SPLIT, Croatia — It was in their moment of triumph, when they had beaten their opponents and come together to collect their medals, when some of the boys were overcome with sadness, when the tears welled in their eyes.
The teenagers, a mix of 13- and 14-year-olds representing one of the youth squads of the top Ukrainian soccer team Shakhtar Donetsk, had just won a tournament in Split, the Croatian city that has provided them with a refuge from war. Each boy was presented with a medal, and the team received a trophy to mark the victory.
The lucky ones got to celebrate and pose for pictures with their mothers. For most, though, there was no one.
“As a mother I feel it,” said Natalia Plaminskaya, who was able to accompany her twin boys to Croatia but said she felt for families who could not do the same. “I want to hug them, play with them, make them feel better.”
In the first frantic days after Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year, Shakhtar Donetsk, one of Eastern Europe’s powerhouse clubs, moved quickly to evacuate its teams and staff members out of harm’s way.
But scores of players and staff members from Shakhtar’s youth academy needed sanctuary, too.
Phone calls were placed. Buses were arranged. But decisions had to be made quickly, and only about a dozen mothers were able to accompany the boys on the journey. (Wartime rules required that their fathers — all men of fighting age, in fact, ages 18 to 60 — had to remain in Ukraine.) Other families made different choices: to stay with husbands and relatives, to send their boys off alone. All of the options were imperfect. None of the decisions were easy.
Three months later, the weight of separation, of loneliness — of everything — has taken its toll.
“It’s a nightmare, it’s a nightmare,” said Edgar Cardoso, who leads Shakhtar’s youth teams. He repeats his words to underline how fragile the atmosphere has become within the walls of the seaside hotel in Croatia that has become the Shakhtar group’s temporary home. “You see that emotions are now on the peak.”