OLEKSANDR PETRAKOV LOOKED around the airplane at his boys with both love and disgust. He sat in 1A, front left, his usual head coach seat, as he and the Ukrainian national soccer team flew from Glasgow to Yerevan, Armenia for their next match. They’d lost 3-0 to Scotland a few hours before, just his second loss as the national team manager, but whatever hurt inside him did not pass his lips. That was normal. He’s the son of a hard-drinking Soviet factory worker and came up in the USSR athletics machine. Once he dispatched an eight-question press conference in 37 words.
“I’m a simple man,” he said.
The plane’s pilots, both Ukrainian, took a looping route through Eastern Europe to skirt the dangers of Ukrainian airspace. It was late September. Eleven times since the war began Petrakov’s team had taken the field, every one of them in a foreign country. Nobody on the plane played cards or sang. The players sat in silence. They’d failed tonight but at least they’d done it together.
After seven hours, the team landed and took a bus to a Radisson hotel in Yerevan. The players went to bed and the staff went to work. Their head security guy, an unsmiling brick of a man named Andriy, took down a Russian flag flying on a pole in front of the hotel, ripping it off the rope. Someone called the cops and after a showdown, the flag was returned to the pole alongside all the other national flags on display.
A few hours later players filtered down through the hotel, which the support guys had turned into yet another base camp while they slept. They checked their phones to find that Russian president Vladimir Putin had instituted a draft and fighting-age Russian men were fleeing their country. Reports said flights were completely booked for days to every country that didn’t require a visa and there were miles-long lines of cars at the Russian borders. Some deserters were sleeping in tents in forests. Reports from the front showed Ukrainian troops advancing towards the Oskil River while repelling Russian attacks. The players smiled.
Laminated signs directed them to the kit room (Hayq the Small), or to the meeting room (Hayq the Great), or to the place where they shared meals, always the same: pasta, chicken, fruit. Taras Stepanenko, the oldest player on the team, stopped and looked from the first floor lobby down into the hotel bar a level below and watched a replay of the previous night’s loss.
The team’s communication chief, Alex, leaned up against the railing, too. Some Ukrainian journalists were fiercely criticizing Petrakov for the Scotland loss, he said.
“If the team wins next two games, he’ll stay,” he said. “If not…”
A bright red bus waited outside to take the team to practice at a nearby stadium. The blue sky of morning had turned bruised and swollen. Snowcapped Mount Ararat vanished in the thunderheads. Trees swayed. Black clouds moved across the valley. Just before 6 p.m., as the players took the field, the sky opened. The temperature dropped and the horizon looked like an illustration in a children’s Bible. Swirling winds spun raindrops into strange balls of water that glittered beneath stadium light stanchions. Petrakov stood on the pitch and screamed at his team about their lazy play the day before. They ran laps in the rain. They kept their heads down, their shoulders folded forward. He began to run with them and looked up at the sky. A wide smile crossed his face — the first real smile from him all day. An idea formed as water ran down his nose. He seemed happy. Order and purpose emerged from their disappointment. He wagged a finger at his boys.
“There is no punishment without guilt!” he bellowed.
IT WAS MY last chance to see this Ukrainian team. Every national squad has a life cycle, depending on scheduling and tournaments, and these players were at the end of theirs. Perhaps no team in history had been asked to do so much, banding together while their lives were under siege, trying to win the biggest matches of their lives while missiles fell from the sky back home. They’ve all been forever changed by the experience. They’ve learned things about humanity and their truest selves.
That was clear from my first meeting with Petrakov back in May, when he had hope he could lead Ukraine to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Everyone focused on the results then, including me, but Petrakov seemed to see something deeper about a nation at war, something primal, tuned to the ways the fight creates in you the person you’ll have to live with for the rest of your life. He already knew then that every wartime decision revealed either strength or weakness. He told a story about the morning of Feb. 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine. He and his wife slept in their apartment when it began. They switched on the lights. Explosions rocked their city. His daughter came to the door with her husband. The telephone rang. It was his son.
“Dad, we have to get out of Kyiv,” his son told him.
“No,” Petrakov said. “I won’t go anywhere.”
Russian cruise missiles detonated close enough that his windows rattled. His wife went to a bunker. Petrakov stayed in their apartment. One day, early in the invasion, he went outside to buy bread. As he walked near his usual subway station he heard a whoosh above his head. He looked up. Seconds later, he felt the jolt of an explosion. The blast killed a girl and a boy, a father and a mother. Petrakov was 64 years old. He wanted to join the fight. As a young man, he’d served in the Soviet Army. Now he went to a local Territorial Defense Forces recruiting office to volunteer. The soldiers told him that he could serve the nation best by coaching his team.
“Just win,” they said.
At sandbag and concrete checkpoints near his apartment, Petrakov brought food and cigarettes to soldiers standing watch. He asked about them, about their homes. Petrakov loves Kyiv. Sometimes he has let himself imagine what it will be like after the fighting stops. His eyes and smile seem lit from within when he narrates the future. One day many years from now, if he’s lucky, he will walk down the sidewalk on one of Kyiv’s wide avenues and he’ll pass a café and see some of his former players sharing a toast. They will crowd around a small table and remember bygone days of football and war.
The national team coaches and players first came together seven weeks after the invasion began, playing matches in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Poland and Armenia. They’ve become brothers. They’ve fought together to win and leaned on each other when they lost. They’ve taken the field long after the world’s attention moved on to other things. They’ve played in games without visible stakes. They’ve trained miles from home and hungered for updates from family and friends.
Now in Armenia, they were aware their efforts might soon slip into the realm of memory. And so each game, each moment, meant all the more to them. “At first, the Ukrainian anthem before the game did not cause me any feelings,” Petrakov said one afternoon as he wiped tears from his eyes. “But now when the anthem plays at the beginning of the game, I feel like a real Ukrainian. This has never happened to me before. Then I’m ready to tear everybody apart on the field.”
It was Thursday. Two more games remained, one Saturday in Armenia and another Tuesday night in Krakow, Poland. Then the players would scatter to their clubs around Europe and the coaches and staff would return to Ukraine. They wouldn’t gather again until March 2023 — at the end of what they knew would surely be the worst winter in their nation’s history.
PETRAKOV WORKED OUT alone in the stark hotel gym and then moved through the halls in a practiced orbit, emotional quantum mechanics, checking on players and coaches. The best coaching he’s done with this team has had little to do with football strategy. When he looks down his roster, he sees a map of scattered families. He knows who has a brother in the army or parents trapped in occupied basements. The whole world has seen his boys stand at attention for the national anthem, but Petrakov alone has looked into their eyes just before they take the field and as they return to the privacy of their changing room. He knows their birthdays. Only two of his players — his captain Andriy Yarmolenko and Stepanenko — were born before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Most of his team have only lived in a free Ukraine and don’t remember the past. Petrakov tells them of the world before independence. He has seen a country simply cease to exist.
