Displaced Ukrainian women's football team carries on while dreaming of returning home

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The WFC Mariupol players. Photo from the Club's Instagram page, used with permission.

This story is part of a series of essays and articles written by Ukrainian artists who stayed in Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. This series is produced in collaboration with the Folkowisko Association/Rozstaje.art, thanks to co-funding by the governments of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia through a grant from the International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in Central Europe. 

The players of the Women's Football Club (WFC) Mariupol spent the first three weeks of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine under shelling, in a basement, contemplating: “To stay or to leave?” Now, they are playing football in Kyiv and hoping to one day return home for the Champions League games. 

In its latest season of 2022, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the club was financed by the food manufacturer Vlasne Vyrobnytstvo (Home Production) where the players worked when they were not working out. Yana Vinokurova, the club's president and player, launched the business when Mariupol city cut the team's funding from their budget. It took her only three months to make the manufacturer self-sufficient. They produced meat dumplings, pierogis, and pancakes and sold them in Mariupol supermarkets. They might have continued this way were it not for the Russian army which came on February 24, 2022, to “liberate” Ukrainians. 

The players who managed to get in contact gathered in Yana's house. There were seven of them. “We were so fearless. Airstrikes, shells had flown but we were either fetching water or cutting trees for lumber,” said the team's coach, Karina Kulakovska. 

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Under siege at Yana's house in Mariupol. Photo from the Club's Instagram page, used with permission.

They decided to leave the city after a blast near the house. The players loaded a car without thinking; they took only animals and some manufacturing equipment. They took no clothes because they barely had room in the Renault Logan sedan for themselves. In the front seat, there was Karina with Yana's dog. Five girls with five cats were in the back seat. 

“Two days after the departure, a shell ruined my house. My café was destroyed earlier,” Yana said. 

The players drove 230 km (143 miles) to Zaporizhzhia — 26 hours. They had to cross 19 checkpoints. But Yana and Karina went back to their home city of Mariupol. Yana's mother called to say she had stayed in the city, so the girls went back to rescue her. They managed to find a big bus, and benefactors and volunteers loaded it with humanitarian aid. So they went to rescue people, accompanied by the bus owner, Ivan. Together, they managed to evacuate over 100 people and provide aid to even more. Yana's mother had been evacuated to Zaporizhzhia even before her daughter's arrival. 

The Mariupol football players spent the summer of 2022 in Bulgaria. They were offered free accommodation and meals there. What was even more important, the hotel was also ready to accommodate their pets, as the players would not abandon them. 

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Heading to safety. Photo by Alina Kaidalovska, WFC Mariupol, used with permission.

In Bulgaria, their goal was to earn enough money to return to Ukraine and play in the Ukrainian Premier League. The championship was going to resume in September. During those three months, the players cooked dinners for Ukrainian refugees. Karina, the club's coach, also grilled, as she says, the world's tastiest barbecue, and Yana, delivered orders to the customers in her white car. Every day, they also worked out to keep themselves fit. 

In September, they went to Kyiv and experienced unexpected difficulties. First, they found a stadium for training sessions, then accommodation nearby — a big house without heating in a village called Chaiky near Kyiv. They also tried to restart their business there to ensure income for their team in Mariupol. But they needed to scale up the business to make it the club's main sponsor. 

In December 2022, they launched a crowdfunding campaign on the Keep Going platform: they sought to collect UAH 350,000 (about USD 8,500) for equipment for the WFC “Mariupol” manufacturing facility. On New Year's Eve, Andriy Shevchenko, the Ukrainian football legend, donated UAH 300,000 (USD 8,133). As a result, they managed to collect over half-million hryvnia (USD 13,547).

Thanks to the money raised, the club already has premises and equipment, a manufacturing director, and a technician. Yana is looking for a distributor or a chain of supermarkets that might sell their Home Production wares. She does not want the players to work in the manufacturer. She says that they already have a job — to play football. 

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Vlasne Vyrobnytstvo facilities in Kyiv. Photo provided by Yana Vinokurova, used with permission.

Every day, the team works out from 10 in the morning at the Temp stadium in Kyiv's Sviatoshyn district. The district administration allows them to use the artificial turf field free of charge. I watched them work out in the rain with Yana. Yana pointed to the players and explained: “This is mostly a team of displaced people. Here is a displaced girl from Mykolayiv, this is another from Mykolayiv, the gatekeeper. Then, there are two displaced girls from Kherson. And we are from Mariupol. There are not many from Kyiv here. While in the beginning, they were the core. But gradually, they dropped out.”

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Players’ workout. Photo by Alla Vaskovska, fair use.

They moved out from the house in the village near Kyiv and are now living in rented apartments close to the stadium. They receive a minimal salary, UAH 5,150 (USD 139). The club covers the rent and Yana and Karina supply food.

Yana values the diligence and discipline of the players. It is important to her that the girls are not only strong athletes but fit the team spiritually. 

WFC Mariupol finished the season in ninth place of the 12 Ukrainian Premier League clubs. This means that they remain in the highest division. This was exactly the task Yana gave them before the first season started under martial law in Ukraine. She understands that there will be no landslide victories immediately. The path they've already made they have to make again by building a new competitive team step by step. 

For the next season, WFC Mariupol plans to enter into an agreement with a men's Premier League club. Because now, each of them must have a women's team within it. Another goal is to gather a youth team for the first league in order to nourish the main team. 

These days, the players are looking for investors for three of their projects: the semi-finished products manufacturer, a football school, and a car park. Apart from this, the team also needs various minor sports equipment and a bus to drive them to games. So, recently, they launched another fundraising campaign.

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WFC Mariupol game. Photo by Pavlo Kubanov, used with permission.

Kyiv, which offered the players such a poor reception, in half a year, became their second home. They are already used to its huge distances which seemed cosmic after a compact and cozy Mariupol. They would only like the sea there, and a bit more sun. 

“We are planning to build a team in Kyiv to remind everyone about our city,” Karina said. “And when Mariupol will be liberated, we will come back home as a strong team. We will play the Champions League games there. Let it be in 10 years but it will definitely happen.”

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