The Spirit of Ukraine

Courtesy Laureus

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I was asleep when the phone rang. It was my mother. I looked at the clock.

It was 3:30 a.m. 

When your mum calls you at that time it’s never good news, right?

I think at the moment I saw the phone, a part of me already knew. I'll never forget the date: 24 February, 2022. For a few weeks everyone had been worrying, but no normal person wanted to accept what might happen. When I saw the phone with my mum’s name though, it started to sink in.

She was crying when she told me that she had felt her building shake from the explosions.

We turned on the news and there it was. War. In Ukraine.

It was like time stopped.

I felt so helpless. 

And I felt guilty.

I was supposed to be there in Kyiv with my mum. It had been her birthday a couple of days before and we were going to have a family dinner at her place with my sister and a few friends. I’d even booked my flights from the 19th to 29th, but because of some paperwork I’d had to do in the U.K., I’d changed my flight out for the 26th.

A few hours after my mum’s call, videos started to come in from friends and on social media. Russian helicopters over our land, missiles hitting our roads, bridges and airports, huge traffic jams of people fleeing Kyiv. In a single day, thousands of people who had spent all their lives in Ukraine became refugees.

I was in shock. I have four kids. It’s impossible for me to understand all this — imagine what it must be like for them. My youngest is eight years old. How do I explain it to him???

I can’t tell you how many times I had to charge my phone. I was calling people all day: Friends, family, former colleagues and teammates. 

Are they safe? What about their families? What happens next? What can I do to help? 

You panic because decisions suddenly could be life-changing for someone.

I remember at one point I just froze. I turned to my wife and said, “I don’t know what to do….”

My first instinct was to get my family out of the country, but my mum and my sister both told me the same thing — I remember the words of my mum on the phone so clearly: “I'm not going to leave now. This is my home.”

Andriy Shevchenko | Retired Soccer | The Spirit of Ukraine | The Players’ Tribune
Courtesy Mykola Vasylkov

That night, we saw President Zelenskyy send a clear message to the people. He told us he would not leave Kyiv, that we had to come together to defend our land. This was our future. This was a choice between whether our country exists or not.

In a moment like that, your perspective, your priorities, your whole world changes.

What is success? Is it winning a football match? Is it the Champions League? Making money? Having a good business?

None of that is real.

Small problems, petty differences disappear.

Everything else falls away.

Success is freedom. Success is survival. 

In the following days, we all started to hear the stories.

Not only were many people choosing to stay, but others from around the world were returning without hesitation to defend our land. They weren’t even stopping to think of the consequences, they just knew that they had to go….

I heard of kids, 20 years old, holding roads on their own for hours because they had to defend their village from the invaders.

I heard of people who ran into collapsed buildings because they had to help evacuate their neighbours.

I even heard of a husband and wife, both doctors, who went to Irpin to help at the hospital as the bombs were raining down on the city. They’d left a message with their friends, “If anything happens to us, you have the legal right to take care of our children.”

Can you imagine having to ask something like that?

The couple stayed in the hospital for days as the city was flattened, helping people. Eventually, they made it back to their kids, but they’d put everything on the line to help their country.

I know so many stories like that. Stories of heroes.

Andriy Shevchenko | Retired Soccer | The Spirit of Ukraine | The Players’ Tribune
Courtesy Andriy Shevchenko

I was hearing stories of incredible courage but also unbelievable pain and suffering. My auntie had been trapped in her basement for four days during a bombing campaign. She was only able to escape to my mum’s place when the Russians stopped for half a day. I have close friends who lost their lives. Amid the chaos, we had no time to grieve.

I still felt guilty. I wanted to be there to see the situation, defend my land and get my family out. I needed to help.

At one point I told my mum, “I’m coming back.”

But she said to me, “Andriy, what are you going to do here? You are not a soldier. You need to stay where you are.

“Go to the media. Tell them the truth of what is happening. This war is not only on the ground with guns and bombs. It is information. You can use your profile, your connections. Raise funds. Get supplies and support. You can help more from where you are.”

I listened to my mum and tried to make her proud. In the following days, I put everything into helping any way I could. 

It was amazing to see how people all over the world were doing the same. The democratic world stood together.

