Ukraine's Sudakov heads to Euro 2024 with dreams of soccer glory and a hometown behind enemy lines

Ukrainian soccer star Heorhiy Sudakov is on course to achieve his dream of becoming one of the best players in Europe. His dream of returning home seems more distant.

The 21-year-old Sudakov is one of the brightest talents on the Ukraine team heading to Germany for the European Championship. His life has been shaped by more than a decade of conflict.

It’s been 10 years since Russia-backed separatists took over Sudakov’s home town of Brianka in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region. Russia declared the annexation of the area in 2022 following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“I dream about it and would like to return. I haven’t been there for more than 10 years,” Sudakov tells The Associated Press by phone.

He plays for Ukrainian champion club Shakhtar Donetsk, which has been displaced for a decade from its home stadium in the city of Donetsk, and plays most home games in the western city of Lviv.

“Of course, it will be psychologically difficult, but I have the same dream to return to play a match at (Shakhtar’s) Donbas Arena,” he says. “I’ve never been there, only heard about it and seen it on TV. And I understand how important it is for our country, for our team, for our club and for its president.”

Sudakov says living through the last 10 years has toughened him up.

“It has affected every Ukrainian who lived in the country. Everyone has hardened, let’s say, and became stronger psychologically,” Sudakov says. “I thank our warriors for me being able to keep playing football, progress, and sleep peacefully. Now everyone probably only dreams about the war to be over and for all of us to live in peace and tranquillity for the next 10 years.”

Ukraine sees its soccer players and Olympic athletes as symbols of the country’s resilience and a way to keep Ukraine in focus worldwide. Qualifying for Euro 2024 with a comeback win over Iceland in front of an overwhelmingly pro-Ukraine crowd in Poland brought “incredible emotions” to the team and those at home, Sudakov says.

With all that responsibility, just remaining focused can be a challenge.

“You have a lot of emotion, a lot of adrenaline in your head, because you know you’re not just coming to play football,” Ukraine defender Illia Zabarnyi says in a recent interview. “Our players need to switch to be calm and not do stupid things, because if you’re just thinking, ‘Oh, I need to give 2,000%,’ and just kick someone, it’s a red card.”

In the Ukrainian league where Sudakov plays, all games are held without spectators. If an air-raid siren sounds, the game stops and players, coaches and referees head to a shelter. The league stopped after Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022 but resumed later that year in empty stadiums and with several teams relocating to cities in the west and center of the country, farther from the front lines.

Fourteen of the 26 players in Ukraine’s initial Euro 2024 squad were from clubs in the Ukrainian league.

Most Ukrainian men of military age are banned from leaving the country, but soccer players get exemptions to travel abroad for games in events like Euro 2024 or the Champions League. That means a lengthy journey by land over the western border with Poland before flying on anywhere else. Ukraine’s airports have been shut since the 2022 Russian invasion.

Sudakov and his Shakhtar teammates got a taste of playing in Germany when they used Hamburg as their “home” stadium in the Champions League this season. Locals and Ukrainian refugees living in Germany flocked to games to give the team a warm reception.

Ukraine will be based just outside Frankfurt for the tournament and the German government has signaled an extra focus on its security.

“We will do everything to protect the Ukrainian team and fans,” interior minister Nancy Faeser told the dpa news agency in March.

Sudakov wants to play at the top level of European club soccer and could be a transfer target for leading clubs this summer. He says he’s discussed his ambitions with fellow national team players like Zabarnyi and Chelsea forward Mykhailo Mudryk.

Ukraine’s team has plenty of talented young players, and draws with England and Italy in Euro 2024 qualifying showed it can compete with the continent’s best. Reaching the quarterfinals, like Ukraine did in 2021, won’t be easy but it should be competitive in Group E with Belgium and two neighbors, Romania and Slovakia.

After Euro 2024, Sudakov also hopes to play for Ukraine in the men’s soccer at the Paris Olympics.

“Every match for the national team is incredible pride and responsibility,” Sudakov says. “I probably have double motivation in such difficult times for our country. When the national team plays we feel incredible support and give our people, for 90 minutes, some positive emotions.”


Ellingworth reported from Duesseldorf, Germany.


AP soccer:

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