They pledged to reject all Western values in the Soviet days, but his cool older brother knew the local speculator who could score black market Beatles albums and Levi’s. Petrakov loved Donna Summer and ABBA. Today his players chuckle when he dribbles a ball around before practice or takes a shot on goal. They wouldn’t have laughed when he was a young man, a feared defender who made opponents pay for even approaching the goal.
He was born in 1957, four years after the death of Josef Stalin and four years before Yuri Gagarin completed the first manned orbit of earth. He lived through the peak and the decline of the Soviet empire. His playing career declined with it. In 1990, the last full year of the Soviet Union, he returned to Kyiv after finishing a run with a professional side in Budapest. “When I returned from Hungary, it was a new country, there was nothing in the shops,” Petrakov said. “No one knew what to do. Everyone lived for the day. There were no prospects. There were no jobs. The professors were selling cars. PhDs would take any job to support their families.”
He found work as a player for a semipro team near Chernobyl — five years after the nuclear meltdown — before injuries pushed him off the field and onto the sideline. In 1991, the year Ukraine declared independence, Oleksandr Petrakov became a football coach. He was 34 years old and remembers struggling to make enough to feed his two children. But he also remembers clearly the day of Ukrainian independence.
“We talked about football,” he said.
OVER THE YEARS, Petrakov found his niche with youth teams and his career seemed to peak when his team won the U-20 World Cup in 2019. Ukrainian football was on the rise. The men’s national team reached the quarterfinals of the 2020 Euros, coached by the greatest Ukrainian player, Ballon d’Or winner Andriy Shevchenko — whose poster hung on the wall of nearly every child’s bedroom in the country.
Shevchenko and federation president Andriy Pavelko got into a public battle and Shevchenko resigned. As fans howled at the loss of such a legend, Pavelko looked desperately for a new coach. He turned to Petrakov, who’d never held a job near the level of the one he was being offered now. Petrakov said yes. Then he went home and looked around his flat in a modest building near the Kyiv Zoo.
“It was night,” he said. “I sat down thinking, ‘What have I done?'”
He told that story in Ukrainian. The war has made language itself a battlefield. “Since Aug. 17, the day I started, I’ve spoken Ukrainian,” Petrakov said. “I had never spoken it before.”
No Ukrainian coach had ever spoken Ukrainian in public.
The Soviet Union waged a cultural war on every part of the nation’s identity and so Russian was the native tongue of every member of the Ukrainian national team. When Russia annexed Crimea and invaded portions of Ukrainian territory in 2014, language and culture became increasingly politicized. By trying to destroy a culture, Putin helped create one. Traditional Ukrainian food experienced a renaissance in the bistros of Kyiv. Lifelong Russian speakers searched their grade school memories for fragments of Ukrainian vocabulary.
At practice one afternoon I watched Petrakov yell instructions to the team in Russian. Then a camera crew arrived.
“In Ukrainian, please,” he reminded his team.
Now the entire team speaks Ukrainian in public. Many of their fellow citizens do, as well. One morning in a team hotel, the unified heavyweight champion of the world, Oleksandr Usyk, ate breakfast with his young sons. They’d come to town for a game. His boys would ask him questions in Russian but he never failed to reply, even to them, in Ukrainian.
Yarmolenko, Petrakov’s captain, looks like a star, with trendy shoes and a carefully managed beard, but he always seems pitched slightly forward, aggressive, ready. Whenever he hears someone speak Russian, in say, London or Dubai, he will start speaking Ukrainian. Loudly. Almost begging them to start a fight.
The war is being contested over territory, yes, but also over identity. In the main squares of Kyiv, sandbags cover statues and monuments to protect them from Russian attack. Putin has written about his theory that there is no such thing as Ukraine, that the nation was created by the West to fracture Russian power and regional control.
“Russians and Ukrainians were one people — a single whole,” he wrote last year.
He blames the West for everything wrong with his nation. He criticizes Lenin. He praises Stalin. The fragile web of irrelevant facts and misrepresentations, the basis for every good conspiracy, is laughed at by historians but taken as gospel by many Russian citizens. Putin calls Kyiv the “mother of all Russian cities” and his assault on the capital isn’t just about oil or shipping routes, but about grievance and pride. If Ukrainians exist then Russians don’t have a divine right to control their corner of the world.
“All evil things in the world come from short people,” Petrakov said with a sneer.
We sat in a café on an off day.
“Kyiv has always been called the mother of Rus cities,” he said and launched into what was omitted from Putin’s essays. More than a thousand years ago, a great civilization rose in Kyiv, the Kyivan Rus’, which was rooted in Orthodox Christianity and ruled a huge expanse of territory stretching from the Black Sea to Scandinavia. In the 1200s, the Mongol armies sacked Kyiv and broke apart the Kyivan Rus’. The people scattered and are still dealing with the consequences of that defeat. Some drifted west and became Ukrainians. Some Belarusians. And others moved northeast and turned Moscow from a timber-walled frontier fort into the center of a new empire. For Russia, not having control of Kyiv means it can’t rewrite history to put itself at the center of it. Leaders as far back as Catherine the Great tried to erase even the idea of a Ukrainian people and history, and Putin is using artillery barrages and cruise missiles and Iranian drones toward the same end. As the Ukrainian military advances toward the Russian border, the Ukrainian citizens defend the ideas that underpin their old culture and new country alike.
“From here Kyivan Rus’ began,” Petrakov insisted. “Not the other way around.”
THE NEWLY HIRED Petrakov and his Ukrainian-speaking team started winning games in the fall of 2021, beating Finland and then Bosnia in World Cup qualifiers. They earned a spot in a playoff scheduled for March. If they beat Scotland and Wales, two difficult road matches, they’d qualify for just the second World Cup in the history of their country. As January arrived, the Biden administration began warning the Ukrainian government that a Russian invasion looked imminent. Petrakov didn’t believe it. He’d played with Russian teammates. “We were like brothers,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain it. They lost their minds.”
The war began with Russian tanks rushing across the border and Russian planes flying bombing runs on civilian targets and airborne troopers landing at strategic airports. The global military community wondered if Ukraine might fall in days under this multifront assault, but the citizen-soldiers and the Ukrainian army held firm. A band of outgunned defenders told the captain of a Russian warship to “go f—” himself.
Some national team players hid in freezing bunkers, while others sought refuge in the west part of the country. Some of the major professional teams opened up training facilities and entire families moved in for safety. Later many would describe not thinking about football for the first time in their lives. Even Petrakov found he couldn’t watch matches on television. He tried to keep his team together, finding out where everyone was living, calling to check on them.
“Don’t worry about football!” man after man told him. “It’s a war!”
Petrakov didn’t want to leave Kyiv and he didn’t want to hide in a bomb shelter. The army didn’t want a man of his age. That left football. UEFA floated the idea of petitioning for an automatic spot in the World Cup, but Ukrainian federation president Pavelko and Petrakov said no. They’d earn their way or stay home. Pavelko begged for the qualifying matches to be postponed and FIFA agreed. The games were moved to June. On the day they would have played their first qualifier against Scotland, raid sirens sounded all over east and central Ukraine. Heavy shelling pushed the citizens of Kharkiv further underground. The Ukrainian military destroyed 18 air targets and sank a large warship.