People were calling me from all over the globe — Italy, the U.S., Germany, everywhere. Networks of people all from over the world doing whatever they could to raise funds, send aid, or simply to connect people on the ground to make sure that their friends and families were safe.

We would call each other like, “My friend is in this village … my uncle is in this town … my grandparents are stuck in their apartment … do you know anyone nearby who can go to check that they are fine?”

So many people were asking for favours.

Nobody ever said no.

People in Ukraine know what it means to be free, because we created this country together. 

Ours is a new country with an old story. Our culture, language and history goes back centuries, but we only got our independence 30 years ago. Because of that — people from my generation especially — we feel like Ukraine grew up with us. And that connection means we never want to lose it.

My story is the story of Ukraine.

Andriy Shevchenko | Retired Soccer | The Spirit of Ukraine | The Players’ Tribune
Courtesy Andriy Shevchenko

Years before independence, I’d fallen in love with Kyiv as a kid, traveling around the city by myself to play football every weekend. From as young as nine years old, I would take the buses and the metro to wherever I was supposed to be playing. I learned the geography of the city by where the football pitches were.

I have a story for every event in Ukraine’s modern history. When the Chernobyl catastrophe happened and we were evacuated out of Kyiv, I remember how my dad took a Geiger counter to one of the footballs I brought with me and how it showed like 50 times the normal radiation — he later had to set it on fire!

When independence finally came in 1991, I was playing in a tournament with Dynamo Kyiv’s academy, close to Moscow, for about a month. I watched the news every day in our hotel … Gorbachev, Yeltsin, all that mess. That false reality of the U.S.S.R. falling apart. When we left on the train to go back home, we were still part of the Soviet Union. But when we got off onto the platform in Kyiv? We had arrived in an independent country! 

I remember the flags. Blue and yellow everywhere. Everyone was so happy. 

I felt the same emotion when I pulled on the national team shirt for the first time in an under-16 game — Ukraine 2–2 Netherlands in the western city of Lviv. 

If you don’t know, let me tell you, football is a very important part of Ukrainian life. It’s the No. 1 sport. I grew up idolising Dynamo legends like Oleg Blokhin and Igor Belanov — these amazing Ballon d’Or winners — but my generation brought people together in a different way. The game had a different kind of importance to us. We were creating something that felt bigger than football. It was about national identity.

It’s hard to even imagine the atmosphere in Lviv that night. The stadium was full. Thousands of people had come to see a youth team game! They came to see their team play in Ukrainian colours and to hear the Ukrainian language in the stands. That night, the people came to see a team that was Ukrainian, not Soviet.

When I walked out as captain when we hosted Euro 2012, everyone felt so proud of what we could do as a nation. We had come a long way. We had worked hard to build those stadiums, and to improve services and hospitality so that visitors from all over Europe could see our country and love it like we do. As soon as we were announced as co-hosts, I was dreaming of playing in that tournament. When it finally came around, I was nearly 35, I was suffering physically with pain in my back … but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

It was a beautiful summer and a high point for us as a nation.

Andriy Shevchenko | Retired Soccer | The Spirit of Ukraine | The Players’ Tribune
Dave Rogers/The FA via Getty

Just 10 years after Euro 2012, when Russia invaded, it was the first time it looked like we just might lose everything we’d worked so hard to build. Our shared story.

We know we cannot allow that to happen. 

We are more than six months into the war now. 

Thanks to the incredible resilience of our military and the response of the democratic world, we can say that we’re still here. Some people are returning home. The football season has even restarted. We are fighting for a normal life.

But this is not over. It is not time to change the channel. On the 24th of February, we didn’t have time to think, to grieve, to be anything other than shocked. But we feel everything now. The pain and destruction is there for everyone to see. Do not look away.

Make no mistake, this can happen anywhere. It affects everyone. This is not just a fight for Ukraine, but also for all of democracy.

You may be reading this thinking that you are safe, that this is just some faraway place, that it can’t really touch you. Maybe many people in Ukraine thought the same way just a short time ago. The truth is that the world doesn’t work this way. This can happen again and again if we don’t learn the lessons and stand together.

I have been back home twice now as part of my work with the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation and President Zelenskyy’s United24 initiative. I have seen the reality.

The first time I went back to Kyiv, in April, I came in on the train from Poland.

