Andriy Lunin’s rise from Oviedo loan to Real Madrid No. 1

“To give you an idea of what he’s like: he lived in a tiny flat, maybe 45 square meters [484 square feet], and when the pandemic hit, every day he took all the furniture out of the living room, laid down a roll of astroturf he had bought and started to train right there,” Sergio Segura says. Real Oviedo’s then-goalkeeping coach had just been asked about Andriy Lunin, who came to work with him as a 20-year-old Real Madrid loanee in January 2020, and now he’s smiling. And not just because, four years on, the quiet kid they became so fond of is flying at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Picture the scene and it’s easy to do the same, after all: to imagine a 6-foot-3 Ukrainian throwing himself around a little living room. It can’t have been much fun for the neighbors above and below, but in tiny Lugo de Llanera they liked him a lot. Not least because in a simple, unremarkable town of 3,000 people 6 miles outside Oviedo — the kind of place where everyone knows everyone and not, quite honestly, the kind of place you expect to find a footballer, not even from the second division — he never acted like a Real Madrid player.

Not off the pitch, anyway.

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On the pitch was a different matter. On the pitch or in his living room. “20 square meters, if that,” Segura says. “He bought himself a training vest, weights, a huge bin to fill with ice. He was 100% all in, all the time. Work, work, work, work. He was so methodical, so determined, absolutely dedicated. Effort, sacrifice, focus. When he came, he only asked one thing of us: to be able to train every day, without fail.”

That, and a chance to play. Lunin signed for Madrid in 2018, and had been sent out on loan at Leganes and Valladolid. There, his attitude had been the same — he had been known to sneak into the Leganes training ground to work when the place was shut — but despite the initial optimism, actual minutes were few. He played just seven games for Leganes and two for Valladolid. When Oviedo told him it would be different if he joined them, naturally he was unconvinced. He and his father drove north to meet the sporting director in a restaurant virtually next door to the club shop and hear it for themselves.

Oviedo were as good as their word. Twenty league games were left that season; Lunin started all of them, both before and after the lockdown that paralyzed the country and left him trapped inside his own tiny flat-turned-training ground.

“That was a big step for him: to start getting lots of minutes,” teammate Borja Sanchez recalls. “For a goalkeeper, getting that is even harder [than] for an outfield player, and so his time here was vital for him to develop. When he came he still didn’t speak very much, he was shy, but he was great in the dressing room. I tried to help, speaking to him in English. And he helped us too: that year, he made some really incredible saves.”

Oviedo were in trouble near the relegation zone in the second division. Lunin would end up being key to their salvation. And yet it hadn’t started well. He had played just two cup games all season, and in his first league match, against Almeria, the very next day after his signing was announced, there was a mistake that led to a goal and another defeat.

“But what most impressed me was his ‘cold blood,’ the ability he had to remain calm,” Segura insists. “He was very young, there’s a silly goal, a gift, a mix-up between him and [defender] Alejandro Arribas, and yet he didn’t let it matter. Or at least he gives the impression that it doesn’t matter: maybe inside he’s not as calm. He takes the pressure so well.

“Then there’s just the level he has. He’s big, good in the air — although that was harder at first because he hadn’t played for a while — and he gave us so much. Quite honestly, we haven’t had a goalkeeper like him. I asked him what he wanted, fed off him. He trained me as much as I trained him, or more. And he was so focused. He was also honest, very clear in what he wanted. He wanted to come, train, play and go back to Madrid.”

BUT LUNIN DIDN’T JUST GO. Six months wasn’t long, but it shaped him, and it would shape others too. When Oviedo won the derby against Sporting Gijon, the neighbours in his block of flats in Lugo de Llanera were waiting for him, a handful of them down in the garage with fireworks and flags. His wife Anastasiia says Oviedo is the city she would like to live in when he retires. Last week, taking advantage of the international break, she was back in the city to visit with their small son — kitted out wearing an Oviedo tracksuit — making a trip to the club shop. As Sanchez says: “Andriy really liked it here, the club, the city, he was very happy. We’re still in contact. He takes a big interest in us. He’ll arrange tickets for us. He still has feet on the floor despite taking such a big step and playing for Madrid.”

Segura adds: “He’s not laugh-a-minute, but he’s polite, a nice, normal lad. We talked a lot, and he wanted to talk football all the time. His experiences hadn’t all been that good. He was happy living in Leganes, but he hadn’t played and that was what he wanted. This was the first place he really played. We were not in a great situation in the table and then the pandemic came which made it even harder. There was a limit to what we could do. But I speak to him and he’s happy to have been here. He gave us so much too, and I think that left a mark on him.”

