Homeless World Cup participation is nothing if not a team effort that transcends languages and borders. In the case of the Ukrainian team, that team effort actually involved a firefighter, five Scottish football clubs, and the Ukrainian defence forces.

Scottish football clubs Celtic, Rangers, Hearts, Hibs, and Aberdeen put aside their rivalry to help cover the Ukrainian team’s travel and visa expenses. Their contributions enabled the 2023 Homeless World Cup team to travel from Ukraine, via a necessarily circuitous route. “Civilian aircraft are currently not flying in and out of Ukraine because of the war,” Ukrainian player Dmytro Shcherba explains. “We travelled on a bus to Poland. There we flew to Amsterdam where we had a connecting flight to San Francisco. From San Francisco we got here on a bus.”

The team comprises seven men selected from a range of Ukrainian defence forces, including the police and the military. The players were chosen from an inter- and intra-force football program providing respite and rehabilitation from the physically and mentally gruelling experience of being at war. When I clarify whether the program is to help with injury recovery or take their minds off the wider circumstances, translator Danyil Drakushev makes clear it’s both, but particularly the latter: “When it’s a war, it’s psychologically hard.”

“There was a selection,” Shcherba explains. “And since there’s a war going in the country at the moment, those players who were in combat against the Russian Federation were invited to the championship. So basically, all the team are combat operations participants. A sort of a play-off was conducted in Western Ukraine where the best of the best were determined, and that’s how we ended up here.” The players who were named in the final team, he says, “are all from the police from the same city, but different units”.

“Every player of the team took part in hostilities in the east of Ukraine, which was reflected in the psychological state of each player,” Shcherba says. He himself had sustained injuries that included a severe concussion that hospitalised him for weeks. “When the first clashes started back in 2014, I was with a special forces unit. We were sent to where the fiercest fighting was happening, near the city of Sloviansk. I was injured and got a shellshock [post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)] in the battlefield. I was taken to the hospital in Kharkiv where my recovery took a month,” Shcherba says. “The concussion I received during the hostilities is one of the elements that worsened my psychological and physical condition.”

Travelling to Sacramento, then, is a welcome contrast. “We had a very, very good reception,” Shcherba says. “Everything is great and at the best level, everyone is kind, [and there have a been] a lot of smiles and how-are-yous.

“This is my first time in America. It’s a very beautiful country and I like everything, but this tournament, in particular, as I think it is very important for the rehabilitation of people like us who just came from the battlefield. Although one never can fully escape, it still helps to switch the mind from what is happening in our country at the moment.”

The Ukrainian players are in their 30s and 40s, which means they had to obtain special dispensation to temporarily leave Ukraine. (Men under 55 are currently required to stay in the country and may be conscripted for the defence efforts.)

“Since we are still part of the special police unit, we had to ask permission from the unit commanders to leave the country and they guarantee authorities that we will return,” they explain. “Besides, we have left our families and children in the country. We were given permission to leave the country only for 10 days to participate in this championship.”

Shcherba, who was nothing but gracious when we inadvertently interrupted his lunch break for this interview, and his teammates come from Western Ukraine. That region isn’t currently as dangerous as Eastern Ukraine, he says, which is why the team was able to attend the Homeless World Cup.

“I live in the city of Ternopil in Western Ukraine. The combat operations are not happening there at the moment as the main scene is majorly all in the east of the country. At the same time, we have air alerts every day, often several times a day. They can happen during the day or night, and we have to go to the bomb shelter immediately. Kids can still be at school, it disrupts your sleep at night, you are in a state of anxiety and stress all the time,” he says.

Unlike their civilian families and friends, the players know this danger is part of their job. “I am a professional police officer and I can be ordered to go into battle at any time,” Shcherba says. “As of today, we are on vacation. When we return to Ukraine, there is a high probability that we will end up in a war zone. Absolutely every player of our team, upon returning to Ukraine, is ready to perform his police duty in the war zone.”

Those duties include a marriage of day-to-day police duties and those required in emergency circumstances, the team explains. “While on duty, we perform the main duties of a police officer. Namely: compliance with law and order, protection of people’s rights and freedoms. Also, today we provide assistance in the evacuation of the population from the Eastern part of Ukraine, engage in volunteer activities, provide medical assistance to persons in need.”

Having travelled and started trying to teach himself English prior to the war, Shcherba also appreciates the opportunity to travel to the US. “We were very excited to come to this great country which is famous around the world for so many things. When the selection process was completed and those seven people were picked, we had training every day together. We are truly happy to be here.”

