Stranded football stars, frantic calls and a race to flee Kyiv

In the windowless conference room of the Kyiv hotel where the football stars had gathered, anxiety grew by the minute. A failed escape ...

In the windowless conference room of the Kyiv hotel where the football stars had gathered, anxiety grew by the minute. A failed escape attempt had been a disaster. And the sounds of war – mortar fire, rocket fire, howling warplanes – provided an almost constant reminder of their precarious situation.

On Saturday morning, the group, made up mostly of Brazilians but now swelled by other South Americans and Italians, numbered up to 70 players. The players had come to Ukraine to play football; a few weeks earlier, they had taken the field in the Champions League, the richest competition in Europe. Now, with their season suspended and Russian forces advance on the citythey huddled with their families – wives, partners, young children, aging parents – and plotted how and when to run to save their lives.

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

Fearing for their safety and that of their families, the players released a short video that quickly went viral. Food was scarce, players said. Necessities like diapers were already sold out.

“We are here to ask for your help,” said Shakhtar player Marlon Santos, citing the obstacles. “We have no way out.”

Evacuation plans were drawn up and then quickly abandoned. Thefts were impossible; Ukraine had shut down civil aviation and Russian forces were attacking the airport. Gasoline was scarce, and a group that now numbered dozens knew it would be next to impossible to organize enough cars or stay together amidst the chaos.

Running for him also carried its own risks, as it would have required renouncing their connection to the outside world. The hotel had at least a power supply and, just as crucially, a reliable internet connection, Moraes said.

In frantic phone calls, he and other members of the group, including Shakhtar coach Roberto De Zerbi, an Italian, had made contact with consular and government officials at home. Empathy was abundant. The solutions were not.

Players and their families have been advised to try to get to Kyiv train station and join the crowds heading west towards Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, closer from the Polish border, which had become a focal point for the exodus of the Russian advance.

“At first it seemed like a good idea,” Moraes said of the plan to rush to Lviv. “But look, we also have babies and old people here. If you leave the hotel with internet and electricity allowing us to keep in touch with everyone, and you go to another city and stay with children on the street, how long could we do this before it got really serious? »

Instead, the group turned their attention and hopes to football. The Shakhtar leadership had ensured that the Brazilians stayed at the hotel as the security situation in Ukraine escalated. (The team has been based in Kyiv for yearsas he was forced to flee Donetsk in 2014 after an earlier Russian-backed assault.) But while team officials assured the group they were working on a solution, none had materialized.

The idea of ​​spending 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 flee to safety in the early hours of Saturday morning, he said, only to quickly return in shock.

“When they came out there were explosions and they came screaming back into the room,” Moraes said. “It was panic, madness.”

By then, the Brazilian players and their families had been joined by an Argentinian and Uruguayan contingent. Soon other Brazilians living in Kyiv – but unconnected with football – requested shelter and were welcomed inside.

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

Shortly before his conversation with The Times, however, Moraes received a phone call. Aleksander Ceferin, the president of European football’s governing body UEFA, was on the line and promised, Moraes said, that “he was pushing for a solution”.

There was still no plan, said a worried Moraes, but “in the past 48 hours it has been the most comfortable three minutes of my life”.

Reached at his home in Slovenia, Ceferin confirmed he was calling anyone he thought he could help and was maintaining contact with 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 French President Emmanuel Macron to flesh out plans for move 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, did not come from political connections but from local connections: the officials of the Ukrainian football federation had bought two buses and sent them to the hotel in Kiev.

Calls were made to the players. Hurry up, they were told. Gather your belongings and families and prepare to move quickly.

Credit…Junior Moraes

The buses arrived, the athletes and their families rushed aboard, and the group was quickly transported to one of the city’s train stations.

Rummaging around the crowded platform, the athletes, who otherwise might have been recognized and greeted as local superstars, cast a nervous glance around. 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 were riding in gave a little jerk and headed west toward Romania, toward safety, away from the war.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Stranded football stars, frantic calls and a race to flee Kyiv
Stranded football stars, frantic calls and a race to flee Kyiv
Newsrust - US Top News
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