A week later, in early April, Ukrainian forces won the Battle of Kyiv.
In the capital, people began to stand up. Skateboarders did tricks in public squares, the air alive with the scrape of trucks on concrete and metal. Hipsters held court in shabby chic cocktail bars with names like The Cinematographer’s Party. Wedding chapels couldn’t keep up with the volume. Three brides before lunch on a Wednesday. Huge groups sat around tables in Georgian restaurants with plates of grilled meat and bottles of semisweet wine. Petrakov went to view the horrors in the northern suburbs of Kyiv. He saw where Russian tanks had been stopped within sight of the city. He could picture his boys as part of the resistance, an instrument of a nation standing up and fiercely getting on with life. He picked up his phone and put his team back together.
“He called everyone,” goalkeeper Dmytro Riznyk said, “asking how we were doing, how our families were, where we were. He was worried about all of us.”
His players arrived in camp in Slovenia out of shape a month after the Battle of Kyiv ended. The staff hooked up monitors to them during those first training sessions and were appalled at their fitness levels. Petrakov looked out from his fancy hotel room window and saw a rolling rural paradise near the training field. He stepped outside and breathed clean, quiet air and thought about those guys manning the bunker on his street in Kyiv. “Even birds are chirping,” he said. “In the meantime, our warriors sleep in foxholes and trenches.”
The players’ minds were in worse shape than their bodies. Everyone worried. One young player said that the hotel’s bland elevator music, played as a soundtrack to his thoughts of home, threatened to drive him mad. “Our cause is to play football. It’s very hard,” Petrakov said. “Everyone has something else in his head. Someone has relatives where the fighting is going on, someone’s relatives are dying. I see it all. My guys are always calling. It is very hard. To understand that you have to be in our shoes. God forbid you ever know what war is.”
They made the short trip from their hotel to the training pitch and between the lines, surrounded by old forests and towering blue skies, they got a break from the war. These short hours were the only time they didn’t carry their phones. The eyes of the world were on them. A documentary crew from Japan followed them. One from America, too. A reporter from an important Spanish newspaper stood on the sidelines of training, as did one from London. Petrakov and his team did every interview. They thanked every interviewer.
The team arrived for the match in Scotland 10 days later to find a gift from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who had just visited the front and asked soldiers there to sign a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag for the team. The flag hung in the dressing room before the game and the players quietly read the messages. Many soldiers had written “4.5.0,” Ukrainian military code for “everything is fine, everything is calm.” We’re good.
The team defeated Scotland 3-1, and Petrakov ran onto the pitch in the seconds after the whistle, flexing his arms and screaming in the direction of roaring Ukrainian refugees and expats. The victory set up a deciding game. Beat Wales and qualify for Qatar.
One to nil in the driving Welsh rain, on an own goal by their captain Yarmolenko.
Petrakov walked into the postgame news conference and took all the blame. He said he’d let down the nation. When he finished, the reporters gave him an ovation. As he left, he turned back towards the room and begged everyone not to forget his nation and the people fighting there. A trip to the World Cup would have brought a lot of attention, needed attention, and he didn’t want this failure to hurt the efforts of those in the foxholes and trenches. His face twisted in unnatural snarls, his body trying to expel this feeling while awakening to the knowledge that it would be with him forever.
They went back to their hotel on the south side of Cardiff after losing the biggest match they’d ever play. Yarmolenko locked himself in his room and skipped dinner. Petrakov couldn’t sleep. He looked out his window and saw the Ferris wheel that rose up from the Cardiff docks. The lights flashed and changed colors and the wheel went around and around. He lost himself in the repetition. Hours passed. A strange illness swept through the team that night, with most of the starting eleven running fevers as high as 104.
For months they’d all imagined one version of glory. They’d qualify for the World Cup while Russia sat at home, banned by FIFA, and shine light on the Ukrainian cause. They’d even allowed themselves to imagine going down in history. All that was gone in an instant. If they weren’t the team that defied all odds and brought honor to their country on a global stage, who were they? Petrakov stared at the Ferris wheel. He could feel the world’s attention slipping away. They’d let down their fans. Their country. This moment had been coming since Feb. 24 and he faced a choice now that would define the rest of his life: Hide or fight? What happens if I, the head coach of the national team, lose heart and give up?
The team had their next match in Dublin three days later. They were playing in the Nations League, a minor tournament designed to make money for UEFA more than anything else.
Yarmolenko skipped the team lunch. Then he skipped dinner, too.
The next morning, Petrakov knocked on his captain’s door.
“It is so hard for me that this happened,” Yarmolenko said. “Do you understand me?”
“That day is over. It will never come back,” Petrakov said. “We need to get together and start from the beginning.”
Part II: Band of Brothers
TARAS STEPANENKO SAT alone at a table in the hotel lobby bar. He smiled at me and gestured to an empty seat.
“Have a coffee,” he said.
It was the morning before the Armenia match in September. We’d been in Yerevan for two days. He pulled up the live security feeds from his home in Kyiv. The cameras still work.
“I love my home,” he said. “I want to come back.”
He showed me the different views with pride. One camera shows the Dnipro River flowing behind his yard. Another shows the trees and flowers. Stepanenko loved the trees most, watching them grow from seeds along with his children. His wife planted berries and vegetables. Gardening is in her blood. Her grandparents left their village when the war began, moving into the Stepanenkos’ riverfront home near Kyiv. They lasted about ten days before returning to the active warzone. Her grandmother wouldn’t abandon her garden. She had put those seeds in the ground.
Stepanenko feels homesick a lot. So much has been lost already. His home in Donetsk was wrecked by a bomb. His caretaker sent photos that showed how slivers of shrapnel cut through every wall — “like cheese” — and he felt grateful he wasn’t there at the time. The village where he grew up has been destroyed. The city where he moved to as a boy looks like something from a black and white newsreel. For now, his wife and children are living in Spain by the beach. His kids go to school with Russian kids. There are fights on the playgrounds. Stepanenko, who once got into the most famous on-field brawl in the Ukrainian league’s history, told his children to walk away; they couldn’t afford to get expelled, not when they were lucky to have a safe place to live.
Sitting in the lobby, he talked about life after the Wales match. He went home alone to Kyiv. The guards greeted him as he pulled through the gate. He lives in the wealthy suburbs on the same side of the city as Bucha.
Stepanenko’s kids went to school with kids from Bucha, which is no longer known for its bucolic surroundings. Now and forever, it will be the place where the Russian army set up an ambush along a supposedly safe civilian evacuation route. As the Russians retreated, they cut people down and left them to rot, leaving behind corpses with ears cut off and teeth removed.
Residents risked their lives to bury strangers and later those shallow holes were uncovered and the bodies removed for proper burial. I went to Bucha while the Ukraine team played Scotland in qualifying this past summer. A hollow-eyed man named Denys showed me the way from his home to one of those graves. The walk took a few minutes. He narrated along the way but there was a delay while his descriptions were translated to me in English. It added menace to his tour. He showed me the chicken coop where he hid from Russians looking to kill him and the long tree-lined country lane where civilians were gunned down. All four of Denys’ grandparents are Russian. His family in Russia insists that his neighbors committed suicide to make Russia look bad, he told me.
