Is Sport Beyond Politics?

How the soft power of football works during times of war

15 July 2022

Christine Karelska

Future of Ukraine Fellow

The final story is of Iryna Sanina, a star goalkeeper of the Ukrainian Women’s National team and the ‘Kolos’ FCW in the Kyiv region. She recounts how she escaped Irpin at the beginning of the war.

Iryna Sanina is a star goalkeeper of the Ukrainian Women’s National team and the ‘Kolos’ FCW in the Kyiv region. Iryna shares her first-hand account of the war in Irpin. This city was one of the first to be occupied on 24 February and how she managed to leave the city with her family, about new life abroad and post-war women’s football prospects in Ukraine.

Iryna Sanina

Iryna, since the spring of 2021, there has been news that Russian troops are gathering near our borders. All this was presented under the guise of ‘military drills.’ But this year, American/British intelligence began to give specific dates for the invasion, for example, on 16 February, when President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced a Day of Unity. Did you believe then that Russia would attack? Did you expect a war of such scale?

Before the invasion, we did not know what war was or how terrible it was. You know how ordinary people dream of war — you wake up and are scared. It is even scarier than the worst nightmare. On 14 February, I had a flight to Turkey with my national team. At that time, there was a lot of news from British intelligence about the invasion, especially on Telegram channels. I was worried. ‘What if something happened while I am in another country, we may lose the ability to contact each other? I would not be able to go to Ukraine because of the closed sky.’ It was terrifying.

 But we still managed to depart for Ukraine and continued to monitor the news carefully. It was very alarming to hear that Russia formally recognised the so-called ‘Donestk and Luhansk People’s Republics.’ Until late that night, despite tomorrow’s game, we watched what would happen next. We all wanted one thing — to make it back to Ukraine. We won the match and were to be in Kyiv at 13:15 on 23 February, but the flight was repeatedly postponed. 

We finally landed in Kyiv at 21:00. We were exhausted. Some girls went home to Kharkiv. I went to Irpin. My husband took the precaution of packing all our necessary documents and belongings in a suitcase, just in case and kept calming me down and saying that everything would be fine.

On the morning of the 24 February. How did you find out that the war had started?

On the 24 February, I was woken up by a phone call at 7:00 from Olga Ovdiychuk, my teammate on the national team. She stayed in Turkey with her team to continue training. Olga asked me how I was doing as all cities of Ukraine were being bombarded. She is the one who told me that the war had started. 

My family woke up, and I was shaking. We had to do something. My husband went to top up the car with gas. In the case of war, we had planned to go to my grandparents’ village further away from the border. My husband queued for two hours to buy some petrol. The entire time we were always on the phone, I packed my son’s clothes, and we stayed in Irpin. 

When my husband came back, it was relatively quiet. There were queues in supermarkets and soldiers on the streets. We went to our favourite shop and stocked up on food — the windows of the hotel where we stayed faced Hostomel. We understood deep inside that the Hostomel aerodrome was strategically crucial for the Russians. It did not take long to see the first explosion there. We heard and saw a fighter plane. We saw smoke over Hostomel. The first fighter that fell in Bucha was shot down right above us. 

One helicopter was shot down, and the other was still above us, launching missiles. Then we saw in the news that the first fighter fell in Bucha. Then the explosion became louder. That’s when we decided to take shelter in the basement. There were 20 people there. It was safe and comfortable. I gave it ‘5 stars’ as there was central heating, a microwave, and a washing machine. It was well-equipped. While we slept, our spines shook due to shelling. 

In the morning, we decided to move as the Russians blew up the Romanovsky. The bridge was the primary connection between Kyiv and the city. So, I went upstairs and packed my son’s clothes. I did not feel that we were leaving for long. My friend and my current teammate, Natiia Pantsulaia, even joked that she had left her clothes in the laundry machine and would return soon to finish it. I thought so too. So, I did not even have time to pack my stuff. We were driving under shelling, but we had to stay calm because our son was in the car. 

My legs were trembling, but I was speaking to my son. We got to the petrol station in Stoyanka. It was chaos, but we managed to get some petrol and crossed the Zhytomyr road. Soldiers were instructing us to drive faster. Usually, this trip to our grandparents’ village takes one and a half hours, but this time it took us more than five. Once we finally arrived, we hosted another family from Kyiv. So, for a month, we were hunkered down in the village.

That is when you were invited to the Romanian Heniu Prundu Bargaului FCW. How did you adapt to living in Romania?

I did not plan to leave Ukraine at all, as my eldest son was on the left bank in Kyiv. There was no way to reach him when all the bridges were demolished. Every hour we were on the phone like all other Ukrainians with their loved ones. I could not think about my departure while my son was there. Then he was invited to the Lithuanian Basketball Academy and got there on an evacuation train from Darnytsya. 

That is when I started thinking about leaving because of my youngest child. It was relatively calm in the village. We heard and saw some helicopters and fighters from time to time. All of this was impacting my son. We worried about him as he reacted to every sound and asked what it was. We did not want him to grow up in fear — no child should. The godmother of my youngest son lived in Peru and kept inviting us to her country. While I was getting ready to leave for Peru, I got an invitation from Romanian Heniu Prundu Bargaului FCW, and my friends were already there — Natiia Pantsulaia and Veronika Andrukhiv. 

Also, it is near Ukraine’s border near Chernivtsi. Our friends from Kharkiv were driving along a safe road that passed through our village to Chernivtsi and took us with them. The most challenging thing is that my husband stayed behind. The road was tough, and my son was afraid of the commotion at customs — I kept saying to my son, ‘Vanya (his name), just 20 metres more and then the war is over, it will be calm and quiet.’ When we finally arrived in Romania, I needed at least three days to come to my senses. Even now, if I see a plane in the sky, I still worry if it is a warplane or not.

How do you see the post-war future of Ukrainian female football?

We understand that we will not be in first place after long-awaited peace. There are lots of people without homes, income and who have lost their families. They are the first who need to get help. It will be challenging, but we live by the fact that sooner or later, we will begin to live well. We need time. Patience will help us all.

What is your opinion on football sanctions imposed by FIFA/UEFA on Russia? As their reaction was relatively slow. Do you think football sanctions must stay, for instance, for five or ten years after this war?  

