Ukrainian football legend Andriy Shevchenko has admitted in an interview with AFP he cried when he “saw children running through a field strewn with missile craters” in Irpin, a commuter town outside Kyiv which was liberated from Russian control.
The 2004 Ballon D’Or winner said he was overwhelmed by the youngsters’ determination to play football despite the carnage around them.
Shevchenko, 46, the son of “a military man” who despite his upbringing “stood against wars all his life”, was so angry at the Russian invasion in February he “felt such excruciating pain I couldn’t even breathe.”
“I couldn’t comprehend the fact that bombs are falling and rockets are flying in the centre of democratic Europe now,” he said, speaking this week.
“They fly towards my home, towards everything I love. I had to decide on what I should do to help my country quickly.
“I thought about everything I’m capable of and where I can be most effective.
“And I realised that I have to use the power of my name, to fight for Ukraine publicly.”
Shevchenko, unlike some Ukrainian sports stars who took up arms, chose an ambassadorial role to showcase his country’s plight.
The 2003 Champions League winner with AC Milan and top tennis player Elina Svitolina “immediately” accepted an invitation from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to become ambassadors for a charity called United24.
He met the president in Kyiv on May 18.
“It was the first time I came to Ukraine since February 24, the war had been going on for two and a half months already, and Russian troops had only just retreated from the city.
“I saw an empty, and yet indomitable, Kyiv. It was a very emotional moment for me, as well as my meeting with the president.”
The charity was launched by Zelensky to collect donations to cover Ukraine’s most pressing needs: Defence and de-mining, medical aid and to rebuild the country which has been devastated since Vladimir Putin launched the invasion.
Shevchenko has focused on raising funds for medical aid and reconstruction.
“We are about to announce the first project this week. In total, over $200 million were collected in five months, and people from 110 countries joined in.
“I think I made the right decision.”
– ‘Sympathy and admiration’ –
Shevchenko, whose mother and sister were able to leave Kyiv around six weeks after the invasion, said he never ceased to be amazed at the resilience of his compatriots on his visits back home.
“The people I met in Borodianka, in a temporary house built for 22 families, have already arranged the living space there and met us with smiles on their faces,” he said.
“Despite the fact that these people lost everything they had, they keep enjoying their lives.
“And this is such a typical trait for Ukrainians. To raise from the darkness, always looking for the best in everything and supporting each other.
“Ukrainians evoke not only sympathy, but also admiration from the whole world.”
He says he is indebted to his former club for their support.
“There are no words to describe how I felt when AC Milan announced they were releasing a special t-shirt with my number in support of Ukraine,” he said.
Sales of the t-shirt raised 200,000 euros ($196,000) which will help reconstruct a children’s football pitch in Irpin, destroyed by Russian missiles.
Shevchenko — who has also been touched by the “great, constant support” from Barcelona’s Polish forward Robert Lewandowski — said despite recent Ukrainian battlefield successes he was reminded only last week of Russia’s ability to strike.
“A week ago, I left Kyiv by train, on the day when the most devastating strikes since February 24 hit Ukraine,” he said.
“Today (he spoke to AFP on October 17), Russia attacked civilians again.
“A residential house is on fire in the very centre of Kyiv, a family expecting a child was killed.”
However, even amid the loss of innocent lives Shevchenko saw something to hearten him.
“Among all this horror and pain, I saw a photo of a rescuer taking a small kitten out of the rubble.”