“I think they’re zombies,” he said.
We came to a barbed wire fence and slipped beneath a loose strand. Our security contractor, a retired SAS operator, asked about land mines. Denys told him not to worry and then walked us to a shallow hole, maybe 3 or 4 feet deep. He pointed. I leaned in and saw comforters and a woman’s dress. The man started talking as I looked into the hole. It took me a moment to realize the splotches on the fabric were bloodstains. My translator began explaining. This was a mass grave. Bodies had been uncovered and returned to their families when Russian troops were pushed back. The shovel used in the work remained standing upright next to the hole.
The bloody dress was robin’s egg blue.
THE FIRST THING Stepanenko did in Kyiv after the Wales match was lay down in the soft grass of his backyard. The river ran nearby. Flowers and trees stretched toward the sky above him.
But the kids’ toys weren’t left at odd angles around the yard. Nobody kicked a ball or climbed a tree or ran. There wasn’t a barbecue or a birthday party or even a lazy weekend sunset to look upon. Just silence.
He stayed alone like this for two hours.
He wore sandals because shoes wouldn’t fit on the foot he’d injured in the Wales loss. Everything hurt. He thought seriously about quitting international football.
“But if I retire from the national team, I won’t be useful for my country,” he said.
So he was back on the road playing these final matches that, from afar, seemed rather meaningless and from inside mattered a great deal. They were fighting for their coach. They were playing for their colors. Wearing the Ukrainian jersey gave Stepanenko and his teammates purpose. That purpose was in its final days, too. I’d been surprised at the intensity of practice sessions in Yerevan, but now I understood a little about what was happening around me. They were proving something, to their fans, certainly, but also to themselves. A few days later before their final match in Krakow, Yarmolenko would sit down to tell me that he won’t ever be healed after the own goal against Wales, but these “meaningless” games have provided some measure of grace. “A strong athlete is not the one who wins and then rejoices in his victory,” he said. “A strong athlete is one who can get back on his feet after a defeat.”
When the war began, Stepanenko wanted to join the military and was told by friends and family to keep playing and to use his gifts for the glory of Ukraine. If glory is gone now, fidelity remains. Persistence remains. He thinks about the soldiers. “My emotion is always with them,” he said, struggling to find the words in English. “My heart and … and soul are always with them. Every day I pray about them. I don’t know how to explain this. It’s very difficult because it’s inside your soul.”
Watching him run in the rain felt a lot like watching a man search for a home. Home isn’t the bombed apartment in Donetsk, and it’s no longer an erased village, or a silent mansion along the banks of the Dnipro River. It’s not this hotel, or the next hotel, nor is it a rented roof in a Spanish beach resort town. The cocoon of this team brings him comfort but that’s not home, either. The closest he feels to home is when he checks his phone for news about the war. Home is a connection, a thread. In the lobby in Armenia, he switched from his security cameras to his Telegram app where he gets the latest dispatches from the front.
“This morning was the news that nine missiles came to Zaporizhzhia and destroyed one important restaurant for my family,” he said. “When we had birthdays, our parents celebrated in this restaurant. Six people died.”
THAT EVENING STEPANENKO went to practice.
The stadium in Yerevan sat in a bowl and he looked up at the laundry hanging from balconies and an old Soviet building crumbling on top of a nearby hill. Stepanenko ran hard, jockeying close to the team’s young star forward Mykhailo Mudryk — the future of Ukrainian football, soon to be 22 — and deftly stealing the ball. Stepanenko gave him a little pat afterwards, as if to remind him that experience remained undefeated against youth.
Petrakov stood at midfield and ran his players through drills.
“Faster! Faster!” he yelled.
He grinned at the intensity.
“Very good, boys!” he said. “No mistakes! No mistakes!”
They moved like lions. Later the biometric sensors would reveal this to be the first practice with everyone at pre-invasion levels. It had taken months to repair what the war had damaged and now that they were whole again, their time together was nearly at an end. It seemed unfair. They had needed this kind of fitness on that rain-soaked day in Wales. Perhaps they would be training for Qatar right now. Perhaps there would be folk songs written about them.
Petrakov pushed them harder still.
“Where’s your character?” he yelled.
Those were the stakes then. Not wins or losses or advancing in some silly tournament. They were playing to be worthy of their fans.
The team spent the last part of the day defending corner kicks, which cost them their last game. With less than seven minutes left in practice, Stepanenko ran hard into the space in front of the goal and flung himself at the ball. He rammed his head into a teammate and they both hit the ground clutching their skulls. Stepanenko got the worst of it and the trainers helped him to the bench. He held a blue ice pack on his head. The medical staff crowded around him as he moved the ice pack back and forth between his hands as his arms got tired.
Petrakov came over to check on him.
“How are you?”
Stepanenko leaned back and smiled a little.
“I was hit by a train.”
Petrakov said something quietly to his star player and then reached over and gently touched his head, like a father caring for a child with a fever.
OUTSIDE THE STADIUM as the team left, and inside the hotel as they returned, Ukrainian fans waited to thank the players. This happens everywhere they go. There’s a rhythm to these encounters. Just after the photograph, the fan whispers something. It never lasts more than a few seconds.
“Not only are the Ukrainian people happy to see us,” Yarmolenko said. “We, too, are really happy to see our Ukrainian people.”
I saw that proved true over and over again. One memory from the past six months will remain with me forever. I’d traveled to Italy to meet the Ukrainian team for an exhibition match in the hills west of Florence. A crowd of adults and children sat together in a VIP section just off the pitch. The kids cheered while the adults fought back tears. While we waited for kickoff a woman described her escape from Ukraine when the war began. She and her family pulled into some little village early in the morning to find the residents waiting at the main intersection, offering refugees a place to sleep. They followed an old man and woman to their home and walked inside to find the table set for a full dinner. The next day her husband drove her and their children to the border. He stayed behind to fight. Their oldest son joined him.
In Italy one of the adults stood next to me on the side of the pitch. I looked at this huge group of kids and wondered how they came to be at this game. The woman told me calmly that she was an aid worker and many of these children were orphans. The aid worker explained it was vital to get them to safety because among the many atrocities inflicted by the Russians during this war, perhaps the cruelest is a systematic push to place Ukrainian orphans with loyal Russian families. She never cried telling me this story, not even when relating the most violent details, but she sobbed when the national anthem played on the stadium stereo. The players want to play for her. “Each one of them understands why he is here,” Yarmolenko said. “Each one is aware that all of Ukrainians stand behind him, that the entire country is going to watch him play.”
THE NEXT DAY Petrakov gathered the team in the lobby and asked for their attention.
“Let’s go for a walk,” he said.
Every match day they all walk together through the city where they’ll soon play. It’s a way to feel connected to the outside world, to see and to allow themselves to be seen. I think they walk together to lessen the load any one individual might be carrying alone. They listen to each other. They listen to fellow refugees. They carry these stories with them.
Stepanenko talked to the team’s young goalkeeper Dmytro Riznyk.
