bought two buses and sent them to the hotel in Kiev.
Calls have been made to the players. Hurry up, they were told. Gather your belongings and families and be prepared to move quickly.
Buses rolled over, athletes and their families scrambled on board, and the group was quickly transported to one of the city’s train stations.
The athletes, sitting on the crowded podium, looked on nervously, who might have been recognized in other circumstances and greeted as local stars. On Saturday, their faces were only a few in the midst of a sea of anxious faces.
Then, at 4:50 p.m. local time, the locomotive they were on gave a short jolt and sped west toward Romania, toward safety, away from the war.