I do not know who will want to play with them after this war. We also supported the sanctions suspending Russia from international sports. People say that sports are beyond politics, but that is just false. Such huge companies as Adidas left Russia’s national football team, and they will not have a Champions League final. I think it is correct. I do not believe any Ukrainian or European will want to see a Champions League final in Russia. It is not purely the request of Ukrainians to suspend Russia from international sports. The whole world accepted it.

Your attitude towards football players in the Russian Federation? To those who do not cover the war in Ukraine?

They continue to play in Russia while their families are in Ukraine. And they keep silent. It is nonsense. When you have a family in Kharkiv under shelling and at the same time you play somewhere in Russia without saying anything, it is sheer betrayal towards your family, city and country. It is their choice. They continue to work there and pay taxes for missiles launched at their city.

Who are the heroes for you now?

My hero is my husband, who managed to get our family out, organise everything and save us. When we crossed the border on 24 March, my husband went to the conscription office to join the Armed Forces of Ukraine. He called them many times, and he is still waiting. His brother is serving in Chernomorsk in the Odesa region in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. 

Our grandfather passed away in the village where we were hiding, and we could not even come to the funeral. My mom has come back to support my grandmother, who is all alone. My husband is in Chernomorsk with his brother. They say they will defend Odesa until the end as the situation in Transnistria is tense and escalates. Moreover, our army is strong in Mykolaiv, and they will not let the city fall. I am calm about Odesa.

Do you believe that victory and peace will come soon? 

I want it so much. We are looking forward to it eagerly. Sometimes this impatience is unbearable. My kids are safe, but our hearts are in Ukraine. We miss our home and always watch the news. My team ‘Kolos’ is still holding up. I am waiting for them to tell me to return and resume training as we did. If I were pessimistic, it would be harder to deal with it. We have to stay positive.


As the stories of these famous Ukrainian female football players show, football, one way or another, is political. The soft transformative power of football cannot be underestimated, particularly in times of war.

This game, which brings billions of people together, can shape people’s attitudes, attract international attention to important issues, and improve the world. Football’s transformative power was discussed at the World Economic Forum-2022 in Davos during the panel ‘ sport as a unifying force’ during such challenging times and the upcoming World Cup in Qatar, which is a first in the Arab World.

Ukrainian Women Football Players as Ambassadors  

Jill Ellis, a prominent coach in US woman’s football, pointed out that ‘an investment in women’s football is an investment in women.’ Despite the severe destruction of Ukrainian women’s football, Ukrainian female players have become a powerful symbol for Ukraine as they tell the world what is happening in their country and mobilise the international community abroad. This ‘football front’ can bring much-needed post-war sports investments and more attention to the conflict.

Moreover, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s initiative ‘UNITED24’ has already raised 75 000 000 dollars for the country’s needs in two months since its inception whilst the Russian occupiers continue to destroy Ukrainian sports infrastructure. Andriy Shevchenko, the first ambassador of UNITED24, appealed to all world athletes to support the boycott of all Russian teams and athletes as long as the war continues.

No Place for the Kremlin’s FCs

The Kremlin and Putin’s oligarchs control each Russian FC. Furthermore, lucrative Gazprom sponsorship deals are also highly immoral because they are indirect financial sources for Putin’s war machine. The West, along with Japan and South Korea, insist on banning Russians and Belarusians from international competitions and suspending their governing bodies from international sports federations.

Nevertheless, it is not only about Ukraine’s victory, as there is a much broader picture which comes into view regarding the FIFA/UEFA’s further decisions towards Russia. Harsh football sanctions and total Russian isolation in international sport must stay in place for years after Ukraine’s victory.

There must not be any hope for the totalitarian regime to come back to the grand sports arena like nothing had happened and use football as its propaganda tool. ‘Business as usual’ will not be acceptable in the new geopolitical reality. Any Russian athlete is, to some extent, a representative of the Kremlin and its soft power tool. 

FIFA/UEFA Can Make Football a Force for Good

This situation is a window of opportunity for FIFA/UEFA to enhance its image by making radical changes towards creating policies for peace, human rights and democratic values instead of a blind pursuit for more power, connections and revenues.

Such influential sports organisations have more profound power projection than some states. This war is the sport’s chance to become a genuine unifying force amid the invasion of a sovereign democratic state and to help end this terrible war.

Olga Ovdiychuk


Olga Ovdiychuk

Olga Ovdiychuk is a star forward of the Zhytlobud-1 FCW (Kharkiv) and the Ukrainian Women’s National team. Now, Olga is the player of the Turkish Fomget Gençlik ve Spor FCW (Ankara). Here is Olga’s insight into FIFA/UEFA sanctions, post-war prospects of women’s football in Ukraine, and further war development.


Olga, since the spring of 2021, there has been a lot of information that Russian troops are gathering near our borders. All this was presented under the guise of ‘military drills.’ But this year, American/British intelligence began to give specific dates for the invasion, for example, on 16 February, when President Zelenskyy announced a Day of Unity. Did you believe then that Russia would attack us? Did you expect a war of such scale?

Before the invasion, I regularly watched the news as there was enough free time. I listened to our and foreign politicians. Honestly, I did not believe in it much. I did not think till the very end that there would be such a full-scale war. But when international politicians and analysts started talking about it I started to believe that such a situation may develop.

On 24 February how did you find out that the war had started?

On 23 February, we returned to Zhytlobud-1 FCW camp. Our training gathering was supposed to take place. On that day, we woke up in the morning and went to the training as if nothing had happened. On 24 February, my phone was off with no messages in the early hours. But when we came for a brief medical examination, as it is obligatory every morning, the girls said that Russia had started its full-scale invasion of the territory of Ukraine. I began to monitor the news. I cannot describe my feelings at that moment. Bucha, Irpin, and Kyiv were heavily bombarded. I called my sister, who was in Kyiv as well. Her family woke up due to an air raid alert. So, I called my family first. I called Iryna Sanina (Olga’s teammate in the Ukrainian Women’s National team) as she was there in Irpin. I called all my friends in Western Ukraine, as they have family in Kyiv. We learned about the war a bit earlier than the others because we were one hour ahead of Ukraine. While our people were still sleeping, I was not. So we woke everyone we knew by phone and tried to help on the information front as much as possible to make people more aware, if possible, to help them leave the places where there were strikes. 