The two of them looked like regular football players. They wore tracksuits and sneakers. They walked on the balls of their feet like predators. They looked like any other team.
But Stepanenko has lost a home and his family’s village.
Riznyk is a tall, baby-faced new father who sits in the lobby of these endless hotels and FaceTimes with the little boy who was born the night the war began.
“A small child, only ten hours old, and you cannot take him anywhere, because it is a newborn baby,” he said. “He has no immunity. It’s scary.”
The child came home from the hospital to a world of nightly air raid sirens. The family developed a routine. Riznyk would wrap the baby in two jumpsuits, and a cocoon of blankets, and take him down into the cold basement. They kept a diaper bag packed in case they stayed there all night.
Coach led the way on the team walk, moving slowly with his hands behind his back. Every so often he’d stop and stare though the haze at the faint outline of Mount Ararat, where the Bible says Noah’s Ark came to rest. Petrakov turned toward the southwest. Two peaks towered over the city skyline, both covered in snow and connected by a long rocky ridgeline. I stopped and looked with him. He seemed deep in thought. Just taking the field tonight would be an achievement, he believed. “The game should be the only thing in their head, but in their head is Mum and Dad in Odesa,” Petrakov said, “Grandma and Grandpa somewhere else. Someone died, someone went missing. It’s terrible.”
The team walked past a World War II memorial and kept going until they could see the whole valley. We stood together and I imagined all this before concrete and rebar and global shipping routes. Once this was just a valley and a river, green fields and wildflowers and people who only went to the jagged higher ground when threatened. All the coaches, players and staff lingered for a moment. They long for their valleys.
Petrakov turned and headed back to the hotel, talking the whole way with his main tactical adviser. They made plans to rest a lot of the stars against a weak Armenian team and to take the field in Krakow with their best players rested and ready. The air smelled like evergreen trees.
The midfielder Oleksandr Karavayev followed his coach back through the park. He’s from Kherson, a then-occupied city south of Kyiv. The Russians captured it during the first days of the war. In September Putin had announced a referendum that would make that city part of Russia. Karavayev was always trying to contact his parents. They lived in Kherson. Once they lost the internet and went three days without answering. The scars of those three days won’t ever go away.
When he spoke of his father, Karavayev broke down crying. “I saw my father going to work,” he said. “There was no money, but he would bring bread and some other food in the evening for us to eat in the morning. And he went to work again at 5:00 a.m. I remember that and it remains in my heart and soul. It will stay there forever.”
As he fought the tears something familiar happened: thinking about his family made him think about the situation at home. So many times, a Ukrainian would start talking about something they loved, or hated, or missed, and with no warning they would suddenly be talking about the war. No part of life remained untouched. The idea of a father’s sacrifice made him think about the sacrifices everyone is making and then he could barely get out any words at all.
“Because of this war there are always tears in my eyes because…” he said between sobs, “… I don’t understand why people … can’t live in peace.”
THE GAME AGAINST Armenia passed with no drama, a rare easy win for Ukraine, who scored five goals and allowed none. Petrakov and his team loaded on the bus. A police escort rushed them past all the sidewalk coffee kiosks, the shipping container barbecue stands, the neon dance club signs out on the edge of town. There are few energies in the world as pure and electric as a victorious sports team traveling to the next city after a triumph and for the first time they just felt like a team who’d won a game. They deserved that small mercy. The drive to the airport took maybe 15 minutes. The bus parked at the terminal and everyone rushed through security.
They laughed in the aisles of the duty free.
Stepanenko read the labels of Armenian cognac bottles.
“I asked the barman,” he said. “He said the 10-year is very nice.”
They filtered out through the shop and then the terminal. Their charter flight waited at Gate 3. Next door was a flight to Moscow. Riznyk cracked open a Sprite. Stepanenko walked around with a Louis Vuitton backpack. Petrakov got some wine to take home. Soon it was time to board. Stepping onto the jet bridge Petrakov reached out and touched the shoulder of the player in front of him. His boys. He took his usual seat, 1A, cracking open a novel with yellowed pages. The plane sat idling on the tarmac, white with a blue tail and nothing written on the side, as the guys found their seats, too.
Players near the back passed around a bottle. Alex, the team public relations man, got on the microphone and started listing off all the statistics from that night’s game.
“Yeah, yeah,” they jeered in laughter. “Calm down!”
He grinned, too.
“Glory to Ukraine!” he shouted before passing back the mic.
The five flight attendants did the safety presentation. They were all from Ukraine and wanted pictures but felt too nervous to ask. Soon the pilot rolled up the throttles and the plane accelerated down the runway. The flutter of shuffling cards began in the back. Several poker games happened at once. Drum machine trills filtered from a pair of headphones. Twenty-three brothers climbed out over the lights of Yerevan. The plane bucked and shook, rising through the clouds, bouncing side to side a few times as the last of the city lights vanished and everything turned dark.
They were alone.
Mudryk stretched out on a row by himself.
Stepanenko sat up front closer to coach than the card games.
Yarmolenko held court in the back.
The pilot came on the speaker and sketched out their route through the night sky, heading over Turkey, skirting the coast of the Black Sea, then flying over Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and finally landing in Poland. Folks poured whiskey or champagne into the airline coffee cups. Guys told stories and laughed. The card games heated up. The plane didn’t have Wi-Fi so nobody followed war news on their phone. They were truly alone.
Eventually the plane drew even with Crimea, the Black Sea dark and dangerous below them, the waters dotted with Russian warships carrying Kalibr cruise missiles. The crew dimmed the lights and some guys slept. Those playing cards sang together, some Ukrainian folk tunes and a famous old Italian ballad.
Every guy on the plane had a story about what this war has made them abandon. But they’d gained something, too. They’d gained each other. They’re not the winningest team, or the most famous team, but they might be the closest team ever assembled, welded by shared trauma and purpose, and none of them will ever forget. They will remember this flight. They will remember the furious noise of beating Scotland and the silence of losing to Wales. They will remember who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them for both. They will remember drinking duty-free scotch and singing old-fashioned love songs.
Roman Yaremchuk put somebody in a headlock. He and Yarmolenko were the ringleaders in the rowdy back of the plane. When the war began, Yaremchuk found out that his wife’s parents were trapped behind enemy lines. He didn’t know what to do. His first thought was to call his captain, who was from the city where Yaremchuk’s in-laws were trapped. Yarmo, a famous and important man, started working the phones. He used his fame to help a teammate. Soon a military contact organized a mission and the Ukrainian army went in the middle of the night to rescue Yaremchuk’s family. Armed men arrived at the door and led them in darkness to a small boat. The soldiers dipped the oars into the water with precision and silently rowed them across a river to safety. Yarmolenko shrugged off even the whiff of praise for his actions, saying that he just did what any teammate would have done for him. The players will remember giving help and asking for it. They will never forget.
The flight attendants announced final approach into Krakow. The plane landed with a little sideways hop and shimmy and the clink of rolling bottles brought on muffled laughter.
“Oh f—!” someone yelled.
