Seven players have been nominated by their unions for the 2023 FIFPRO Merit Awards. FIFPRO will announce the winners in the three different categories – Activism, Impact and Voice – during its annual general assembly in South Africa on Thursday 23 November. Ukraine midfielder and Shakhtar Donetsk captain Taras Stepanenko has been nominated for the Player Activism Award for his humanitarian work helping victims of war in his homeland.
By Taras Stepanenko
I’ll never forget the day the invasion happened. I woke up at 5:30am and my wife said that war had started. I thought it wasn’t possible, but there it was on the news. We then started to receive messages from relatives, friends.
Parts of Kyiv were occupied by Russian troops, and drones were approaching the side of the capital where our home was. My wife and I took our three sons and went to the basement. We stayed there for three days.
As a footballer, you’re used to dealing with pressure – but that situation wasn’t pressure, it was fear. I feared for my family.
How can I protect my sons aged nine, eight and five? How can I protect my wife? If Russian troops came to my house, I don’t know what thoughts they would have in their minds or what they would be capable of.
That day wasn’t pressure – it was a feeling of fear.
You have to cope with that fear, keep your emotions in check, and take action to protect your family. Eventually, we packed essential items into one suitcase and we left. It was a difficult to decision to leave our home, our country. But for the safety of my family, it is better for them to stay outside of Ukraine. They are now in Spain.
Once my family were safe, I wanted to help others. I sent a message in our national team group chat that I was trying to collect money to help our people. Four Dynamo Kyiv players sent me a message back about making a joined group with four Shakhtar Donetsk players to raise money for those in need. Though we play for rival clubs on the pitch, we are united when it comes to helping our country.
In the early days of the war, I donated personal savings and helped collect other funds from the football family to buy medical aid for soldiers’ protection because at that time they didn’t have the same degree of supplies.
But as the war went on, myself and other footballers started using our platform to send a message to the rest of Europe and the world. We started fundraising in a big way, such as selling matchworn shirts. We also visited injured soldiers in hospitals, we bought equipment that people needed, and we supported families by providing shelter.
In my opinion, the most important work we are doing now is supporting the families of football fans who have died during the war. Stands of Heroes has helped more than 200 families through this fund, where donations are made each month to help the relatives of fallen soldiers until they get support from the government. I, along with many other Ukrainian footballers, support the project a lot. Our job now is not solely to be footballers, but to help support and protect our people, especially children.
Football is the number one sport in the world and as captain of a team like Shakhtar Donetsk, I have the honour of competing in Europe’s biggest club competition: the UEFA Champions League. Shakhtar playing in the Champions League is very important for all Ukrainians because we have the chance to send a message to the whole of Europe. We’re not just representing a club – we’re representing a country. A lot of Shakhtar supporters, a lot of refugees from Ukraine, watch our games from the stands supporting us and we try to help them in their lives.
Recently when we played in the Champions League in Barcelona, the club and I visited an injured Ukrainian soldier at Institut Guttmann, a very respected medical centre that specialises in neurological injuries and disabilities.
It is difficult when you see someone so badly injured from war that they can barely move. That injured soldier represents a lot of people in Ukraine: people who have been damaged by the war. When I looked into the eyes of his determined father when he said, “we’ll do everything to help my son, so that he may live a normal life one day again”, it filled me with so many different emotions. It was difficult not to cry.
When Shakhtar are doing these visits, when we support these people, it’s an important message for the rest of Europe to show what happened in our country. I have visited the military hospital in Kyiv and when you see the horrendous injuries people have sustained fighting for our country, combined with their determination to keep going to protect the country, it is really something incredible.
A lot of footballers have struggled during the war, especially in the east and south of the country being occupied, and many clubs have ceased operations. The players’ union in Ukraine, with the assistance of FIFPRO, has helped players find accommodation. For instance, during the first months of the war, our union and FIFPRO accommodated a lot of women’s footballers to safe parts of Ukraine.
I’m proud of our nation. I’m proud of our people. We have stayed united against the enemy. I am eternally grateful to our military who protects us. I am thankful to all the people who have donated funds and to those who are collecting funds.
As footballers, we have to send a message to the rest of the world in order to show what has happened in Ukraine. We must do our part.