Life changed in an airport waiting lounge. This day three months ago Ostap Markevych was the manager of FC Mariupol. His team were bottom of the Ukrainian Premier League after the first half of the season. They won just two matches out of the first 18 and were conceding goals at a clip of more than three a game. No side had been in greater need of the winter break.
A few weeks of warm-weather training in Turkey had gone well, though. FC Mariupol had the youngest playing staff in the league, populated mostly by academy graduates, the occasional veteran keeping the last light flickering and a batch of loanees from league giants Shakhtar Donetsk. Sitting in the airport, boarding passes in hand, they were refreshed and ready to go home. It was Thursday, February 24th. They had Chornomorets Odesa away on Sunday.
“We were about to board our flight when the news came through that the war had started,” Markevych says now. “They closed the skies. It was not possible to go back to Mariupol. We had to stay in Turkey. Immediately, everybody worried for their families. Football was not so important.”
Twelve weeks on, the Russian army declared victory in Mariupol last Friday. The Black Sea port city is in ashes and the Kremlin is moving apace with a programme of Russification. The ruble is being introduced as the only acceptable currency, a proxy local government is being installed and internet servers are being rerouted through Russia to cut the population off from Ukrainian media.
But as the world knows by this stage, there is precious little population to cut off any more. Of the half a million people who lived there in February, the best estimates have only just over 100,000 remaining. The city doesn’t exist in any recognisable form, its citizens shelled, slaughtered or, if they’ve been lucky, turned into refugees.
FC Mariupol is no different to the city it represented. The players, staff and coaches from the senior team were put up for a month by the Turkish FA but gradually, they started to go their own ways. "Our players are scattered across half the world," says Markevych. "Nine went back to Shakhtar but the rest have gone to Spain, France, Bulgaria, Austria, Azerbaijan and everywhere else."
Markevych wanted to go back to Ukraine to help the war effort but from inside the country, his father and brother convinced him to go to Spain. In a previous life, he coached at Villarreal and his wife still lives in Valencia. He joined her there and immediately set about organising food and medical supplies, sending humanitarian aid from the Spanish city to his homeland.
“The first two months, I had too much emotions,” he says. “You have so many things in your head and you have to manage it. Psychologically, everybody I spoke to was like this. Very extreme emotions every day. I am more stable now. There is some normality. I wanted to be there in Ukraine helping somehow but it was really important to be in Spain. There is a lot of work to do here.”
For those left behind, the horrors of war were grisly and all too real. The club’s staff and its 300 academy players had to find a way to safety. To get past Russian checkpoints, they wiped their phones of anything related to the war, any sign that could be construed as being supportive of the Ukrainian army. It took most of the first month but eventually they all got out, some to nearby Zaporizhzhia, the rest to all points further afield.
All are adamant that FC Mariupol will exist again. For now, they have withdrawn from next season’s league but they insist it’s only a year’s pause. All contracts have been dissolved, all club structures put into cold storage. It seems impossible right now to imagine them ever playing in Mariupol again. But of course, nothing about life in the city now seemed conceivable three months ago.
For Markevych, life goes on. Every day brings more stories from back home, more desperate pleas for help. The life of a football coach is by necessity transient – his father coached all over Ukraine and even had a six-month spell in charge of the national team at one point. Mariupol wasn’t Markevych’s home or homeplace. But he’ll be of it forever, regardless of what its future holds.
As for where football fits into his life now, he has only recently begun to think about it again. Chances are, he’ll go back in with Villarreal at some stage down the road and get involved. He has roots there from his spell as a youth coach between 2016 and 2019 – when his football life begins again, it will probably begin there. But not yet.
"I am not thinking about football at all," he says. "I forgot about football. To be honest, I forgot about it totally. I have many friends in Villarreal and when they were in the Champions League recently, I did not even think about it. They beat Juventus and Bayern Munich and I forgot they were playing.
“This is very strange for me because football is everything that I have in my life since I was a boy. For me to forget to think about football is something I could not ever think about. But I think I will start to remember soon.
"Step by step, I think about football again. I was at Villarreal against Liverpool. It was very interesting. Liverpool are the best team in the world I think."
The game goes on. He will do likewise. No choice in the matter.