What a rare, great night, a chance to forget the games and the war and just enjoy each other, free at 30,000 feet from schedules and news from home, living for a few hours outside the reach of time. The guys looked bleary but happy shuffling through the line at passport control. Finally Petrakov got to a Polish border guard. He held out his documents and smiled.
“Would you accept another Ukrainian in your country?” he asked.
Part III: The Last Dance
THE TEAM DROVE away from their hotel in Krakow to a local team’s modern training complex, tucked into a reclaimed patch of forested swamp. Tiny bugs swarmed everywhere. All the players jogged around the pitch. Petrakov dribbled a ball around at the parking lot end of the field and took a shot into the net. The guys chirped at him as they passed.
Eventually they started a 5-on-5 scrimmage. It quickly turned aggressive. The team found a new gear. Everyone felt it. A beast came alive on a random practice field in the rural hills west of Krakow. The Nations League is a considered a farce of a tournament but that’s clearly not how Petrakov and his boys saw it. If someone gives them a time and a place they will turn up in their blue and yellow uniforms and show all comers that everything a Ukrainian citizen does right now matters.
“This is not just some routine for us,” Yarmolenko said. “This is a chance.”
A crowd gathered to watch the scrimmage.
Yarmolenko played for one side. Stepanenko played for the other. They dominated the play. Not so long ago they hated each other. Now they are brothers. Yarmolenko scored first in the scrimmage and blew a kiss in the air. He appeared again young and boundless. Stepanenko marked him, playing on a third of the field, everything full speed.
Petrakov shouted at them joyfully.
Everyone scrapped, grinding and surging, preparing for this last match like a World Cup. They went hard. Nothing in the end is meaningless. Everyone knew about Petrakov’s fight to keep his job. Everyone knew the news back home. Sirens in Kharkiv and Kherson. Their air defense net shot down an Iranian drone. The Russians shelled 25 towns and villages along the front. Seven missiles, 22 airstrikes and 67 artillery strikes were reported in the East. Stepanenko’s hometown was hit again.
Petrakov sipped from a hot cup of tea and talked with his tactical advisor on the side of the pitch. He knew what to expect from their familiar opponent Scotland, who only needed a draw to win their group in the Nations League.
“They will close down and counterattack,” he said.
PETRAKOV LED THE team for the ritual gameday walk through a leafy park on the banks of the Vistula River. He raged as he walked. Two Ukrainian journalists who’ve been fiercely criticizing him for his decisions seemed to live inside his head. Their news organization is owned by a businessman with ties to Russia, and the old coach, Shevchenko, remains one of the most popular figures in the nation. His critics are, as he says, “burying him alive,” and he should know because he sees every word.
“I cannot stop reading,” he said.
Standing around the ground floor of the hotel in Krakow he asked if we could switch to Russian. His Ukrainian vocabulary couldn’t convey his rage. I said yes. But instead of continuing to rant about the journalists he launched a purple, beautiful rant against the Russians — especially the Russians he once called friends. He has erased them from his phone. The war has destroyed ordinary people’s ability to separate their fear and anger into separate silos. Everyone felt everything all the time.
What does this kind of responsibility (and visibility) do to a person? A normal person with a simple life and modest home. When he took this job, he said, he never even asked what his salary would be. For him it was always an act of patriotism. Coaching the Ukrainian national team was the honor of a lifetime, whether his tenure ended Tuesday night or whether he kept coaching for years to come.
“Do you ever think about what your parents would say about you doing this job?”
“Yes, of course,” he said quietly.
His dad died in 1989 and never saw a free Ukraine. His mother died in 2011. He was sitting in Poland but thinking about home. His eyes got red and glassy. “My father would have thrown a big banquet and cried with pride,” he said. “I often go to their gravesites.”
His lip started to betray him.
Standing alone in that cemetery he has made sure they know their son has made good, that he didn’t run when his moment of reckoning arrived.
“I talk to them,” he said.
THE HOTEL IN Krakow was full of Ukrainian fans. They hung around the lobby and sat in the bar or on the couches down by the elevators. One of them wanted to tell me a story about himself and Stepanenko. He’s an old soldier, he explained to me. His name was Oleksandr Kosolapov and his eyes were cold blue. We walked over to the bar and settled into the flimsy and vaguely Scandinavian chairs.
“September 19, 1984,” he said.
That’s when he got shot in Afghanistan. Thirty-eight years ago.
He smiled at me.
“An American M16 bullet,” he said.
The round tore through his chest — he’s missing half a lung — but didn’t hit anything else. Six days before his 21st birthday he awoke in a hospital. A voice inside told him he must stand or die. He tried and collapsed to the floor. Nurses got him back in the bed. When he was alone, he tried again. This time, despite a wobble, he managed to count one … two … three. He knew then he’d survive.
When the Soviet Union collapsed he found himself a veteran with no nation. Technically he lived in Ukraine, but he led a Russian life with the Russian language and Russian customs and identity. “I was absolutely Russian,” he said. “My father is Russian. Half my blood is Russian.”
“My mother is Ukrainian.”
He remembered clearly when he first felt Ukrainian. Nearly 20 years ago he traveled to the capital city of his region, Luhansk, and found himself in one of the big squares. Security folks set up barricades and he asked what was going on.
Viktor Yushchenko was speaking.
Yushchenko was running for president against the puppet handpicked by Moscow. He was an underdog with Ukrainian identity at the core of his platform. The old soldier Kosolapov decided it took courage for a man with those beliefs to come to such a pro-Russian region and make his case. He would stay and listen.
“One by one, a nation is formed…” Kosolapov said.
Yushchenko talked about simple things. This vote was an important moment for Ukraine. Their future as an independent nation was at stake. All this made sense to Kosolapov. We must build a new Ukrainian country. We must say to the whole world we are not Russian. We are Ukrainian. We have a culture. We have a history. But that’s not what made Kosolapov decide to turn his back on his political views and follow a new leader. Something else did that.
When the speech ended Yushchenko passed ten feet from Kosolapov. A month before he’d been famously poisoned with dioxin and nearly died.
“When I saw the color of his face…” the soldier told me, going back into his memory, taking long pauses. “I was…”
Old soldiers often end up back on the battlefield in their minds.
“… On October 2, 1983 my commander died in my arms.”
When the fighting ended Kosolapov went to see his commander’s body. “I remember the color of his face, 40 years after,” he said. “It’s not color of life but it’s not the color of death. It’s a middle color. Yellow. Gray. It’s a very unique moment two hours after you’re killed. I remember this color. When I looked at Yushchenko his face was absolutely the same color.”
That changed Kosolapov’s life.
“I thought, ‘Look at this man,'” he said. “He was almost dead. But he stood up and went forward. This moment … I decided he’s my president.”
Ten years after that speech, in 2014, the Russians invaded Ukraine. When the war started, his son said he planned to join. Kosolapov told the boy he’d been with him for his first steps, and his first walk to school, and stood by him at his wedding, and there was no way he’d let him get shot at alone. They went together.
A missile hit their position.
