Phoning soldiers to loading lorries: Oleksandr Zinchenko’s incredible unseen Ukraine support between Man City matches
As Oleksandr Zinchenko celebrated another barnstorming performance to take his national team to within 90 minutes of what would be their second ever World Cup, he will have smiled wryly at how he could have been fighting for Ukraine’s history in a very different way.
The first thoughts of the Manchester City star in February as he tried to process the abject horror of his country being invaded by Russia were the safety of his family. His parents were safe but his aunt and grandad were not and were stubbornly refusing his desperate pleas for them to escape danger; a bomb going off opposite the hospital where his grandad was in the day before he travelled to Everton with Pep Guardiola’s squad only increased the player’s fears, yet he couldn’t do anything about it.
His next urge was to swap a Premier League title battle for an actual war on the frontline. Ukraine needed every man they could get against superior Russian numbers, and Zinchenko was ready to commit himself to that cause.
Close friends and family advised him that he could make more impact through his employment with the Premier League champions, but despite the risks it was clear for him and his wife Vlada from the outset — a Ukranian sports reporter — that taking the silent option and avoiding the politics of their homeland being under attack was never an option. Ever since that fateful February day, Zinchenko has juggled the pressure of elite sport with doing everything he can to help his people.
The first days were the hardest because of the uncertainty. As his parents hid in basements and bomb shelters 1500 miles away, Zinchenko wanted to do anything he could to help, but the official channels weren’t there.
Trying to concentrate on the pressures of a chase for three trophies was also difficult. In a highly emotional interview with Gary Lineker — who himself took some Ukranian refugees in — a week into the war, the City star confessed that he was uncontrollably breaking down in tears whenever he thought about the situation.
The balance between his job and his personal life was a struggle, and on one City matchday he messaged his close friend Artemy Ryabov to ask if he could help load lorries with essential equipment rather than sit in his house and be left with his thoughts. Soon enough though, by allowing Ryabov to take over the organising of their efforts things worked themselves out.
Zinchenko was able to make a significant donation to the national bank and also managed to set up a supply line to Ukraine through connections with a footballer playing in the Spanish second division who had friends in the Azov regiment fighting on the front line. Closer to home, Polish and Ukranian communities in Manchester came together with locals as 150 volunteers in the city helped to load 27 lorries worth of sanitary products, first aid and clothes to send to Ukraine via Poland.
The club also did everything they could. As well as the players supporting him as best they knew, Rodri has made a five-figure donation to the cause and Fernandinho has donated his final match shirt and captain’s armband for charity auction. Andrei Kravchuk, a promising Ukrainian footballer whose brother is a scout in the middle of the conflict, has trained with the Under-23s squad for the past two months after escaping his homeland.
Further away from the spotlight, one employee sponsored the family of one of the top sporting physios in Ukraine and a club doctor offered to take in any orphans that came to Zinchenko’s attention. And amid all the messages asking for help are offers from City fans and locals inquiring as to how they can help.
“We’re trying to help as many people as we can,” explained Ryabov.. “Every fourth or fifth person has issues with hot water or basic needs in Ukraine — it’s around 10 million people in total — so we can’t help so many people but I’m glad there are so many people around Alex and people around the world willing to help and also making their contribution.
“If we can make a small part of this, we can make at least something and make at least one kid smile, that’s already something. We’re just trying to do as much as we can on this side.
“I receive lots of messages from City fans asking how can we help. That is the best. This community, this club, this city is so helpful. I’m so proud of English people in general because every other person could say it isn’t their business or their country but here I feel that people are really helpful.
“I told them just keep supporting us, we have our fundraising page if people want to help financially. One guy — his name is Bob, he is 71 years old and 65 years a City fan. He drove the lorry full of medical equipment to Ukraine. He was a great guy and did a great thing.
“A few weeks ago I received a message from a City fan who had a Ukrainian family in their home. He brought one of the kids to the stadium against Watford and that was the first time he smiled. So we decided we would invite him to the training ground and he would spend the whole day training and meet the squad.
“I decided it would be a great idea and the kid was so happy. It was a small thing for us but it was massive for him and will stay in his life forever.”
While Ryabov has been co-ordinating the logistical response, Zinchenko — with the help of his wife — has made himself a public figure keeping Ukraine’s plight in the spotlight. City’s trip to Everton in February was incredibly moving as the defender hugged compatriot Vitaliy Mykolenko, and this month after helping the Blues to win the league an emotional Zinchenko draped the Premier League trophy in the Ukranian flag in footage that bounced around the world.
Having cut off all ties to Russia where he previously played, Zinchenko has unashamedly spoken up for his country at every opportunity and criticised those who have stayed silent about Russia’s invasion; he and his wife knew of what may come their way if they spoke out, yet they felt like they didn’t have a choice. Privately, when not preparing for matches he has spent his days phoning up injured soldiers in Ukranian hospitals and promising them a party in Manchester when the conflict is over.
This week the footballer had calmer celebrations than most of his City teammates — a rare McDonalds on the way home from the Villa game as a treat — before heading off to his national team camp to prepare for their World Cup qualifier against Scotland. At the same time, the new foundation Football For Ukraine, of which he is a trustee, was officially announced.
The charity aims to keep Ukraine’s struggle in the spotlight and more easily get funds to those who need it most. A star-studded dinner next week hosted by Ukraine football legend Andriy Shevchenko has the ambitious target of raising £2m, and the annual Soccer Aid match a few days later will also help the cause.
Over the next week, Zinchenko intends to help his country to the World Cup and then raise £2m for those in his country who needs it. More than 100 days into the conflict, the star continues to use his platform as a professional footballer to keep championing his nation in the face of hostile aggression.
“For me, Alex was a role model in this situation. I don’t know how I would have handled myself in this situation but he did so well,” said Ryabov.
“The first day was a huge struggle for everybody emotionally but then we understand there is no time to just cry and be upset, we just need to fight and make sure that our people will be supported as much as they can so they can feel support from our side. That’s just great effort and him as a character, I haven’t seen anyone so open-minded, so right, so humble as well.
“Speaking out was the only decision in his opinion. If you would be silent, how would people know? Sometimes he was really aggressive towards Russia but how else could you be?
“Alex was really strong in his position. He plays in the UK, he can be vocal not only for Ukrainian people but for eastern European or people watching him or watching Man City play. “