‘We’re not afraid’: Ukraine facet FC Kryvbas ignore close by shells as new season looms


On a slight incline overlooking FC Kryvbas’s coaching amenities, the skeletal body of a mining tower units slowly into motion. Its wheels flip intermittently, intentionally, serving to drag a metropolis’s lifeblood nearer to the contemporary air. Down by the gates an aged man materialises from a facet path on the first signal of tourists, hawking a plastic bag half-full of cherries. They’re in season, glistening and juicy; there will likely be lots extra the place these got here from, ought to the quantity of gross sales match his optimism.

Inside, Yuriy Vernydub has work of his personal. He jokes that the final yr of his life would make a movie script however the quick actuality is, true to his oeuvre, in regards to the subsequent recreation. There’s a aggressive match to organize for: Kryvbas will face Kolos Kovalivka close to Kyiv on Tuesday, the primary day of the 2022-23 Ukrainian Premier League season.

Quickly the heavens will open. Whereas thunder and lightning compete for consideration overhead his gamers will likely be despatched out of their indoor dome and on to the grass pitch to allow them to excellent their off-the-ball form. They’re 40km from the Russian frontline; in a single day there have been barrel bombings to the south, and these climate circumstances are water off a footballer’s again.

‘This can be a really patriotic, actual Ukrainian membership.’ The Kryvbas supervisor, Yuriy Vernydub. {Photograph}: Vudi Xhymshiti/The Guardian

“In fact I’ve some fears about beginning the league now, any sensible individual would,” Vernydub says. “It’s most likely the primary time in historical past {that a} championship will likely be performed in the course of the center of a warfare. However I’ve seen actual shelling with my very own eyes, so I’m much less scared.”

That is Kryvyi Rih: the sprawling, snaking metropolis that dominates central Ukraine’s industrial heartland. Its persons are robust, plain-speaking, greater than half of them working within the metallurgy business whose edifices dominate each stretch of the panorama.

Kryvbas are accordingly belligerent: they won’t relocate to Kyiv, as others have completed, even when areas on town’s periphery are often being shelled and the troubling spectre of the Enerhodar nuclear energy station looms 60 miles to the south-east. Town is protected by 4 strains of defence and can’t be entered with out passing a collection of military checkpoints.

In June, the membership advised its rivals to overlook any thought of taking part in league video games overseas, saying there’s “no different possibility, neither from an ethical standpoint nor from sporting precept” than to compete domestically.

The identical month, Vernydub turned supervisor. “It has to occur right here, in our land,” he says. “It’s crucial to our troopers, our warriors, that we do it.”

Vernydub is aware of why. Final September, his Sheriff Tiraspol group brought about astonishment by successful at Actual Madrid within the Champions League. However he watched the Spanish facet beat Liverpool within the remaining by way of a patchy tv feed together with his artillery unit, not removed from Kryvyi Rih.

Kryvbas players on the training pitch.
Kryvbas gamers on the coaching pitch. In keeping with the veteran midfielder Viacheslav Riabov, “there has all the time been a winners’ spirit” within the metropolis. {Photograph}: Vudi Xhymshiti/The Guardian

On the day Russia invaded Ukraine he was teaching Sheriff in a Europa League tie in opposition to Braga; inside hours he was on the way in which again dwelling to Zaporizhzhia and, at 56, volunteering for the military draft. “I paid nearly no consideration to soccer,” he says, explaining how returning hearth in direction of the invaders turned his day by day focus. “I believe each man would do the identical.”

When it was time to come back again, the supply from Kryvbas’ president, Kostyantyn Karamanits, suited him. Karamanits had donated assist to Vernydub’s military division so the favour was returned.

“Presidents of different golf equipment speak rather a lot about their help however this one helps rather a lot with out speaking an excessive amount of,” he says. “This can be a really patriotic, actual Ukrainian membership.”

Viacheslav Riabov is a veteran midfielder, Kryvyi Rih born and bred, who speaks a vital fact: “The soul of this metropolis is underground.” A portion of it plunges 160m beneath sea stage and, remarkably, is hewn solely a mile from the centre.

Pivdennyi quarry is a cavernous, disorientating moonscape operated by Rudomain, the membership’s sponsor. There are greater than 50 mines, quarries and vegetation within the space and that is certainly not the most important. Vans haul iron ore from high to backside, the spherical journey of about an hour going down as much as 10 instances a day, however in wartime the ability has operated at round 20% capability with transportation choices restricted.

“I’m amazed day-after-day I come to work,” says Oleg Podkopaiev, the quarry’s deputy director and a Kryvbas fan. He worries that, inside three many years, the ore could have been exhausted and that his dwelling metropolis could come to resemble Detroit. All the pieces in Kryvyi Rih is constructed round this blue mineral and its soccer membership wouldn’t exist with out it.

“Kryvbas is on the coronary heart of our metropolis and neighborhood,” Podkopaiev, a jovial 40-year-old, says. “It’s completely needed for morale right here that the membership begins taking part in once more. We have now to go on dwelling.”

Kryvbas and their supporters have tried to assist their compatriots do precisely that. Pavlo Petrechenko, a matchgoer since 1997, is a member of the Previous College fan sector and recounts how they arrange a joint checking account with the membership to gather donations for medical provides, pickup vans, drones and different tools to assist the army. Most of the group went to combat on the entrance; 4 have already died in locations comparable to Mariupol and Kharkiv oblast.