Kosolapov took more than 100 pieces of shrapnel and came a few strands of tissue and skin from losing his right leg. For two weeks, he lingered in a coma but recovered to become a symbol. The football federation brought two star players to visit him. One was Pylyp Budkivskyi (pronounced Phillip) and the other was Taras Stepanenko.
Seeing the players made a real difference. It gave him purpose.
“I was an old man,” he said. “I was glad to see young football players.”
He caught himself.
“Not football players. Young Ukrainian men.”
Pylyp and Taras listened to his story.
“You are the future,” he told them. “When we fight, you are our future.”
Eight years have passed and he has followed the careers of both players who visited him. Stepanenko is beloved for the fierceness he brings to his Ukrainian club and the national team. Budkivskyi played for a time, as Kosolapov put it, “in f—ing Russia to f—ing play for the bloody f—ing money.”
The soldier judges his fellow citizens with severity. There is no context.
“There is much difference between these two young guys,” Kosolapov said. “They look like the same guys. They are different men. We are proud about Stepanenko. He is an example in the field. He is fighting. He is a good Ukrainian citizen.”
As we talked, Stepanenko himself stepped off the elevator and walked into the bar. He saw the old soldier and recognized him. Came straight to our table. They stepped away from our table and hugged. The national team players go out of their way to pay respect to veterans. They spoke quietly, a football star and an old soldier. “Tiny Dancer” played on the bar stereo. Kosolapov got the chance to tell his story. He gave Stepanenko a warrior’s blessing.
“You’re a fighter,” he told him.
I RAN INTO the old soldier Kosolapov the next day before the match. He grinned and said he’d found a ticket.
“The first time for me seeing the national team on the field!”
“I lived in a small town!” he said and grinned.
His girlfriend laughed, too.
“I really hope we’ll celebrate later in the night,” she said.
The hotel’s energy changed. Everything felt liquid and slow. The unified heavyweight champion of the world waited in the lobby. Fans paced nervously beneath the shimmering lobby chandelier. They held flags and jerseys. Players moved through the lobby from the elevators to their private dining room. Lately they’ve been considering how they’ll be remembered.
Stepanenko told me he wants to personally be known as a man who always tried his best. “I think the most important that supporters will say about our generation,” he told me, “is that we were like fighters.”
“We will always remember this national team,” Yaremchuk said.
The federation president Pavelko said he will remember the bond formed over the past six months. “We are good friends,” he said. “We come to each other’s help. I am perhaps going to remember this time as a special time indeed, because now, here, with us, new history is being made.”
There is, of course, also the history that wasn’t made. An unwritten masterpiece, the work left undone. The memory of Ferris wheel turning circles through the hotel window in Wales, a reminder of how they might have been remembered, how close they came to something truly eternal in the history of their nation.
“When I remember Wales, I get so scared,” Petrakov said. “God forbid I ever get there again. I’ll have unpleasant memories for the rest of my life.”
His boss saw a more realistic and nuanced picture.
“He is training them while the war is going on here,” Pavelko said. “So he has already inscribed his name in the global history of football.”
“Do you think that you’ll still be the coach in March?”
Petrakov got a weird smile on his face.
“This will be subject to a decision by the executive committee,” Pavelko said. “I cannot comment on this now.”
“I have my personal opinion,” he said.
The hours counted down until it was almost time to leave the hotel and make the short drive to the stadium. Yarmolenko walked through the lobby with a Louis Vuitton dopp kit. The fans gathered by the idling bus. The players went into a conference room overlooking the valet parking and entrance plaza of the hotel. Gauzy white curtains hung over the windows giving the room the feeling of a glowing box. The players looked transparent almost, like a fading photograph losing pigment and definition. They sat in neat rows facing their head coach.
Their futures beyond that room were uncertain. People looked at them through the curtains with awe. They’d made it to the last game. Even the unsmiling team security guy held up his phone and took a picture. What I wanted desperately was for them to stay in that room forever. Then the bond they’d built over the past seven months would never fade or decay, Petrakov and these 23 men frozen in time — safe from war and from whatever kind of peace might follow it. The meeting ended and the glowing room emptied. They marched out together. Coach exited the hotel last, stepping onto the bus like an admiral boarding his flagship.
Part IV: War and Remembrance
A COLD RAIN fell on the stadium in Krakow. Ukraine needed an outright victory to win their Nations League group. Their intensity in the belly of this stadium far outmatched the moment. They slipped on the jerseys so carefully hung in their lockers. The air was cold. The stadium speakers shook with war anthems remixed to heavy house music.
Death to the enemy!
Ukraine is in our hearts!
Glory to Ukraine!
Glory to the heroes!
The public address announcer asked fans from different parts of Ukraine to cheer when he called out their region. The loudest cheer came from Kyiv but the occupied areas of Odesa, Donetsk and Mariupol got cheers, too, letting the world know. Death to the enemy! Glory to Ukraine! The temperature was 53 degrees Fahrenheit and dropping fast. Rain kept coming down harder. The Ukraine team took the field. All of them wore their national flag around their shoulders like superhero capes. When the little kids joined them at midfield, the players draped their flags on those shivering kids.
The whistle blew and the Scots won an early corner kick. The Ukrainians pressed back, swarming them. Then eight minutes into the match, the young gun Mudryk slipped a perfect pass to Yarmolenko, the new generation helping the old one, and the captain lined up a shot from six yards away with the keeper moving in the wrong direction. A gimme, but a tightly wound Yarmolenko fired the ball over the net into the stands.
Two minutes later, Ukraine missed on a shot from a tight angle against the Scottish keeper. Stepanenko missed a chance to score on a header a half-hour in and then a teammate missed from about the same distance as Yarmolenko earlier. Stepanenko missed again and then half-time arrived.
The Ukrainians controlled the game but remained tied 0-0.
The second half began and Mudryk missed a chance to score. The tension felt nearly unbearable. Petrakov stalked the sideline screaming at officials and he seemed almost happy, the water pouring off his nose, soaking through his layers, no punishment without guilt. He looked through the rain with guard tower eyes.
The deluge did something to the acoustics and the stadium echoed with the screams of the Ukrainian fans. Yarmolenko looked exhausted, stopping at the sideline for gulps of water. Stepanenko lined up a clean shot and missed again wide right. Fans threw blue and yellow flares down on the field and the place smelled like gunpowder. Yarmo came out of the game finally and the Ukrainians threw themselves at the anvil of the Scottish defense over and over until they were broken and the referee blew the whistle and the whole thing ended.
A draw, a miserable terrible loss of a draw.
Stepanenko and Yarmolenko changed out of their uniforms. Neither knew how many more times they’d get to play for the national team. Petrakov appeared for his news conference. He looked pale. A microphone went down into the crowd for the first question. A Ukrainian reporter strangely seemed to almost laugh as she asked a question: “I heard there is some issue with your contract?”
“No comment,” Petrakov said.
Then he turned and spit on the floor. He leaned towards Alex, the team communications chief.
“Everyone wants me to quit,” he whispered.
“Calm down, please,” Alex begged. “Calm down.”
