Luxembourg coach hopes football ‘best medicine’ for players who fled Ukraine

Friendly against Northern Ireland may help get ‘these terrible pictures out of their heads’

Luxembourg coach Luc Holtz hopes that football can be the "best medicine" for the three members of his squad who had to flee the war in Ukraine.

Brothers Vincent and Olivier Thill, and Enes Mahmutovic, are in Holtz's squad for Friday's friendly against Northern Ireland at the Stade de Luxembourg, having abandoned their club careers in Ukraine following Russia's invasion of the country.

The Thill brothers had both been playing for Vorskla Poltava while former Middlesbrough defender Mahmutovic was captain of FC Lviv.

All three managed to get out of the country at the end of February, with the Thill brothers travelling via Hungary and Mahmutovic escaping through Poland.

“It was three weeks ago when they had to come back home and it was very difficult to have these pictures in their heads, these terrible scenes,” said Holtz, who had been in regular contact with his players as the crisis in Ukraine escalated.

“It was very emotional. For that reason to play football is the best thing to take these terrible pictures out of their heads.

“In training now they behave very well and they are fit and they are happy to restart football. Of course it is not easy for them, you can’t forget it from one minute to another, but they are happy to play football and football is the best medicine to get over this trauma.”

After getting back to Luxembourg, Mahmutovic gave a vivid account of his escape to Luxembourg newspaper Le Quotidien last month.

In it, he spoke of walking the final 7½ miles to the Polish border due to the huge queues to get across, then watching as families were separated with men between the ages of 18 and 55 required to stay behind and defend their country.

“Many people were crying,” he said. “It was hard, very hard, to see families say what could perhaps be their last farewell.”

Ideal opportunity

For Northern Ireland, Jonny Evans is determined to make the most of his unexpected return to the squad.

The 34-year-old defender is ahead of schedule in his return from a hamstring injury and is due to start Friday's match after coming off the bench for Leicester last weekend in his first appearance since December.

After he came through the Foxes' 2-1 win over Brentford unscathed, Leicester manaer Brendan Rodgers called Ian Baraclough to make Evans available for selection, with the Luxembourg match seen as an ideal opportunity to build-up his match fitness.

The hamstring injury was the latest setback for a player who has been dealing with a long-term foot problem for much of the last 12 months, and Evans admitted the disruption had taught him to savour the opportunities he does get.

“A couple of weeks ago, we were getting close to the [Northern Ireland] squad being named and when it came up I was in the gym,” he said. “I saw it going along the yellow bar [on the television] and I was looking for my name just in hope.

“It wasn’t there – I saw Evans but obviously it was my brother [Corry] and I was gutted I wasn’t going to be there.

“Then a week later things change so quickly. It’s safe to say on the Friday and Saturday nights I was buzzing, I couldn’t wait for the Brentford game. I’d missed that. Sometimes you get those things that get you excited. It’s good to have that feeling back and you cherish it a bit more...

“I’m pleased with how everything has gone in the rehab and the last two training sessions with the Northern Ireland boys has been great for me and exactly what I needed.”

Evans' return is a boon to Baraclough both on and off the pitch, with his experience vital in helping integrate another set of fresh faces into the squad, with Trai Hume, Paddy Lane and Caolan Boyd-Munce all called up from the under-21s for Friday's match and Tuesday's home friendly against Hungary.

With June's Nations League quadruple-header looming, Baraclough wants to use these fixtures to recapture some of the momentum from encouraging performances in November – highlighted by the goalless draw against European champions Italy – but also blood more young players.

“It is key that the senior lads take the lead on it and welcome the young lads in,” Baraclough said.

“I think Northern Ireland has been a great platform for many young players’ careers. I think Jonny played for Northern Ireland before his club, and that can happen.

“It is something they have to cherish and it can really give them a springboard for their careers.”