The silence is the first thing that hits you.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been on a train in Ukraine. If you have, you'll know it can be a noisy experience. Packed carriages, families talking loudly, kids running up and down the aisles. Laughter.

This was the opposite. Quiet, half-empty carriages, blank faces not showing any emotion. We were entering a war zone.

On the platform at the station, I saw soldiers lined up waiting for their families. Mothers, wives and children crying in each other’s arms. Families reunited after months of separation.

After that, I walked the streets of Kyiv with a friend for hours. I wanted to see the places of my childhood, to make sure they were still standing, to hug the people, to feel their emotions. 

This is my city, the one I got to know by traveling around on the metro as a kid. Every corner, I have a story or a memory. But now everything is closed. I couldn’t believe how few cars there were on the streets. The only real noise was the air-raid siren – six or seven times a day. The first time you hear it, it is really shocking.

We took the car farther out of the city, past the checkpoints, and we went to visit the area where I grew up, the schools I know, the pitches where I used to play.

Andriy Shevchenko | Retired Soccer | The Spirit of Ukraine | The Players’ Tribune
Courtesy Andriy Shevchenko

When you see the places from your childhood hit by rockets, buildings destroyed by fire, it does something to you. 

Further out of Kyiv, the destruction is worse.

On my second visit, I saw Irpin. This once beautiful city, full of new buildings … now, there’s just nothing.




I went to Borodyanka, Bucha, Hostomel, and it was the same.

It’s something you have to see with your own eyes. It’s not a movie. It’s real life. 

Further east in Dnipro, I went into the children’s wards of the hospital and saw boys and girls as young as six or seven with terrible injuries.

I heard the stories of the bombs that had hit their homes and taken their legs, their arms, their families. I went from one room to another and another and another. 

Honestly, after the second room, I didn’t want to continue. I couldn’t take it anymore. It was too much sadness. 

This is war. 

Make no mistake, this can happen anywhere. It affects everyone. This is not just a fight for Ukraine, but also for all of democracy.

Andriy Shevchenko

And for what? I cannot find the reason. I cannot explain it to my kids, or to any sensible human being.

People are returning to repair and rebuild, but the situation is critical.

There are so many families living in overcrowded, temporary accommodations without access to basic services. And soon it will be winter.

We need to keep up the fundraising and donations to support those still in the country and those who have been displaced. And we need to keep telling the truth about what is happening.

This is my priority now.

My work with Laureus so far has included a visit to a refugee programme in Warsaw, where Ukrainian children who have lost their homes and loved ones, and who have traveled hundreds of miles to find shelter and safety, used sport to try to overcome the psychological trauma of conflict. 

I have also met with other top athletes who are helping to support the cause. I met Iga Świątek at her fundraising exhibition match for Ukrainian refugees in Krakow. I gave Robert Lewandowski — one of the first athletes to take a stand against Russia — a captain’s armband in Ukrainian colours to take with him to the World Cup. 

The world of sport has the ability to influence opinion and even policy when it comes to this war.

Every time I visit a Laureus programme, it reminds me that, in these times perhaps more than ever, sport really does have the power to change the world.

Andriy Shevchenko | Retired Soccer | The Spirit of Ukraine | The Players’ Tribune
Courtesy Laureus

I am still an optimist. I can see a light in the darkness. I see progress. I see a future for my country. I see it very clearly. 

This war has changed us, but I know it has not changed what we value the most. 

This is our land, our freedom and our future.

We will survive so that we can continue to write our shared story together.

I want to finish by telling you about something else I saw during my visit to Irpin.

The city used to have this beautiful football stadium, as well as a new academy with artificial pitches. After the bombing, only one pitch has been left untouched. I have spoken to the mayor about a fundraising initiative to rebuild the rest of the pitches, but for now they remain full of craters, rubble and shrapnel.

Despite everything, I still saw a group of children, no more than 12 years old, out there kicking a ball around together.

Those kids should never have to live through what they have, or to play in those conditions. It’s no place for children. 

But still they are there. 

Still resisting. 

That to me is the spirit of Ukraine.

To learn more about how you can support the people of Ukraine, please visit the Laureus Sport for Peace Humanitarian Action Fund and President Zelenskyy’s United24 initiative.