As for Lunin, he left a legacy. Quite literally, as it turned out.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Oviedo’s charitable foundation, still in contact with and then in consultation with Lunin, committed to helping refugees. There were aid packages taken to Ukraine, and the first families arrived in Oviedo in March 2022. The club’s head of international development, Ivan Palacios, and the foundation director, former defender Cesar Martin, drove to the Polish border in a van. The kids were put up in Fudoma, a former orphanage for miners’ children built in 1929 and now a residency for the academy. The club found housing for their parents too.

Among the new residents was 14-year-old Krill Romanchenko. A promising young goalkeeper at Metallist, where Lunin had started out, he lived in Kharkiv, just 18 miles from the Russian border and had made his own way to the Asturias region. Having initially taken shelter in the basement, trying to escape the air attacks, he, his mother and his grandmother packed up the car and fled. Their destination was Spain, the plan originally to head for Valencia. Instead, Romanchenko recalls: “Andriy Lunin’s dad called me. They had spoken to Oviedo and they told me I could come here to train.”

They travelled over 2,500 miles, taking four days to even cross Ukraine, and left everything behind — although Romanchenko says that fortunately many of his friends escaped to Poland. They talk often, mostly about football, and at Christmas he was even able to visit some of them. As for Romanchenko, two years on, he is still in Oviedo, playing for their Juvenil.

Among those there with him is Segura, who is now working with the youth teams. “Krill’s very good, very technical. It’s not a case of him still being around just because. His level is good, he’s worth his place here, and there is the hope that he might make it,” Segura says.

At first Romanchenko did not understand a word, but now his Spanish is improving. “It was 10 days in the car. Very, very long,” he says. “Some nights we found places to stay, some we slept in the car, my mum driving the whole way, all day every day. At first I went to Fudoma, now I live in a flat with my family. They told us we could come here to practice here in Oviedo. Then [when they saw me], they said they were very happy with me. And now I’m here. The best thing is finding a home. I hope I can be here for the next few years because I like the people here, they support me every day, the coaches are very good, the staff, the other goalkeepers. I’m very happy.

“I speak to Andriy’s dad often. I sometimes speak to Andriy too, although not every day because he’s the goalkeeper at Real Madrid. He tells me to keep working, to follow this path.”

KEEP WORKING. After six months in Oviedo, Lunin returned to Madrid. He played just one game for Madrid the following season, three years after joining the club: a 1-0 defeat to third-tier Alcoyano in the cup. The following season, he played four times: twice in the league, twice in the cup. Now, he is Real Madrid’s No. 1. With first-choice keeper Thibaut Courtois suffering a setback in his recovery from a knee ligament injury, Lunin will be playing until the end of the season at least. Courtois’ injury is a problem, but not the crisis it had appeared to be. Real Madrid are in safe hands — hands which held tight to the opportunity.

“And no,” Segura insists, “no one has gifted him anything. It’s not easy to play when you have the best in the world ahead of you. It’s not easy to be there at all. And it’s not easy to not play. Courtois got injured, sure, but then they signed Kepa [Arrizabalaga] and Andriy had to wait. People say, ‘Sub goalkeeper, that’s easy’ but you’re only there because they see how good you are. They have to want to keep you. This is Real Madrid we’re talking about, not just any team. If you’re not getting minutes it’s hard, but he has been strong and the decision [to go back and stay] has been the right one. In the few minutes he got, he showed them what he can do.”

“He’s in a good moment now, one where he knows he will play the next game, where he’s not got the knife up against his throat every time,” Segura added. “He’s back with the national team too and is going to the Euros — the other night in the playoff, he made another brilliant save. It’s incredible for him, a huge leap, and it happened because he knew how to work and wait. I watch him now and madre mia, madre mia [my mother]. He’s playing so well. I would love to think I could go and support him in a Champions League final. He has fought for that, he deserves it, he’s been patient, which few are capable of. Andriy was in the shadows but he has proven he is ready because he has everything.”

At Requexón, the training ground 10 minutes south of Lugo de Llanera, through green fields and along winding roads, they would love to see Lunin succeed long-term at Madrid. And if not, well, he could always come back. “What he has done there surprises me because it’s Real Madrid, it’s huge, but we have known for a long time that Lunin has a very high level, so in that sense it doesn’t surprise me at all, and I’m really happy for him,” Sanchez says.

There’s a smile. “But if we go up to the first division, and Courtois comes back, and Andriy wants to, we’ll be waiting here for him. That would be nice.”