Could you tell me what sources of information you use to be up to date on what is happening in Ukraine?

Now I watch our All Ukrainian News Marathon. Sometimes on apps or YouTube, I monitor some Telegram channels where the information is updated every day. Even now, I have got 500 or 800 unread messages, as they keep flowing. I can not keep up with it. At the beginning of the war, you monitored it constantly, but after a while, you understand that you need to distract yourself a bit from this. It is tough.

Do you keep in touch with other Ukrainian players? The Women’s Football Association and the coach of the national team? Your family in Ukraine?

Since the beginning of the invasion, Mr Lluís Cortés (the coach of the Ukraine Women’s National team), with all the coaching staff, managed to leave Ukraine. It took a couple of days for them to go. Since the Russian invasion of our territory, the coaching staff, the Ukrainian Football Association, and the Ministry of Youth and Sport support each player, and each athlete. They always keep in touch to find out whether someone managed to find a new club. For the last two months, when everyone understood that there would be no women’s football in Ukraine, our coaching staff, Lluís Cortés, and other coaches helped find new clubs. Our World Cup matches were rescheduled. Anyways, they must all be played. We do not have football in Ukraine, so it is unreal to play them now. Our coaches with the Ukrainian Football Association did an excellent job for the girls who did not have an opportunity to find a club on their own.

How did your adaptation go in the Turkish Fomget? Did the players support you and Ukraine? Was it easy to emotionally switch to the game in such severe circumstances?

From the very beginning, it was tough. You go to the training session, and your legs are with the ball, but your head is in Ukraine. But we are lucky, as there are four of us here. Some girls go to clubs on their own in another country, it is even more difficult for them. It is a bit easier for us in this regard. We can sit and talk and discuss some situations happening in our country. We can ask each other about our families. We supported each other. When we came here to Turkey — we were welcomed very warmly. Everyone understood what the situation was like in Ukraine. They did their best. They are positive people. But taking into account our situation, the coach and the staff always asked us about the music: if we did not like it, they could turn it off. But we are Ukrainians. We get used to anything. They always asked what our families and we needed.

Did you meet Ukrainians in Turkey? Were there rallies? Did you take part in them?

I met many Ukrainian people here and have even subscribed to the Ukrainian Community in Ankara. Unfortunately, due to the tight schedule, I did not manage to take part in a rally in support of Ukraine. I followed when these rallies took place, but I had a training session or was not in Ankara. But there are lots of our people here. There is also a Ukrainian worker on our coaching staff. We exchanged our phone numbers and kept in touch. We try to help each other, if there is some connection or a possibility, we help informationally, if people need it.

Now the entire infrastructure of the country is suffering. Before the war, women’s football was not as developed as in the EU. Do you believe that women’s football will be revived after the war? Because there is a risk that football and sports will fade into the background.

You need to attract lots of sponsors to get investments. I think there will be support from the world, from the EU, but firstly there will be support for the reconstruction of the country. Thus, female football will be in the background in our country. It was not developed on a large scale before the war, and after the war, people will think more about how to renew and rebuild destroyed towns/cities. If we talk about men’s football, it will develop faster. Women’s football will not be developed after the war. To do it, you have to invest first and then talk about income. 

Before the war, we did not have investments in women’s football. Our football was sponsored by separate sponsors who love women’s football. Before the war, we attracted the Spanish manager, who now works on our national team. We did small steps for Ukrainian women’s football to grow in class to make it more popular. Attracting such a coach is an excellent marketing tool. He is famous. He won a Champions League. But after the war it is unlikely.

What is your attitude towards football players in the Russian Federation? To those who do not cover the war in Ukraine?

 To my mind, this is on their conscience. As they stayed there, their families stayed in our country. I am sure that their families were hiding in the basements with no food while they were playing. I would not do it. I would find any way to leave that country. If we take the financial side, women’s football is not a high-paying job. Of course, we can talk about lack of money and possibilities, so it is better to stay. But if we take the other side — their families have lost everything. If we take statistics on how much people have lost in our country and how many people and children died, their families may have found themselves in such conditions. I do not understand their position at all. If I were them, money would not matter to me or my residence. The most important thing for me would be my family and to leave the country aggressor — so my soul before my family is clear and I can honestly look into their eyes and say, ‘My heart is clean, I was with my country and family.’ So, players who stayed there and continue to play, God will judge them, I think.

What is your opinion on football sanctions imposed by FIFA/UEFA on Russia? As their reaction was relatively slow to impose any sanctions. Do you think football sanctions must stay, for instance, for five or ten years after this war?  

I wish they were not allowed in any competitions for 20 years so that their athletes would not be able to represent the country that has done such terrible things to mine. I do not even know what to call these people who have committed such atrocities. The Russian Federation is a big country. Russian athletes have a huge impact on their own country and the world because their athletes are among the best. They won many medals at the Olympics, in the European arena. We do not only talk about football but sports in general. After the Russian invasion, no athlete of the Russian Federation has expressed their thoughts what he thinks about it all, that it is their country that attacked the other one without any reason. 

Their athletes have not done anything. I have not seen any post of some famous athlete or actor. All their appeals were superficial, like ‘I did not want it, I do not want it, but I cannot do anything about it — it was just said for the record. So, I support sanctions. Putin just helped unite us all, and this will make us even more robust after our victory. Let them play in Russia with their flags.

‘Football is beyond politics?’ Is it? 

I think football is part of the structure of politics. Football is a very high-paying sport, and large sums of money are put into it. All businessmen who fund our teams are connected with politics. If one says ‘football is beyond politics,’ it is already political. If we talk about the war that started in Ukraine in 2014, the following year, Ukraine forbade its football players to play for other national teams and in Russia’s territory. So, if football is ‘beyond politics,’ why are there any restrictions? If we talk about futsal, they can play in the national team and on Russian territory, but football can not. Russian biathletes can take Ukrainian citizenship and represent Ukraine. In Football, they cannot do such things. This is because other kinds of sports do not have ample money like football. So, to my mind, football is not ‘beyond politics.’ It is part of politics. It is all connected.

Do you believe that victory will come soon? 