“We all know it could find yourself being extra,” he says. “Once we play our first recreation again in Kryvyi Rih, we’ll do one thing to honour them. This metropolis is powerful; the orcs received a bit shut however we withstood, as a result of our individuals have iron energy.”

Kryvbas fan Pavlo Petrechenko sits in the stands with the Guardian’s Nick Ames.
Kryvbas fan Pavlo Petrechenko (left), who has been going to matches since 1997, with the Guardian’s Nick Ames. {Photograph}: Vudi Xhymshiti/The Guardian

When he was youthful, Petrechenko shared a stage with Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Kryvyi Rih’s most well-known son and a driving pressure of Kryvbas’ latest revival. The pair have been comedians: Zelenskiy’s group, Kvartal 95, would face the Punks troupe that includes Petrechenko in native expertise exhibits in the course of the Nineteen Nineties.

Artem Gagarin, the vice-president of Kryvbas, was a number of years their junior and regarded one of many president’s comedian proteges. Petrechenko shakes his head and laughs when requested if he sensed his up to date was set for a profession in excessive workplace. “However he’s proved everybody unsuitable,” he says. “He received a lot of criticism earlier than the warfare and has proven the true Kryvyi Rih character.”

It helped him to the highest and should guarantee Ukraine prevails, too. Riabov is aware of what the miners and their friends have wrought. “There has all the time been a winners’ spirit right here,” he says.

It is a shiny Saturday morning. The day gone by’s downpour is a distant reminiscence however some issues stay fixed. A few hours in the past, 4 Kalibr cruise missiles have been shot down above Dnipro, 85 miles north-east, and the terrible wail of air raid sirens echoed round Kryvyi Rih. Many of the public proceed as if impervious: the distinctive underground trams on the metro preserve shuddering alongside; a pair stroll alongside the pavement sharing the burden of an enormous, vibrant basket of flowers.

On the Kryvbas coaching floor, Volodymyr Baienko is carrying on too. He has simply travelled in a single day from western Ukraine, the place he was negotiating with potential new signings. Placing a squad collectively has been no imply feat. “On 7 April we solely had 5 gamers right here,” he says.

The primary group had been on a coaching camp in Turkey when the warfare started and inside a fortnight Baienko knew he must permit most of the squad, Riabov included, to proceed their careers overseas on mortgage. Others would depart completely. For a 32-year-old whose taking part in profession resulted in June 2021 earlier than he moved to an upstairs function at Kryvbas, this yr has offered the steepest of studying curves.

Volodymyr Baienko, the CEO of FC Kryvbas.
‘Whereas others have hesitated we’re transferring ahead, as a result of we’ve received bold targets.’ Volodymyr Baienko, the CEO of FC Kryvbas. {Photograph}: Vudi Xhymshiti/The Guardian

“Go searching, take a look at everybody working,” he motions, sporting a pointy white shirt and searching each inch the urbane younger govt. Tractors carry gravel to certainly one of a number of areas of the advanced which can be being renovated; younger gamers prepare on a faraway pitch; administrative workers in pink shirts scurry round. “When persons are working they’re reassured that each one will likely be properly.

“Some individuals say that due to warfare you’ll be able to’t work or plan. However my opinion is that, regardless of its horrors, the warfare might be seen as an opportunity. Whereas others have hesitated we’re transferring ahead, as a result of we’ve received bold targets. And when Ukraine has gained the warfare, we will likely be forward of everybody.”

Kryvbas are, to all intents and functions, a successor to the outdated Kryvbas membership that went bankrupt in 2013 and twice performed within the Uefa Cup. They all the time performed to huge, baying crowds, by the usual of Ukraine’s areas. In 2020, they have been renamed from Hirnik Kryvyi Rih, a short-lived successor, upon an instruction personally made by Zelenskiy. Once they performed FC Cherkaschnya of their first recreation below the outdated title a yr in the past, Zelenskiy was there to kick the primary ball; the membership have been promoted to the highest flight and really feel slick, pushed, purposeful.

The coup of Vernydub’s arrival demonstrates that and so does the actual fact gamers such because the Croatian defender Dragan Lovric have been pleased to return for the brand new marketing campaign. Lovric, injured whereas his teammates have been in Turkey, noticed bombs fall close to Kryvyi Rih in February and needed to spend 50 hours driving again dwelling to Break up, however knew he could be again on the first alternative.

“Some others from my nation have provides from this membership however they don’t imagine me, they suppose I’m just a little loopy and might’t imagine it’s nearly regular life right here,” he says. “I inform them to come back; I believe it’s secure, although no person is aware of what’s coming subsequent.

“I believe individuals right here have been stunned to see me return, however we see hope right here. No one believed we may very well be in a footballing state of affairs so quickly however we need to present the world we aren’t afraid.”

Lovric hopes Kryvbas will likely be allowed to play dwelling video games in Kryvyi Rih; it may occur quickly, maybe as early as subsequent month. Iron will pays no deference to hazard, on the soccer area or elsewhere.

“From the very first days of warfare I knew Ukraine is not going to lose,” Baienko says. “I witnessed the warfare in Donetsk when it started in 2014, and I do know the Ukrainians are unbreakable individuals. We’re constructing our mentality, constructing our historical past.”

Excessive above him, these metal pully wheels preserve inching spherical and spherical. Life strikes on; the mines preserve working; in opposition to the chances, soccer is returning.

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