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How players keep going when soccer and war intertwine


A contract was waiting for Svyatik Artemenko when he entered the club office. After years of playing for university and semipro teams in Canada, the goalkeeper impressed in tryouts for Ukraine's Podillya, a professional side from the country he left when he was 2 years old. An upcoming friendly against Champions League regulars Shakhtar Donetsk emphasized the huge leap forward the move represented for his career.

The next day, Artemenko lined up at an army recruitment office.

Missile strikes dragged him out of a restless sleep at around five in the morning on Feb. 24, 2022. Rather than return to his Canadian hometown of Winnipeg, or back to where he last played in Guelph, Ontario, he decided to stay in Ukraine. He wanted to help resist Russia's invasion.

Most of the players in Ukraine's Euro 2024 squad represent a club from their homeland. That group of 14 from the 26-man roster - and those who've moved from Ukraine since the onset of war like Chelsea's Mykhailo Mudryk and Bournemouth's Illia Zabarnyi - have dealt with air-raid sirens abruptly halting matches, signaling for players, coaches, and match officials to scurry under empty stands and find shelter. For some squad members, friends and family are much closer to the line of fire.

Around 1 million Ukrainians were in uniform before the government changed a law in order to mobilize more troops, The Associated Press reported in March. Ukraine doesn't recognize dual citizenship, so Artemenko, as a Canadian citizen, couldn't enlist at the recruitment office. He instead initially served in an undercover patrol in the Odesa region, where his primary duty was to stalk the streets and alert authorities to suspected spies and saboteurs. But the opportunity to fight for his country of birth arrived when military officials summoned him for training with international volunteers.

Rockets dropped during Artemenko's ninth day at the base in Yavoriv, in western Ukraine, less than 15 miles from the border with Poland.

"The first thing that I think of when I think of that international legion is one of my good friends," Artemenko told me. "I had to put him back together."

Artemenko counted more than 100 dead foreigners and Ukrainians, including his friend Zhenya, while reassembling body parts among the decimated barracks. He doesn't expect to get over the carnage; he's learning to live with the trauma.

"I accepted my fate on the front lines, just like (Zhenya) did, so it could have been him, it could have been me," he said. "At the end of the day, I'm the one that survived to go on and tell others that he was a great person."

Artemenko moved on to other duties. He infiltrated the Russian front line, passing intelligence back to Ukrainian forces while taking out key vehicles and setting traps like land mines, reasoning that killing himself would be better than being captured on his high-risk missions. He then returned to Odesa, identifying suspicious Russian activity across the region, but this time also apprehended spies and saboteurs.

Numbed by the experience of war, by the slaughter and the fear, Artemenko was tempted by an offer to continue his soccer career back in Ontario, where Guelph United were targeting a run in the Canadian Championship. He returned to Canada in late April 2022.

'We play for the people'

Artemenko's response to the war, especially for somebody who spent most of his life in Canada, might seem extreme - but it shouldn't be unexpected.

Dana Garfin, an assistant professor at UCLA's Department of Community Health Sciences, explores how collective traumas, like terrorist attacks and natural disasters, can impact individuals and communities. She cites the "rally 'round the flag" effect, where the public unites behind a government in response to crises or wars, like when then-U.S. President George W. Bush saw his approval rating surge following the 9/11 attacks.

"When countries are under attack, there can be an increased sense of patriotism and social cohesion," Garfin explained.

Sport may seem trivial during war, but the Ukrainian national soccer team has contributed to its country's war effort - albeit in a less direct way than Artemenko. The players are ambassadors. They're the most visual representation of their country and can whip up global support in front of millions of TV viewers while boosting morale at home. Some would crumble under this pressure, but top athletes - "typically people who are high in dispositional resilience," Garfin notes - can use the stress and emotion to stimulate their on-pitch performance.

"Every match for the national team is incredible pride and responsibility," Ukraine's talented 21-year-old midfielder Georgiy Sudakov told The Associated Press. "I probably have double motivation in such difficult times for our country. When the national team plays we feel incredible support and give our people, for 90 minutes, some positive emotions."

Sudakov's international teammates surely echo his sentiments. Ukraine's lost only five times in 19 competitive matches since Russia's invasion; it lost eight of 18 before the war's escalation. The spirit the men's team displays - along with a strong spine featuring Real Madrid goalkeeper Andriy Lunin, Sudakov, Arsenal's Oleksandr Zinchenko, and 2023-24 La Liga top scorer Artem Dovbyk - led many to believe Ukraine could continue to defy expectations at Euro 2024. After a 3-0 loss to Romania in its opening match at the tournament, Ukraine will need to showcase all of that spirit and perseverance to bounce back. Given the team's track record, there's no reason to expect anything else.

Zac Goodwin - PA Images / PA Images / Getty

The remarkable response to distress and tragedy isn't unique to Ukraine. Since Israel began bombarding Gaza after Hamas' attack on Oct. 7, 2023, the Palestine men's team recorded its best-ever Asian Cup finish, advancing to the Round of 16 in January.

"When we were in the Asian Cup, people from Gaza sent us messages: 'Play for us. Make us happy. Do it for Palestine.' So we play for the people, not for us, not for ourselves," first-choice goalkeeper Rami Hamadi told me.

"It was a power for us to see the resistance from these people. They're living there in the hell. It's not easy - no food, no life, nothing - and they say, 'Please win for us. We want to be happy. Please do something for us.' So, we do that for our people. That's the point."

But the pain is inescapable.

Defender Mohammed Saleh broke down after Palestine's 3-0 win over Hong Kong, which secured historic passage to the knockout rounds. He was thinking about his family in Gaza. Saleh lost his uncles when bombs destroyed his home, Hamadi said.

Striker Mahmoud Wadi went through long stretches without hearing from his family in Gaza. He eventually got a call from his brother, who had nothing to eat and was refused entry to Egypt. Wadi's brother was alive and "going from place to place" in Gaza, the last Hamadi heard.

"We were always close. We were always like a family. But when that's happened, we have to be more," Hamadi explained about the war and how it's affected team dynamics. "That situation makes us much stronger than ever," he added.

Of course, soccer can simply be an escape from off-pitch troubles. Bisan Abuaita, who represents Palestine's women's team, told The Guardian in May that she felt playing was "the only source that would help" her and others at her club - which is based east of Bethlehem - after Oct. 7.

But Abuaita and her international teammates also understand their presence on the field can serve a greater purpose. "We have rights the same as you: to play, to express our feelings, to be recognized by the world," defender Mira Natour said. Natour stressed that the women's team's friendly against Ireland's Bohemians in mid-May was a way to prove they "exist."

Footballers playing amid war deal with extreme levels of anxiety and heartache, but they're also diplomats. Their roles only intensify when they represent Ukraine and Palestine, smaller countries that need to ensure they're heard. The players aren't just rallying 'round the flag - they're an extension of the war effort.

"Having our country's flag represented at the Euros is a big thing for us to show that we're still an independent country and that we're willing to compete for ourselves," Artemenko said.

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