Russian troops retreated from Kyiv, Kharkiv. Those cities that he planned to take for 3-4 days or five days, he cannot do it for four months already. He is losing all the time. Speaking about how near our victory is, I do not think this ends fast as we have towns currently occupied by the Russian Federation. It is hard for the Armed Forces of Ukraine to get there. It will last till the end of the year, for sure. I do not know whether there will be shelling in Kharkiv, Kyiv again, but they have just one option — to attack from the sky. Eastern Ukraine will be under shelling 100 per cent. Will missiles fly over Ukraine during all this time? I think they will.

Putin has nuclear weapons but does not know their condition. I do not know what kind of person you have to be to do this. With the help of the EU and the US lend-lease, I think he has no chance of winning the war in Ukraine. Our nation is not like the Russian one. There are many videos where one asks a Russian, ‘Are you a patriot?’ He answers, ‘yes.’ ‘What are you ready for? ‘Ready for anything? If we have a full mobilisation for the war?’ This person ran away. When Russia started its invasion, there were queues in Western Ukraine: women and men, as our people have a greater spirit than people who live in Russia.

Due to war atrocities, people were forced to leave their pets behind. Now the situation is still critical as animals continue to die due to a lack of food, water and proper vet care. How has your cat endured such long transportation? 

My cat stayed in Ukraine with my friends. I gave him to friends before the New Year because I had a lot of training  — we still played in the League. When I had to return to Kharkiv after the New Year, I had to take him back. But I did not have time to pick him up because I was in the west of Ukraine and then went to the gathering camp. And now I say thank God he stayed with my friends because if he had remained in Kharkiv, hardly anyone would have thought of my cat Elvis.

Tamila Khimych

Tamila Khimych

Due to war atrocities in Ukraine, Tamila had to depart to the Spanish Football Club Espanyol FCW. Now, Tamila is in a training camp in Poland (the city of Rzeszów) as Ukraine’s National Women’s team is preparing hard for the important qualifying matches of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 against Scotland and Hungary on 24 and 28. Here is Tamila’s story. 

Tamila, since the spring of 2021, there has been a lot of information that Russian troops are gathering near our borders. All this was presented under the guise of ‘military drills.’ But then American/British intelligence began to give specific dates for the invasion, for example, 16 February, when President Zelenskyy announced a Day of Unity. Did you believe then that Russia would attack us? Did you expect a war of such scale?

To be honest, I did not believe it and did not pay attention to the conversations and news.  At that moment, I just could not believe that a war could start, a war that would take many lives, and destroy families, houses, cities and the country.

On the 24 February. How did you find out that the war had started? The day before you won a tournament in Turkey.

After the training gathering with the national team, we stayed in Antalya and waited for the football club. We were supposed to go through the second part of our preparation for the championship. I got a lot of messages and calls. At that moment I could not understand what was happening. I called my friend and asked ‘what happened,’ to which she replied: ‘haven’t you seen, the war has begun,’ I just did not understand anything and I say ‘what kind of war,’ she told me to watch the news, after talking with her, I started calling home to find out what was happening.

Could you tell me what sources of information you use to be up to date on what is happening in Ukraine?

I do not use specific channels, there are a couple of links where I can read the news etc.

How did your adaptation go in the Spanish ‘Espanyol?’ Did the players support you and Ukraine? Was it easy to emotionally switch to the game in such severe circumstances?

I will not say that my adaptation took a long time, no, I knew that I needed to get used to everything faster here since it is the end of the season and the team is fighting to get into the big leagues. There is no talk in the club about what is happening in Ukraine.

Did you meet Ukrainians in Spain? Were there rallies in support of our country? Did you take part in them?

When I arrived in Spain, I lived in a hotel for some time and there were a lot of Ukrainians there, and there are enough of them in Barcelona itself. I can not say anything about any rallies, since I have not taken part in them yet. As for me, the intranational community help us in any way they can, and for this, we only have to be grateful to them, but maybe some would like more, but we should be grateful.

Do you keep in touch with other Ukrainian players? The Women’s Football Association and the coach of the national team? Your family in Ukraine?

Yes, I communicate with girls from my team,  from the national team, and from other clubs in Ukraine. Of course, I talk with my family and discuss everything with the coaching staff.

Now the entire infrastructure of the country is suffering. Before the war, women’s football was not as developed in our country as in the EU. We do not have such stadiums, or sports bases (like Cobham in Chelsea FC). Do you believe that women’s football will be revived after the war? Or is there is a risk that football and sports will fade into the background?

Surely, we are far from such sports bases as Chelsea, Barcelona, ​​PSG, etc., but we have something to strive for and I can only say that there is some kind of movement. If only FIFA or UEFA men’s teams were not obliged to have a women’s team, then I am not sure that any of the top clubs in Ukraine would want to have a women’s team in their structure. Look at European women’s football, they love women’s football here, they go to women’s football here! I would like to believe that in our country in five years people will also love women’s football and will pay more attention to it, and develop it. But at the moment, thoughts about football in the country and about infrastructure, and the development of football are out of the question.

What is your attitude towards football players in the Russian Federation? To those who do not cover the war in Ukraine?

We are all people and everyone has their own choice, if they remain silent, then they have reasons for this, I do not want to blame or criticise them, this is their choice!

Do you believe that football is able to bring Ukraine’s victory closer and that the main thing is not to remain silent?

Yes, it does not really matter if it is football, basketball or hockey, the most important thing for us is victory, now we are one family, one team and one country!

‘Football is beyond politics?’ Is it really?

Of course, this is not true. And everyone has known this very well since 2014.

Do you believe that you will soon be able to play at our stadiums? Do you believe that victory will come soon?

I believe and hope that this horror will end soon and there will be peace, silence, and a peaceful sky over our heads. Surely, I would like to play home matches in my country and sing the anthem of Ukraine with my fans with pride!

Who are the heroes for you now?

A hero is every Ukrainian!

What do You want to wish Ukrainians?

I would like to wish every Ukrainian strength, patience, a peaceful sky and victory, and victory will definitely be obligatory ours, because we are Ukrainians and Ukrainians are strong and invincible people.

