The women’s soccer team plays to keep Mariupol in the spotlight

KYIV, Ukraine — In an empty stadium in the capital of Ukraine, a group of female soccer players, wrapped in blue and yellow flags, prepare for the day’s match.

As with every game these days, there will be a minute’s silence to honor those who died as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The logo on their uniforms reads “Mariupol Ukraine”.

They are members of the Mariupol women’s football team. The eastern port city was destroyed and captured by Russian forces last year after more than two months of fierce resistance from outgunned and overarmed Ukrainian forces, making Mariupol a global symbol of Ukrainian defiance.

The city is currently under Russian occupation, it was illegally annexed by the Russian president in September.

Five original Mariupol players who refuse to give up have formed a new team in Kyiv and are recruiting members from all over the country.

Their goal? Not only to keep their place in the league, but also to remind everyone that despite the soon-to-be-one-year-old Russian occupation, Mariupol remains a Ukrainian city.

“The main motivation was for people to watch the social media videos of every game every week and see that the Mariupol team (still) exists,” coach Karina Kulakovska said.

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This week, the team played a match for the Ukrainian championship against “Shakhtar”, a small snapshot of normality on the football field. But not quite.

Authorities banned spectators from the match due to security concerns, resulting in an empty stadium and an eerie silence. To access the court, players use an entrance filled with sandbags and a “shelter” on it.

Midfielder Alina Kaidalovska remembers the 60 seconds of silence before her first match in Kyiv after fleeing Mariupol.

“Everything that happened in Mariupol immediately flashed through my mind,” he said. As memories flooded his mind, he recalled the bombed and charred buildings of the besieged city, the terror of fleeing and hiding from Russian strikes, and the heartache of people losing their lives.

In a modest stadium nestled among Kiev’s high-rise buildings, he and the other players gather for two hours of training each morning. They know they won’t win this year’s Ukrainian championship, but they continue training to keep the team on their feet.

“That was good, Margo!” Give him more power next time,” cried Kulakovska. In 2015, she started her coaching career and founded the Mariupol women’s football team together with club president Yana Vynokurova. It is now the oldest women’s team in Ukraine, in the Donetsk region, a region largely devastated by the ongoing war.

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At the beginning of 2022, the Mariupol team finished fourth in the top league of women’s clubs. But Russia’s outbreak of war in Ukraine on February 24, 2022 not only interrupted the football season, but thwarted the Mariupol team’s efforts to move up the rankings, bringing misfortune to their city and scattering players around the world.

The team’s core members, including the club president and head coach, sought refuge in Bulgaria as they struggled to cope with the trauma of their time in besieged Mariupol.

But when a new football season began in August, the thought of returning to Ukraine and restarting their team gave them hope and the courage to take the risk even though they had nothing. Other clubs and people have donated gear, equipment – even football boots.

After the stormy first months, the club has now grown to 27 members, aged between 16 and 34. Despite the diversity of their hometowns, their dark blue tracksuits proudly display the logo associated with Mariupol, featuring a seagull. a soccer ball in the background – a nod to the city’s location on the northern coast of the Sea of ​​Azov.

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Despite countless problems and a lack of funding, women are determined to play.

“The girls go out on the field and fight until the end. They have crazy dedication and crazy desire to play,” says club president Yana Vynokurova. The players have a higher mission besides keeping the Mariupol club alive.

“It means that Mariupol should at least stay on the football map of Ukraine, so that we don’t forget that the people of Mariupol are the same fighters as Azov, who defended our city to the end.”

Team captain Polina Polukhina, 33, hopes to one day return to the stadium of her hometown, Mariupol.

“Deep down, you hope to go back there again,” he said. He has been playing football since he was 18 and said it was an honor for him to be part of the Mariupol team, even in such difficult times.

Vynokurova is sure that every time the Mariupol team appears in a match, it sends a message: “Even if you’ve lost everything, you can’t give up.”


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