The world’s eyes are on Eastern Europe after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and in these unprecedented times a few Aussie expats are having to keep closer attention to the situation.
Football in Ukraine was suspended before the domestic clubs returned from their winter break, and Shaktar Donetsk had to help evacuate their 12 Brazilian import players through Moldova into Romania before being flown back to Brazil.
Whilst no Australians were playing professional football in Ukraine at the time of Russia’s hostile advances into the country, a handful are still competing in neighbouring countries.
Former Valencia youth product Gian Mendez is playing his football with Polish third tier club Znicz Pruszków. The club is based 16km to the southwest of the country’s capital of Warsaw, where city officials estimate 230,000 Ukrainian refugees have arrived, but Mendez is yet to notice too much of an impact on day-to-day life in the region.
“Many nations are helping Ukraine, including Poland,” says Mendez. “All the clubs in the league have shown they are against the war and they’re offering whatever they can to help.”
“Speaking with my teammates they’re not overly concerned with Poland being in danger but everyone’s keeping close tabs on the situation.”
“Within the town, people seem to be going on as normal.”
As well as Russia, Ukraine shares a border with Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova, and according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 3 million Ukrainian refugees have passed through these countries’ borders to escape the conflict.
The presence of the refugees passing through is something that Harrison Devenish-Meares has noticed whilst playing for FC Politehnica Timișoara, a club based in the west of Romania and 300km from the Ukrainian border.
“You see a lot of cars with Ukrainian license plates with people fleeing the situation,” Devenish-Meares explains.
“Romania borders Ukraine but the city I live in [Timișoara] is on the opposite side of the country to the border but still you see a lot of Ukrainian license plates.”
“If I didn’t turn on the news every day and just closed my ears, it would just sort of be business as usual, which is probably the weirdest thing about it, being so close to a nation at war. It’s a bit strange and dystopian, but it’s just people talking about it and seeing it on the news that I know there’s a war going on.”
From a sporting point of view, football continues unimpeded in Romania, with similar campaigns of support for the people of Ukraine projected by the leagues and clubs.
“Everyone’s putting up ‘stop the war’ banners,” Devenish-Meares continues. “Before every game there’s statements, things getting put on the jerseys, but it’s not affecting our league whatsoever physically. It’s not changed a lot mentally or psychologically either. People really see this as a conflict that will be continued within Ukraine.”
Devenish-Meares joined in FC Poli’s donation drive as they did their bit as part of the Romanian efforts to provide support for the people of Ukraine.
“I donated blood along with a bunch of my teammates and coaches that was sent over to Ukraine, because they still have regular medical issues to deal with like surgeries outside of the war, then with the war there’ll be even more injuries. We’ve donated a lot of food as well because it’s so accessible.
“That’s another thing I’ve noticed; the shelves of shops are not empty but they’re definitely a quarter as full as they usually are, and I think that’s because people are sending the food to Ukraine because they need it more than we do at the moment.”
Although it is mostly “business as usual” for Devenish-Meares, it hasn’t stopped his family back in Australia being concerned about his situation.
“It’s a little bit surreal. I think my parents are a little bit more worried than I am. My family back in Australia were calling me, asking how I am and whether I’ve got an exit plan which to be honest I hadn’t put a lot of thought into before.
“I’m just hoping, like the rest of the world, that the war stops.”