Iryna Kochnieva

The second story is of Iryna Kochnieva, a professional football player of the Women’s National team of Ukraine and Kryvbas FCW in Kryvyi Rih, but was unable to make a debut due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Iryna Kochnieva

Iryna Kochnieva is a professional football player of the Kryvbas FCW in Kryvyi Rih and the Women’s National football team of Ukraine. In April, Irina joined the French Reims FCW. She started out in the Integral team in her native city of Vinnytsia. Then moved on to one of the best teams at that time — Chernihiv Legend FC. As a member of Kharkiv  Zhytlobud-1 FC Iryna won gold medals in the Ukrainian championship and played in the Champions League. Irina was looking forward to a new stage in her football career, but due to the outbreak of the invasion, she could not make her debut for a new club. Here is Iryna’s story.

Iryna, there were regular talks and warnings about the Russian invasion since last year as they were massing troops near our borders. In 2022 Western intelligence, particularly President Biden himself started to announce dates of this invasion, for instance, 16 February when President Zelenskyy announced the Day of Unity. While reading all this news, did you believe that Russia will start a full-scale war against Ukraine?

Honestly, even on 23 February, when the information about the beginning of the war on the next day was on the news, I did not believe it till the very end. I thought it will not happen, neither in Donbas nor anywhere else. I did not think till the very end that he would dare to attack our county. As I am speaking now, I have goosebumps, I still think it is a dream, we are all dreaming and, unfortunately, it has been dragging on.

On 24 February, early morning. How have you found out about the outbreak of the war? Could you share with us your feelings?

I was in Turkey when the war started and was waiting for my club. I woke up at eight in the morning as my best friend was calling me and hysterically asking me about my whereabouts as the war had started. I did not understand what was going on and asked my friend to calm down and explain. She said that Russia has attacked us. I was speechless. My friend told me that Kharkiv was the first city under shelling. That is my city, where I live, where I have my flat. Thank God, my relatives do not live there. She told me to call my parents and ask them to leave. I burst into tears, at that time I was alone. I checked the Internet to see what was going on, all I saw were explosions and murder. All my life was shattered in an instant.

What information channels do you use? As there are lots of them and it is easy to get lost in the ‘information space.’ Do you watch the All Ukrainian news marathon?

I carefully monitor Telegram chats regarding the situation in my native Kharkiv and a couple of reliable channels about the general situation in Ukraine. Every time, my morning starts with news about Ukraine. I wake up at seven in the morning. My day starts with the Ukrainian anthem then Ukrainian news. I turn on YouTube and watch the news. Before leaving my flat, I watch the news for three hours. Without it, I cannot start my morning.

How do you communicate with your relatives who are staying in Vinnitsa?

I worry so much about them. When I hear on the news that something happens in Vinnitsa, I call them immediately, as you cannot really know what is happening on the ground. I have not seen the war first hand so I do not understand how it is possible to live when something bad can happen to you and your loved ones at any time.

Do you support any charity funds?

I support reliable charity funds financially and have donated to the Women Battalion organisation. At the beginning of the war, I donated to the Armed Forces of Ukraine and try to donate on a regular basis. 

Have you taken part in rallies to support Ukraine in your current place of residence, Reims?

Unfortunately, in Reims, I did not see any rally in support of Ukraine or Ukrainian people like in other French cities. In fact, I do not meet other Ukrainians here. In this city I did not see as strong support as in other cities where you can see our flags. For example, football player Tetyana Romanenko in Marseille is doing a lot covering the war. There is no such thing in Reims yet. 

How do you see the future of women’s football in post-war Ukraine?

I think everything will be in the background. First and foremost I want our country, and our economy to rise. Then it will be the turn for sports and our normal lives. But now our country is being destroyed. It is not clear when it will all end. You think about sports last. I believe in the long run everything will go back to normal. Female football will not be at the same level as the male one but, I am 100 per cent sure it will exist.

How do you feel about Ukrainian players in Russian clubs amid the invasion? 

It is difficult to talk about the Russian people generally. Before Feb 24 despite the situation in Luhansk and Donetsk, I did not have any ill will towards them, now I understand that I hate them. I hate their country. I cannot help it. I have never had such feelings before in my life, such emotions, such anger towards people. I do not even want to talk about them.

What is your opinion on football sanctions imposed by FIFA/UEFA on Russia? Recently, the President of UEFA Aleksander Čeferin said that ‘Russian athletes should not suffer.’ There are rumours about Russia joining the Asian Football Confederation? What do you think about it?

For what we are suffering? For what is our nation suffering? We have not done anything bad to anyone. Each Ukrainian is suffering: each football player, each athlete, each person, each child, everyone. For what? We did not deserved it. But we are being punished now. I think these sanctions are right. I fully support them. I wish all sanctions would be ramped up against them. They have to understand what has happened, what their country has done with our country. If they finish the war now and sanctions are lifted, I am against it. They will not even have time to learn. It should not be like that. If you punish them — you punish them then you have to push for as long as it takes for them to understand. If they do not — why do they have to participate anywhere? Let them participate in their own country far away from us. I don’t know who plays [in the Asian Football Confederation] but let them play far away from us.

Do you believe in Ukraine’s long-awaited Victory and that peace will come soon?

I do not know how it will be. I know that I really want it. I am looking forward to peace in Ukraine and am praying for it every day. I strongly believe in it as the Ukrainian people are more united than ever and everybody is doing their best for this victory. I believe everyone will come back home soon. I have never wanted so strongly to come back home in my life as I do now. Today, I watched an interview with President Zelenskyy and he said the right words — ask any person, who is abroad now, whether he or she wants to go back or stay abroad? Everyone will answer that he wants to go home. And this is victory. Victory will be ours!

Who are your heroes in this war?

Each person is a hero in this war: people who have suffered, people who have lost someone and they find the power to keep fighting for our country, those who die for our country, children who draw drawings for our soldiers and send coins to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Ukrainian people are the real heroes and Ukraine is a country of heroes.

Do you believe in the concept of ‘football soft power?’ Can it help us bring Ukrainian Victory closer?

I believe that every small detail that points to what is happening in Ukraine now can impact the outcome of the war. Every word and every statement can have an impact. I am not sure that it will be football. But one must speak out and show what is happening in Ukraine.

Photo: Iryna Kochnieva’s Personal Archive

Iryna’s team Kryvbas FC organise charity matches in the EU to support Ukraine and raise funds. But now it is more complicated to do it as its female players are scattered all over the EU. Despite all challenges, Iryna’s club Kryvbas continues to fight not only on the football front but on the diplomatic one as well. On 14 May the coach of the club Olena Stetsenko and football player Lyubov Mozha had a meeting with the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. During the meeting, they talked about the first day of the war when the Kryvbas team planned to go to training camps in Turkey. They also spoke about today’s situation in Ukraine, due to the war started by the Russian occupiers. The tragedy of Mariupol, Azovstal and the need for the military help from Germany to Ukraine were on the top of the agenda. 

