Euro 2024 fuels dreams of Ukrainian boy who escaped horror back home

STUTTGART, Germany — Kyryl Vidkovskyi is just like any football-obsessed kid. He idolizes Lionel Messi and spends every spare minute kicking a ball, practicing with his friends and dreaming of being a footballer. Those dreams helped keep Kyryl going when he spent 27 days in the basement of his school in Yahidne, Ukraine, following Russia’s invasion in February 2022.

Forced out of their homes and into the school basement by Russian troops, Kyryl, just 10 years old at the time, was one of more than 300 people from his village who endured a living hell for almost a month. Some villagers died — there was no electricity or running water, food amounted to supplies snatched from cupboards before being driven out of their houses — and survival was a daily, hourly, challenge.

Kyryl still dreamed of football. He etched football drawings on the wall — stick men, within a football pitch. “You had to distract yourself somehow,” Kyryl told ESPN. “I found a piece of coal on the floor and just started to draw on the walls. Just footballers on a pitch. I love football and I wanted to play, but I couldn’t. Maybe I didn’t understand why, but I couldn’t play.

“The Russians were saying that people who are captured in the school, that they’re not able to go to toilet for two, three days. The only water we had was mixed with sand. It was horrible.”

Two years on, Kyryl, now 13, and his mother Kseniia and father Kostya, are making a new life in Germany, in the city of Bielefeld near Dortmund. They are among 300 people from Ukraine — injured soldiers, families of those killed in action and those who have endured the conflict in occupied regions — who have been invited to Euro 2024 to attend Ukraine fixtures and meet members of Serhiy Rebrov’s squad. The Ukrainian FA arranged tickets and transport for the family to attend Wednesday’s game against Belgium in Stuttgart.

“Football is a sport that brings people together. It heals and provides crucial positive emotions, especially valuable to Ukrainians during times of war,” Ukrainian FA president and former AC Milan icon Andriy Shevchenko said of the family’s invitation to attend the match. “We believe that football can positively impact the rehabilitation of soldiers. The Ukrainian Football Association has the potential to establish a support system for our veterans and war-affected Ukrainians. Therefore, this collaboration marks another significant step toward achieving that goal.”

Throughout their Euro 2024 campaign, Ukraine’s players have repeatedly spoken about their determination to boost the morale of their troops and the Ukrainian people who continue to suffer the effects of war.

Kyryl’s story is one of the most poignant. As we speak, alongside his mother and father at Ukraine’s team hotel in Stuttgart, Kyryl is waiting for a photograph with his hero, the Chelsea forward, Mykhailo Mudryk, while the great Shevchenko walks by.

Kyryl is in town to watch Ukraine’s decisive Group E game against Belgium — he also made it to Ukraine’s 2-1 win against Slovakia in Düsseldorf. Those dreams in the basement in Yahidne are being realized, but there is no doubt that he and his family would rather be at home, with none of this having ever happened.

“When the Russians came, we were all taken to the school. All of the village,” Kostya, Kyryl’s father, told ESPN. “We were living underground and it was really cold. It was February, really, really cold, and there were over 360 people in there. It was like a crazy fantasy.

“Twelve people died,” Kostya continued. “Because of lack of air, lack of food. People were losing their minds. We were sitting, you couldn’t lie down. All you could do was sit and hear the fighting. Some of the rockets were destroying the school as well. There was no electricity, no communication with the outside world. We were in captivity and the only toilet was a bucket in a corner of the room. It was no place for people to live, no place for a child.”

Today, Kyryl and his mother and father are wearing their Ukraine shirts. The experience of being at the tournament is clearly a huge positive for Kyryl.

“Just feeling the whole atmosphere, with all the supporters, it is so nice,” he said. “We are seeing people who are from all over Europe, so it is great. The win against Slovakia was amazing.”

Germany has offered refuge to more than 1 million Ukrainian refugees since the conflict began in February 2022 — more than any other country. Kyryl and his family are enjoying their new life and he has found a local football team to play with. “Messi is my favorite player, but I am a full-back,” he said. “I like to attack too. Our team won a trophy this year, so that was good for me.”

Kostya proudly shows a photograph of his son with his new team, but a tearful Kseniia says there have been challenges and difficulties in adjusting to life outside of Ukraine.

“When we moved here, I was anxious and angry,” she said. “In Ukraine, Kyryl played football every day, weekends and evenings, rain or sun. Football was his whole life. But when we moved here, it was different. All I wanted for Kyryl was to play football, I was worried we couldn’t find a team, but we now find a team that is half an hour away from where we live. He practices two days a week. In Ukraine, it was seven days, but here it is different. It is OK.”

Life isn’t normal for Kyryl and his family, not the “old” normal anyway. But being at Euro 2024, waiting for photos with his favorite players, watching Ukraine play and joining in with the crowd singing “Sweet Caroline” is a small, but enjoyable, distraction from what he has endured.

He dreamed of football during the most difficult moments and the game has given something back.