Six months ago Yuriy Vernydub was celebrating wildly at the Bernabeu. His Sheriff Tiraspol team had just produced one of the great Champions League shocks, beating Real Madrid 2-1. It was a seismic result for the Moldovan league winners, who come from Transnistria, a breakaway republic under heavy Russian influence. A triumph against the 13-time European champions was barely believable for a side who came through four rounds of qualifying to reach the group stage and did so on an annual budget of about £5m.
Just over a week ago, on Thursday, 24 February, having eventually finished third in their Champions League group, Sheriff found themselves in Portugal for a Europa League knockout game. Ukrainian Vernydub and his players had arrived in Braga on the Wednesday to prepare for the game and he had gone to bed hoping for a good night’s sleep as they got ready to defend a 2-1 first-leg lead.
Then, in the early hours of Thursday morning, the 56-year-old’s life would change forever.
My son called me at 4:30am and he told me the Russians attacked us. I knew then that I would return to Ukraine to fight.
We flew home and landed in Iasi, Romania. I then went by bus to Tiraspol, in Transnistria, with the rest of the team on Friday evening and left for Ukraine first thing on Saturday morning. I enrolled on Sunday. It took 11 hours from Tiraspol to my home in Ukraine, travelling via Odessa, then through Kirovgrad, Kryvyy Rih and then Zaporoje, but I can’t say it was difficult.
I don’t want to lie to you. As I was returning home, I saw a lot of strong men leaving the country. If they will come back, I’ll be happy. I understand they left with their families to Moldova, Romania and so on. From our area a lot of men have left… men from Kharkov, Zaporoje, Lugansk, Donetsk. I understood at that moment that I can’t do the same thing. I told myself that as soon as I get home, I’ll go and enrol myself.
The people close to me tried to stop me. My wife, my children, my grandchildren. I stood strong and I thank my wife for supporting me. She knows my character. If I make a decision, I won’t change it.
We could have gone to Moldova and this option is still open for my children, for their wives, for my grandchildren. But me and my wife – we are staying here for sure.
Right now I think I’m not very far from the conflict. The heaviest battles are probably 120km away from where we are. But I made my decision so everything is OK. I am not afraid.
I was in the army when I was young – it was mandatory to do it for two years. But it was in a unit for sportsmen. For two months, we were instructed in theory and after that we learned how to handle a gun. But that was so long ago. I can’t say I have any trouble using fire arms, I know how to use them.
The collective around me is crazy. In a good way, of course. It’s really cool that I am part of such a team. There are different characters here. But they are united, friendly and very motivated. Everything is shared between us. From this point of view, all is good. It’s also nice that many wanted to take pictures with me.
I met a nephew here, but generally speaking, I don’t know who is here and who is not. My brother is older than 60. My youngest son can’t fight because of his health. My oldest son is not here because I insisted he stays home – he has two young children. If he will be needed, he will surely come, I have no doubt.
I am not allowed to disclose what my role is in the army. Now we are being instructed. In every minute we are ready to go where they tell us to. I have not used my weapon yet but I am ready, always. Any time.
I can’t understand [Russia president Vladimir] Putin and his circle. And I can’t understand the Russians who are not against him. I understand many of the Russian citizens don’t realise what’s happening. In Russia, things are shown rather differently than they are. They say they are setting us free. But from what? They said we are fascists, Nazis… I can’t even find my words to describe what they’re doing. They are attacking civilian homes, but only say they hit the military infrastructure. They are lying.
I don’t have any doubt in my mind that Ukraine will win this war. I can’t think of anything else. I’m sure of that. I saw this tragedy united us as a nation.
I have total respect for [Ukraine president] Volodymyr Zelensky. No matter what they say about him. I voted for him. People were calling him a clown, but he showed he is a real leader.
He is honest. He made errors too, but it’s normal for everyone to make mistakes. I can imagine how hard it is to lead a country. I have no doubt he is a good man. We have a president who will act in a correct way. I believe in him.
I think peace will happen only when we win. I think Russia’s demands are impossible to reach. We won’t stand down. There is a need for dialogue, but we won’t satisfy their ultimatums. We see negotiations taking place and I hope they will have enough brains to stop this war. First of all, I hope children and women won’t die anymore. This is the most important thing.
I want to thank the rest of Europe for their support. A lot of children and women left for other countries. I thank those countries for this. I thank everyone for their support. I know they are facing a tough choice themselves. I think they are realising that right now Ukraine is the shield for the entire continent.
I still think about football all the time. Football is my life. Ever since I was a child I started playing it, I was a professional player, then I became a coach. I am sure I will continue to be a manager and I will win trophies.
When we beat Real Madrid, I couldn’t imagine this. I started having my doubts at the beginning of February. That’s when news intensified on this subject. On 14 February I started getting worried. The players kept asking me why I am so sad all the time. Did anything happen to me? I kept saying nothing’s wrong, but soon something will be. They kept saying it won’t, but I felt something.
Some of the Sheriff boys have called me and I have received voice messages. They asked how my family is doing, how my kids are doing. On 1 March, Sheriff played in the league against a rival and they won. I appreciate that. Some coaches sent me words of encouragement too.
Thinking about football motivates me. Football is my life. I hope this war won’t last for long. We will win and I will go back to my beloved work.
Additional reporting by Dumitru Garcaliuc