Natiia Pantsulaia

The first story is of a Ukrainian professional female football player of Georgian origin and one of the key players of Ukraine Women’s National football team, Kharkiv Zhytlobud-2 FC and Romanian Heniu FC  – Natiia Pantsulaia.

Natiia Pantsulaia

Natiia Pantsulaia is a Ukrainian professional football player of Georgian origin and one of the key players of the Ukrainian Women’s National football team. Before the outbreak of the Russian invasion, Natiia used to play for the Zhytlobud-2 FCW and live in Kharkiv, the city, which continues to be under constant shelling since the first hours of the war.

Natiia was forced to leave the country together with other Ukrainian players. Now she lives in Romania and plays for the Heniu Prundu Bargaului FCW. Here is Natiia’s story.

There were regular talks and warnings about the Russian invasion since last year as they were massing troops near the borders. In 2022 Western intelligence, particularly President Biden himself, started to announce the dates of this invasion. While reading all this news, did you believe that Russia will start a full-scale war against Ukraine?

I belonged to the group of people that perceived such a possibility in a sceptical way. If we talk about the first date of the possible invasion 16 February, I did not believe it. I understood that they were going to do something, but not a full-scale war. I thought that if they attacked us, it would probably be Kharkiv or Donetsk, but, honestly, I have never imagined that they would attack Kyiv. It came as a great shock. After 16 February, when a new date of possible invasion was announced, my friends and I were in the national team. We talked about it every day. We understood that something was going on. It was really nerve-wracking as our families were in Ukraine. We felt that something was going to happen. But no one believed that they would for to Kyiv.

Right before that fateful day for all Ukrainians, the Women’s National team won an International Tournament in Turkey and you were getting ready to depart for Kyiv. How did you find out that the war had started?

On 24 February we were on a train on our way to Kharkiv. Relatives, acquaintances, and friends started to call us and ask ‘Where are you? How are you doing?’ We wanted to get to Kharkiv as fast as possible to understand what was happening. Surely, it was a shock. We encountered war in Kharkiv. I live in the district of Kharkiv called Shishkivka, nearby there is another district called Zhuki, and everything started there.

I arrived home and started to pack, with each minute I heard the sounds of explosions nearer and nearer. They were colossal. We did not have much time. Collectively we had three cars, we collected everyone from the team so no one was left behind. Once we were all in — we drove. It was scary because the conditions on the road were terrifying.

Natiia Pantsulaia with her cat Whisky

I know you have a cat whose name is Whisky. Due to war atrocities, people were forced to leave their pets behind. Now the situation is still critical as animals continue to die due to a lack of food, water and proper veterinary care. How is your cat during the long trip?

He was very calm. I drove not only with him but with another cat and a dog. My pet did great during the 26-hour drive. He did not cause any trouble. He was sitting quietly and calmly. 

Could you tell me what sources of information you use to be up to date on what is happening in Ukraine?

Since the invasion, I have been watching all available news. But three weeks ago I understood that I had to control this. There is an ocean of information. There were lots of nights when I fell asleep at four in the morning and had to be at the training at nine. So, I deleted almost all my news channels and left only a few. I watch official channels as they broadcast reliable news about my country. I am subscribed to the official account of the Women’s Battalion. I have left a minimal amount of channels to have clear information so as not to disseminate my attention.

You help some charity funds financially and create video content. Could you tell me something in regards to the Women’s Battalion organisation?

They are working hard, connecting with people and finding out about their needs. They collect funds and deliver all necessary goods. They know exactly what they are doing.

Do you communicate with other football players and coaching staff of your national team, the Ukrainian Association of Football in such challenging times?

Not every day. Everyone is busy. We have lots of chats — the national team, the club, our friends. We always keep in touch. Moreover, our coaching staff is always in touch with all of us. They always ask us what we need, how we are feeling, and control our football activity. They always write to us if we need anything and we can ask for their help at any time.

All our football clubs suffer from this unlawful invasion, especially Mariupol FCW. It is the epicentre of war crimes in our country. Do you know anything about our football players’ fate there?

The situation is very tragic. We still do not know what happened to some players. We are looking, but cannot find them. But those who managed to escape recounted awful things. Honestly, I do not know how to live with those experiences.

Have your family, friends stayed in Ukraine?

My sister had to leave the country with a little son as the family did not want him to know what the siren sound means, and what does it mean to get up five times a night and run to a shelter. The family wants him to sleep peacefully. But all my relatives and most of my friends, particularly the men, stayed in Ukraine.

How is your adaptation going in a new country and a new team? Do your new teammates support you and Ukraine?

I am hugely grateful to them. I never had a connection to Romania before, I say it frankly and honestly, but, now, I can say that they are great people. In my experience, they do their best to make us feel comfortable. There was even a situation when we told them, please that is enough kindness. Treat us like you would your own players. You can point out our mistakes, shout at us, scold us. They help us a lot even without asking. Just a couple of days ago, I discussed with my teammates, Iryna Sanina and Veronika Andrukhiv, about our experiences. We did not expect to be so well treated.

[Answering the question of whether it is difficult to switch emotionally during the matches, knowing what kind of war atrocities Russia is committing in Ukraine, Natiia could not hide her emotions and tears. The most difficult is to go to the pitch with the Ukrainian flag over the shoulders.]

Do you meet Ukrainians in Romania? The country turned into a powerful humanitarian hub and still helps our people, who are fleeing from war.

I meet lots of Ukrainian people in my city of Bistrița, Ukrainian buses that arrive in Romania, and there are churches, where Ukrainian people gather. It is not unusual to meet Ukrainians somewhere. Even if you do not know the person you greet him or her like you have known them forever. Ukrainians are everywhere. It is simple to get help anywhere, it is as if you were in Ukraine.

What do you think about the post-war prospects of female football in Ukraine? Will it get investments or will it stay in the background?