Petrakov got it together and answered every question and sat on the bus alone as the team showered and loaded their bags. He stared at something we couldn’t see. I wondered what he might be thinking. While he waited, a Ukrainian media outlet reported he was no longer the head coach. That news hung in the air of the hotel all night. The next morning nobody seemed to know if he was still the coach. The coaches, staff and families endured a five-hour bus ride to a train station on the border. Kids talked too loud. Adults cringed. Coach sat and stewed. They stopped twice for gas and snacks. The second time he came inside to use the facilities. When he got inside, he stood in line. Eventually he was next. The door to the toilets was mirrored so he had to stand there and stare himself in the face, tired, existentially empty, a man without faith or homeland or harbor. I looked at him, too. I saw him. I saw a fighter, a leader, a grandfather, a coach whose career is the same age as his country, a man born in a nation that disintegrated, a serious, stern man with a dry sense of humor, the father of a DJ, the son of a cog in the Soviet machine, from Kyiv, a Ukrainian, a simple man.
THE CONDUCTOR DIMMED the lights as the train crossed the border into Ukraine. Shades covered the windows. We were now in a war zone. The car swayed from side to side. The football party took up the whole first-class sleeper car, four beds to a cabin. Managers brought on pallets of bottled water because there was none to drink on the train. Staff members peeled hard boiled eggs and poured cheap scotch into coffee cups. The horn blew a long melancholy blast as the train rattled through the night.
I asked Alex about the coach’s mood.
“He’s frustrated,” he told me.
I swallowed hard and, arms out touching the walls to keep my balance, made my way up the train car and stood outside Petrakov’s door. He beckoned me to enter. Stepping inside I saw him in the dark, the lines on his face covered in shadow, watching a replay of last night’s defeat. He nodded at an empty space next to him on the bed where he sat. The sheets were thin, white with tiny blue lines. An apple and a banana sat untouched on the fold-out table next to his laptop. A glass of orange juice. His phone rested on top of his passport. The screen showed a news story. He rubbed his eyes before closing them and rubbing his nose.
“The only friend left on this planet is my wife,” he said softly.
He looked broken. The train took him further and further from Krakow, where some part of him remained. Last night he and the Scotland manager hugged at the end of the match.
“You have an amazing team,” Steve Clarke told him.
Petrakov crossed his arms.
“Maybe it’s my last game,” he said.
The cameras caught the exchange and now the Ukrainian media debated his future. His phone screen glowed. Fans were debating whether he should keep his job.
“There is a poll on the internet,” he said.
He didn’t tell me the results. I didn’t ask.
“It’s terrible,” he said. “There is war outside. I brought the team together. So much hate towards me, I didn’t expect it at all.”
“Just make it 48 hours and people will move on,” I told him.
“I call it a 72-hours symptom,” he said. “You say 48, I say 72.”
His voice never rose. No sparks. No flames. The inferno of the past few days settled into smoldering trees. Only ashes and soot. Nine more hours. Soon he’d learn his fate. We rattled slow through the night, a train full of people returning home under the threat of war.
A FEW DAYS later Petrakov walked through the city center of Kyiv, wearing stylish slacks and a tight-fitting magenta sweater. I realized I’d never seen him not wearing a tracksuit. Back at home he’s a hero. A random person gave him an enormous hug. Coach looked so happy and relieved. Standing in front of a huge church, across from a plaza filled with the burned-out wrecks of Russian tanks, he breathed in the air of his city. He walked down to the river of his ancestors.
Yesterday he’d retreated to his dacha, a traditional summer house for barbecues, and reconnected with his wife. He sat in the sauna and sweated. He slept. The grass got mowed and the spaniel got walked.
His players started calling.
They remained united in their concern for him. They checked on his mental state as he’s so often checked on theirs. Arsenal’s Oleksandr Zinchenko, the best active professional Ukrainian player, who was injured for the last few matches, called and said, “Coach, we told our parents and will tell you: ‘Don’t read stuff on the internet.'”
Federation president Pavelko called and told him to keep working. When his contract ran out at the end of the year, they’d revisit. For now his job was safe. He’d survived 48 and 72 hours and he seemed lighter, no matter how hard it was to trust good news during wartime. Recently the papers reported a strange new phenomenon in Kharkiv. The Ukrainians pushed the Russian army back far enough to put the city out of artillery range. People were safe but wouldn’t come back aboveground. They stayed mistrustful of the sky.
Petrakov found a café on the wide avenue leading up from the InterContinental Hotel. We stepped into a little bar and the barista spontaneously hugged him.
“Goddamn!” the man exclaimed. “You’re the coolest!”
He escorted us to the sidewalk terrace. Petrakov grinned. All this love made him feel good, for sure, but also like the people had never broken ranks with him. He felt justified. Yesterday the cold seemed to be settling in for the winter but today the sun was warm again.
“Indian summer,” he said in Ukrainian, and then asked me if we had that phrase. The day felt stolen. We laughed and closed our eyes. It felt good to be warm and happy. I am writing this 53 days later so I can never separate the joy of the afternoon from my knowledge of what was coming. A bomb would seriously damage the bridge from the Russian mainland to Crimea. The Russians would retaliate. Kamikaze drones and hundreds of cruise missiles would fly towards the cities of Ukraine. Day after day after day. The attacks specifically would target power facilities and plunge Kyiv and the other cities in the nation into darkness. Winter has always been the most reliable weapon in the Russian arsenal. It got Napoleon and Hitler and is coming for Ukraine. Kyiv officials warn of brutal months to come, possibly without light or heat. Every privation has made the Ukrainians more determined, and while the war has gone their way, it could turn. Kyiv could still fall.
Survival depends mostly on their ability to keep the world’s attention. Lots of official and unofficial ambassadors have done their part. Zelenskyy and Mila Kunis and the Klitschko brothers and, of course, Petrakov and his team. He had done his best and now he sat in the city of his birth and hoped it had been enough. I wondered if I’d ever see him again. He ordered a cappuccino, because he was driving, and at his insistence the waiter brought me and my entourage heavy glasses brimming with three fingers of an Irish whiskey called Writers’ Tears. It’s been 53 days since that fading afternoon. Just this morning I read a story about Kyiv sitting in snowy darkness, people hoping not to freeze to death on Christmas, and the idea of fighting, even dying, for anything enduring felt like a myth. People have been fighting and dying in this city for a thousand years. Nothing endures but memory and the ever-vanishing warmth of that afternoon remains with me still. We were a strange group: a coach and two Americans and a Ukrainian translator who hosted a cooking show on television before the war and a British SAS commando turned security contractor. We raised our drinks.
“You know what is most important?” Petrakov asked in a serious voice.
We all faced him at the head of the table.
“Now we are sitting in Ukraine but there is a war in the East. People are dying there, but we talk, laugh, alive and healthy.”
The city of Kyiv vibrated with life around him, defiant, colorful, loud, free.
“It is a great happiness when there is peace,” he said. “I do not understand what people want to achieve by killing. May your families be healthy and your children alive. If we meet again somewhere in this life, we will hug like brothers.”
Death to the enemy. Glory to Ukraine.
“Let’s drink to this…” he said.
How the Ukraine soccer team fought back amid war with Russia