Considering what they endured before fleeing their country, and then the nature of their evacuation before reaching their place of refuge, it always seemed unlikely that Ukraine would be in any fit state to compete at the Junior World Cup in South Africa, where they were due to play Ireland in their opening game on Sunday.
But their under-21 players had a steely determination to do so. “We want to stand there and hold up our flag, we want to show that we are Ukraine, that we exist and that we are strong,” said Liza Khrushchora, a member of the squad.
Khrushchora is from Sumy in the northeast of the country, a city that was besieged and bombarded from the earliest days of the Russian invasion. “One day we woke up and there was war,” she told Dutch newspaper De Gelderlander. “Tanks drove past our house, shots were fired and the air raid sirens went off.”
Within days of the start of the invasion, a number of hockey associations across Europe, notably the Polish, Dutch and German governing bodies, had teamed up to try to evacuate Ukraine’s national players, with the blessing of their parents.
By then, Dutch club HK Victoria of Rotterdam had offered to host the players, so the epic journey by bus from various points in Ukraine to the Netherlands began, most heading first for Poland, then to Germany, where they were collected in Berlin and driven to Rotterdam.
The road trip from Sumy to Rotterdam takes about 30 hours, but all Khrushchora remembers is the interminable journey out of Ukraine, “with 6,000 cars ahead of us”, where we met mothers with babies in their arms and invalids along the way, begging us to take them with us ”.
The first group of players arrived in Rotterdam on March 14th, by which point HK Victoria had converted their clubhouse into a home, donations from the people of Rotterdam allowing them to fit it out with all the essentials, while donations of clothes and toiletries flooded in , most of the players arriving with no more than the clothes they were standing in.
A psychologist was also brought in to speak with players traumatized by their experience and distressed about the welfare of their families back in Ukraine, most of them glued to their phones all day checking for news from their home places.
“We have everything here,” said Khrushchora. “We can eat and drink what we want. Which is great. But back home, the shelves of the supermarkets are empty. We sleep safely in bunk beds together. There they sleep underground for their own safety and the men have to fight. ”
The players’ safety was, said the Ukrainian hockey association’s Iryna Kharchenko, the priority, not their participation in the Junior World Cup. “But most,” she said, “say they want to play in South Africa.”
They trained like demons, like their sport was a beautiful distraction from their reality, twice a day taking to the pitch and putting in the hours, also playing practice games against their hosts. They were never going to win the Junior World Cup, they were unlikely to even get out of their group, but they wanted to get to South Africa and fly the flag.
The decision by the International Hockey Federation (FIH) to expel Russia from the tournament made that prospect easier. “If we had come up against Russia, it would have been too much of a rollercoaster emotionally,” said Kharchenko. “Without Russia, we think it could be a good chance to show that we are strong and proud of who we are. That we can conquer anything. ”
But another thorny issue arose when South Africa hosts abstained in the United Nations’ vote on a resolution calling on Russia to withdraw its military forces from Ukraine. “Obviously, we look at where countries are and we will evaluate it,” Kharchenko said on the matter.
Whether that issue was what ultimately led to Ukraine withdrawing from the tournament on Tuesday is not known, the FIH unable to provide the precise reason, although the Dutch media suggested visa problems may have prompted the withdrawal.
Meanwhile, to HK Victoria’s dismay, they found their clubhouse empty this week, the coach of Ukraine’s under-21 squad removing the players from their refuge to take them to a different center north of Rotterdam.
The club had started to formalize the players’ stay at the club with the local authorities, a procedure spokesperson Marjanne Poppen suspected may have spooked the Ukrainians. “I hear this is happening more in the area. When they are registered, they fear they may be found by the Russians. Perhaps it is this fear that now rules the national coach. ”
Whatever, the Junior World Cup will feature neither Ukraine nor Russia, 40 young women deprived of the experience of a lifetime because of the pure madness around them.