In the archetypal Brazilian suburb of Guarapuava, a skyline where burnt orange villa tops fade into the azure looks not too dissimilar from the old badge of FC Mariupol.
The Ukrainian football club ceased to exist last year, just one sign of the devastating Russian attacks which have destroyed up to an estimated 90 per cent of the city. During the 2022 Siege of Mariupol, over 2,500 buildings were badly damaged and while there have been conflicting reports about the exact death toll, it is believed to be in the tens of thousands.
The Ukrainian Premier League has gone on, re-launching six months after Russia’s full-scale invasion. But such was the damage to Mariupol’s 12,00-seater Volodymyr Boyko Stadium, and with their facilities left in ruins, the club informed the league it was disbanding.
“We lost everything,” Mariupol’s vice-president Andriy Sanin tells i, estimating that “about 50,000 citizens of Mariupol died”.
“Our story was terrible, our city was almost destroyed. We had our training centre destroyed, our infrastructure, we couldn’t continue our activities and we couldn’t go on… And for a football club, it’s almost like a death.”
A team which once had ambitions of reaching the Europa League had to disperse; four members of that final squad have still not found a club, while others have moved as far afield as the United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Some are in Finland, Iceland and Latvia and head coach Ostap Markevych now manages Polish club Radunia Stezyca.
They have become a symbol of the displacement caused by the conflict, but back in Brazil Mariupolians have found a beacon of hope in local team AA Batel, who last weekend agreed to rebrand and adopt the kit, logo and name of the ruined club.
Batel is based in a region where around 70 per cent of the residents are Ukrainian or of Ukrainian descent. Some have arrived in the last year but the majority first made their way to Brazil in the 20th century, either side of the two World Wars.
“We found a lot of Ukrainian people, Ukrainian dissidents, we found the football club, and we made contact,” says Sanin, one of the architects of the move. “Our story started and everyone was accepting, it was really good news. We were looking for any option, any possibility for us to continue, for our club to live.”
Batel’s president, Alex Lopes, described the initiative to “become” Mariupol as “the least we could do to help keep their club alive – and give hope to Ukrainians all across the world”.
The new “FC Mariupol” played for the first time on Saturday and were beaten but unbowed as fans lined the streets in orange and blue. “It was a tough game and after the match, they kissed our flag on their jersey,” recalls Sanin. “It was a special moment. I saw a lot of people from Mariupol really glad that people the other side of the planet support us, our city and our football club.
“We felt that, the support of people from different countries, it’s like a diplomatic support between countries. We get closer through football.”
The links between Ukrainian and Brazilian football might seem unlikely, but it was no coincidence the South American country was chosen. Some of Brazil’s best-known players – Willian, Fred, and Fernandinho among them – cut their teeth in the Ukrainian Premier League, which is seen as a gateway to the “Big Five” European leagues.
Over the years, there have been a handful of Ukraine international players born in Brazil, including Corinthians forward Junior Moraes, who was born in Santos.
“They played in Ukraine and then they transferred to other bigger clubs, and now is the time for Brazil to help Ukraine,” Sanin says. “And through Brazil, our Ukrainian football club will have this opportunity to have a better future.”
Before changing its moniker to “FC Mariupol”, the club was once named “Azovstal” after the city’s iron and steelworks which gained worldwide attention during the siege. It was one of the last pockets of resistance before the city was fully occupied by Russian forces. Miraculously, all members of the squad survived.
Yet even prior to the outbreak of war in 2022, Mariupol had not been without challenges.
“Prior to the full-scale invasion they were probably closet to the front line where the conflict was happening in Donetsk and Luhansk,” Ukrainian football expert and founder of publication Zorya Londonsk Andrew Todos tells i.
“The summer before the full invasion they had just re-laid the pitch, which was quite a long process it took six months, so they weren’t playing at home. They were hoping to build on from that – on the pitch, they had a lot of help from Shakhtar Donetsk, a lot of loanees and young talent.”
When they heard news of the invasion, they had been at a winter training camp in Turkey. Uefa and the Turkish FA helped house players and staff while they considered their next move.
“When it became clear the city was being bombarded and destroyed the decision was made, at least temporarily, to cease operations,” Todos explains.
Larger clubs have been able to move elsewhere – Shakhtar have been playing in Lviv since the outbreak of the War in Donbas in 2014, and have continued to offer a symbol of Ukrainian resistance by playing in European competitions, which Russian clubs are barred from.
Mariupol’s “other” club, FSC Mariupol (previously Yarud Mariupol) are still operative in the second division but play their games in the small village of Demydiv, near Kyiv, rather than at home.
But FC Mariupol did not have the financial muscle to sustain playing on the road long-term, especially without their fans. Ukrainian Premier League games continue to be held behind closed doors to protect civilians from Russian air strikes.
FC Desna Chernihiv, the first club of former West Ham winger Andriy Yarmolenko, was decimated by shelling and its stadium, also the home of the Ukraine Women’s team, almost collapsed. A crater could be seen in the middle of the pitch.
Ukraine’s clubs cannot even think of rebuilding yet and Sanin recently confirmed that Mariupol will not be playing in the 2023-24 season – though he and the rest of the board still have faith that is that if Mariupol is eventually liberated from Russian occupation, the club will be one day be born again. It is expected that would take around nine to 12 months and would depend on how quickly the city itself can be rebuilt.
“We have a lot of hope, me and my colleagues, that our club will survive,” he says.
“And one day, we will come back to our city.”
Source : Inews