Over the course of many years, I saw Ukrainian football grow, and the conditions got better. It took time, you needed to get people interested. The problem does not lie in the fact that people do not love women’s football, people just do not know that it exists. We have got a huge problem with advertising. How is someone supposed to find out about it when no one writes about it? I am sure that women’s football will receive investments. If it is developing in Europe and we plan to be there, there will be investments. Moreover, lots of our players who play abroad, play in the first team. They do not sit on the bench.

What is your position on football players from Ukraine who still play in Russian clubs and do not speak out on what is happening in Ukraine?

Some people say that my position is the radical one, but I do not agree with this. The traitor is also who went to play in Russia before the most recent invasion, as the war is going on since 2014. The year is not important when someone goes to the country-aggressor to play football: as ‘sport is beyond politics,’ how should one understand it? It is like being a half-patriot. I do not understand it.

I know who I am, I am Ukrainian, I know what Russia is, and I know a bit of history. I will never set foot there. No matter how much I am paid, no matter what they give me. I will never go there. I do not understand girls who went there earlier and I will never justify them. I see some of them trying to justify themselves…  I have no sympathy. Hundreds of people died, and this helped you to realise something? No, it does not work like that. We are all conscious people. For someone, something bad must happen to understand that he or she is a patriot. I am not Ukrainian, I came to Ukraine when I was just one and a half years old. But this country brought me up, so I think I am a patriot of this country. I do not even support those who came back now.

What is your opinion on FIFA/UEFA sanctions? As their reaction was rather slow to impose any sanctions. Do you think football sanctions must stay, for instance, for five or ten years after this war? 

I am sure that they must stay till the very end unless the thoughts of the Russian people change and they plead guilty. If it is just to have another bullet point, categorically no. Sanctions must stay. If they say they suffer, it is just from the lack of brains. We all understand what sanctions are, quality of life changes, and iPhones will become more expensive. But I am talking about life.

What can be more important than the life of a human being, of a person? No one has the right to take someone’s life. Sanctions must be tough. If Europe talks about peace, it is their words, so take action. You must be responsible for each word, you have to stand up for each principle until the very end. I would say sports sanctions must not be for even five years, but for many more. People have to realise something, their mindset has to change, and they have to think otherwise. When we understand that the process of change is completed, only, in that case, I guess we can lift or mitigate some sanctions. As of now, definitely no. We do not talk about five or even ten years.

Who are your heroes in this war?

The heroes are the ordinary Ukrainian people and the Armed Forces of Ukraine. To be in charge is one thing, to be on the frontline is completely another one. You are safe, you can sleep, you live, but on the frontline people do not have it. A hero is everyone who is there and defending our country.

Do you believe that we will win this war? Do you believe in our accession to the EU?

I know history, Ukraine always won. It was always difficult for Russia with us, because we are an unbreakable people. I always used to say it even if Ukraine had powerful weapons, the notion of willpower, spirit, those things are incredible. I am sure, I believe and I know that Ukraine is unbreakable. This demonstrates that we will win. If Putin launches a nuclear war, it is the end of the world. When it is the end of the world, it does not matter who wins. Ukraine must access the EU because we really want it. For the last seven years, I see some progress. I saw that the country has changed, grown and it deserves to be on the list of the best countries. If we win this war, Europe will want to have Ukraine. As of now, I do not know such a powerful country as Ukraine. 

What is your opinion on the role of President Zelenskyy in the ongoing war?

In his political party, there are some pro-Russian politicians, at that time I did not understand why it was possible to ask one thing from people, our country, but to have those people in power. Now I respect him, he does a great job and does not surrender. After the end of the war, he must think about cleansing pro-Russian forces. If you are Russian and do not like Ukraine, you take a suitcase, go to Belgorod and goodbye. Everyone knew who Medvedchuk and Shariy were, but they were allowed to live and work in our country. After the outbreak of the full-scale war, we suddenly remembered who they really are. But they were always near us. I hope that after the war Zelenskyy will do everything 100 per cent right.


Football is a significant soft power tool, despite powerful organisations like FIFA and UEFA denying its direct affiliation with politics. In times of war, multi-layered crises and severe tectonic geopolitical shifts, the soft power of football cannot be underestimated. Is the old adage ‘football is beyond politics’ still alive today? 

These stories that we will unravel in this series show the other side of the medal. The stories of Ukrainian female football players, who’s lives and careers have been interrupted by the brutal war, will give answers to the role that FIFA plays during these challenging times — along with its ties with Russia during previous conflicts, football sanctions and the post-war prospects of women’s football in Ukraine.

Importantly, football diplomacy can contribute to the overall struggle for Ukraine’s long-awaited victory. 

When Bombs Fell FIFA Was Slow to Act

February 24 started like any ordinary morning — early morning risers getting ready for work, others sleeping peacefully, but it abruptly turned chaotic when heavy explosions were heard at the start of Putin’s so-called ‘special military operation.’ 

After the illegal annexation of Crimea and Russian incursion into Eastern Ukraine in 2014, the EU and the US sanctions were not enough to stop the Kremlin’s war machine. In the aftermath of the Russian invasion, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan acknowledged that the reaction of the international community was rather weak and the current Russian aggression against Ukraine could have been avoided if diplomatic tools had been applied in a more effective way in 2014. 

After Russia’s bloody and cynical full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, it was high time for FIFA and UEFA to U-turn their policy towards the Kremlin. It finally banned Russia from all international competitions and on 18 March 2022 the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) rejected Russia’s appeal to lift the ban. 

UEFA took the Champions League final from Russia, and terminated a 33.5 million British pounds per year sponsorship deal with Gazprom — the Russian state-owned energy giant and one of Putin’s geopolitical tools. The European football’s governing body ruled that Russia will not participate in UEFA Women’s EURO-2022 and Russia’s bid to host the men’s Euros in 2028 and 2032 ineligible.

Heavy sanctions were put on Chelsea FC and its owner, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who tried to act as a mediator between the peace delegations of Ukraine and Russia.

Political Pressure on an ‘Apolitical Institution’

However, such bold FIFA decisions were taken only due to huge pressure exerted from the  National Football Associations, namely from the French Football Federation and the Polish Football Association that continued to ‘name and shame’ FIFA’s slow reaction to the invasion of Ukraine. For the President of FIFA Gianni Infantino, it was an uphill task to cut his ties with Putin. He offered that Russian teams continue playing under the name of the Football Union of Russia, playing home games on neutral territory and behind closed doors with the Russian flag and anthem banned.