Still, thoughts of the seriousness of the situation at home remain front of mind. At the tournament draw on the first night, for example, many players were dancing. The Ukrainian players were not. Their response to whether they wanted to join in, was polite but signaled they did not feel it would be appropriate: “We cannot. There’s a war in our country.”

“They also can’t stop thinking about what’s going on in Ukraine because they still have their families there,’ translator Drakushev explains. “But this tournament is very important to help them rehabilitate and think about things other than war.”

“For each player, the number means something,” Shcherba explains of the team’s self-selected shirt numbers. (His number is 19.) “For example, someone has a date of birth. For another player, the number on his shirt is the number on his police badge.”

Being involved with the team and the tournament holds significance for translator and fellow emergency services worker Drakushev too. As with so many Homeless World Cup experiences, his involvement came through a serendipitous and truly global connection.

“I was born in Ukraine I came to the US when I was young. We immigrated with my mom and my two brothers, so basically I grew up in Sacramento. But it was challenging. I immigrated to a different country without the language. When I said in high school that I wanted to be a firefighter, they were laughing. They were saying it’s not going to happen. It was challenging for me, but at the same time it made me stronger. It wasn’t easy. I took to my EMT [emergency medical technician training] class three times and almost gave up.”

Then he met a firefighter who mentored him and became like a second father, supporting him and his firefighting ambitions. “It’s a big brotherhood,” Drakushev says, of why he wanted to become a firefighter. “Also, I like to see different places every day, meet new people, sometimes listen their stories or tell them mine. But also, I really like to help people, be there for them. None of those men or women want to be heroes when they choose this job—they all have kind hearts and a desire to do things that not everybody can do. Firefighter, EMT, paramedic or police officers—those are hard jobs, especially mentally.”

Now a firefighter, Drakushev turned up to see if he could help at the tournament. He’d heard about it through a chat they have for all volunteers, including fire reserves. They were looking for Day 1 prep help. Drakushev was intrigued because he both used to play football and because of his Ukrainian heritage, so headed down to the Sacramento State stadium.

Drakushev was almost turned away because the tournament was fortunately fully subscribed for volunteers. “Then she randomly asked me if I spoke any languages,” he says, of the question the volunteer co-ordinator asked just as he was about to leave. We all erupt in laughter. That’s because we’re acutely aware we’d been trying to find a Ukrainian translator for days. “When I mentioned I spoke Ukrainian and Russian, she was like, ‘Oh wow, would we like to speak to you.’”

Drakushev is aware that the roles could have been reversed had circumstances been different. “When I was in Ukraine, I didn’t even know that I’ll move to USA one day. I was in school and was thinking what I’m going do after it. Like most kids, I actually was thinking to go to military school and become an officer, but a year later we moved to the US and my life changed in the good way. But I still appreciate those guys and support them and everyone who’s fighting right now in Ukraine.”

While having a translator is helping exponentially, there’s also camaraderie and understanding with fellow eastern European teams Poland and Lithuania, who have managed to bridge the language gap with some not entirely dissimilar languages aided by a lot of region-specific mutual understanding. (Ukraine and Poland went shoulder to shoulder contesting a hard-fought match on the pitch on Day 4 of the tournament, but that switched to standing side by side, with at least one of the Poland players putting his arm around a Ukrainian player’s shoulder as they chatted on the pitch post-match.)

The players are also enjoying testing their skills against, and learning from, strong teams in the competition. “[There’s a] very high standard and great teams here. You can tell they play football a lot back at home. [It’s] very interesting to play against them,” they tell me. “We are getting stronger every day in the street soccer field. On the football pitch, we get exclusively positive emotions. Also, the fact that we spend time together outside of football is also important for us.”

The team have had lots of support from their guides and local police personnel, too: “We want to thank our team guides, Kevin and Myriam, who keep us from getting bored and who organised a tour of Old Town Sacramento and the Capitol for us. We are very pleased. Also, it was interesting for us to visit our colleagues from the Galt Police Department. We saw how our American colleagues work. They gave us a tour and showed us police cars.”

(Props must go to Kevin and Myriam, too, for arranging an esky with cold face washers for the players to put on their heads to help keep cool pitchside. Myriam was supposed to be with the French men’s team, but was reassigned to Ukraine at the last minute, something for which she says she “couldn’t be more grateful.” She and Kevin also arranged watermelon to help sustain players’ energy levels and hydration.)

The players are aware, too, that their family and friends are watching the games on the livestream and they’re wanting to do them proud. Shcherba has a five-year-old son who is following avidly and has been inspired to play. While that’s their focus, the one thing they wish us to know is: “Please remember that the war is still going in Ukraine and it is not over yet and every person, not only in Ukraine but everywhere in the world, should do their best to end it with Ukraine’s victory.”

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