It sounded rather unfair towards the Ukrainian people who keep fighting against Russian aggression. The clear signal to FIFA was sent by the British PM Boris Johnson, who condemned Infantino’s stance on the events in Ukraine saying ‘there is a clear need for football to continue to present a united front in the light of Russia’s abhorrent actions in Ukraine…Sport cannot be used as a platform to legitimise Russian aggression.’ 

Fierce objections from the above-mentioned Football Associations have caused a domino effect: other National Football Associations supported this brave position. But if they were silent about excluding Russia from all international competitions, would FIFA have the courage to do it on their own? FIFA was cornered and shamed in its attempts to further appease the Kremlin. An Order of Friendship that was given to Infantino by Putin turned into a symbol of hypocrisy.

Finally, ‘FIFA and UEFA have decided together that all Russian teams, whether national representative teams or club teams, shall be suspended from participation in both FIFA and UEFA competitions until further notice.’

But what about Ukrainians who pay with their lives for their freedom and democracy? Is football not supposed to unite for peace and become a winner of this democracy? For, the phrase ‘further notice’ hints at lifting/mitigating all football sanctions and returning to ‘business as usual’ as soon as the situation in Ukraine is stabilised. Such an ambiguous position may put Infantino’s third term reelection ambition as FIFA’s President behind an eight-ball. 

2018 World Cup a Mark of Shame for Football

Before the Russian invasion, in 2018 Russia held the FIFA World Cup despite appeals from Ukraine and the international community to give this right to another country — not the one that is violating human rights and all norms of the international law. However, FIFA kept insisting that ‘sport is beyond politics.’ It has neglected the Russian crimes and, to some extent, sponsored Russian military might. FIFA turned a blind eye to its own Human Rights Policy adopted in 2017, pledging to ‘go beyond its responsibility to respect human rights and positively contribute to their enjoyment.’

FIFA President Gianni Infantino and Putin Source: (, „Vladimir Putin (2018-06-13) 06“,

The background of that grand sports event was grim: illegally detained Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar political prisoners in Russia, labour abuses against workers on World Cup stadium construction sites, anti-LGBT laws, war atrocities in Syria and the ongoing Ukraine’s territorial integrity violation. FIFA preferred to bite its tongue and silence those issues, having appeased Putin’s imperialistic goals to showcase the Russian power, improve its image on the international arena and strengthen its geopolitical positions. 

One of the Russian puppet and closest allies, the Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov, is notoriously known for severe human rights abuses. Since the first days of the Russian invasion he and his ‘elite Tik-Tok troops’ kept threatening the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy with a massacre. But, despite Kadyrov’s dark record, at that time, a World Cup-2018 training site was opened in Chechnya and Kadyrov boasted with a photo he took with a star player from Egypt national team Mohamed Salah, even making him an honorary citizen. The journalist John Leicester has described this old trick as such: ‘Using the appeal of sports, especially football, to make themselves and their regimes look good is one of the oldest tricks in the despots’ handbook.’

All in all, in 2018 all countries, whose national teams participated in the most prestigious football tournament, silently ‘boycotted’ the fact that it was taking place in Russia, despite Ukraine’s territorial integrity violation. The ‘hard’ power of the use of force was louder and stronger than the ‘soft’ power of football, having taken each international actor by surprise. No one could have probably imagined what was on the horizon in a couple of years.

Ukrainian Football After the 24 February 

This bloodiest conflict since the Second World War in the heart of Europe has severely destroyed not only Ukrainian sports infrastructure or FIFA/UEFA’s appeasement schemes, but the lives of all Ukrainian football players, particularly the woman in the sport. 

Photos: Official accounts of the UAF Women’s Football. This is what the stadium ‘Sonyachny’ (‘Sunny’) in Kharkiv looks like after the arrival of the ‘Russian world.’ Until the beginning of the war, the stadium was the home arena of the women’s football club ‘Zhytlobud-2’ and the training base of the national team of Ukraine. In 2020, the final of the Ukrainian Football Cup among women’s clubs also took place at this stadium.

In fact, mostly all of them were forced to leave their homes and are now scattered all over the world. FIFA has slightly amended its policies, giving an opportunity for all Ukrainian players to sign international contracts outside of the usual transfer window.

Unfortunately, the fate of some players of the ‘Mariupol’ FCW is still unknown. 

Ukrainian football clubs have organised, and will do so in the future, charity football matches to raise funds for resolving humanitarian issues caused by Russian atrocities, and supporting the needs of the Ukrainian defenders. 

Some Ukrainian male and female footballer players put their T-shirts up for auction, football clubs across the globe continue to show their solidarity with Ukraine by demonstrating Ukrainian flags or posters with appeals for peace. Moreover, the inscription ‘PEACE’ with olive branches is on the ball for the 2022 UEFA Champions League final and will be auctioned to help Ukrainian refugees. The UEFA Foundation  provides an emergency fund of 100,000 euros to assist children and refugees in Moldova.

Most Ukrainian female football players joined the Women’s Battalion team to raise funds for the needs of the Ukrainian army. The legend of Ukrainian football Andriy Shevchenko has become the first ambassador of the brand ‘UNITED24’ to tell international partners about Russian atrocities and mobilise the world community to support Ukraine more.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Andriy Shevchenko Source: (CC BY 4.0)

All Ukrainian football players’  lives and hopes have been shattered overnight and now they are fighting for their country at foreign football stadiums, having turned into powerful ‘football diplomats’ for peace and democratic values in Ukraine. 

Published as part of our own Future of Ukraine Fellowship. Read more about the project here and consider contributing here.

Cover Photo: Personal archive of Natiia Pantsulaia

Christine Karelska

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Christine Karelska is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. She is also an alumna of the College of Europe in Natolin and the Democracy Study Centre in Kyiv. Her main specialization is the European Neighborhood Policy. Christine was an intern-analyst of the Public Association “Community Associations” in Odesa. Her main academic spheres of interest are security studies, international relations, gender equality and local governance. Currently, she is working as an Advisor on International Relations of the Vice Mayor of Odesa and as an Assistant to the Deputy of the Odesa City Council. Previously, she worked as a Project Manager of the Ze!Women movement aimed at gender equality and promotion of the First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska’s projects in the Odesa region.


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