‘During air alert we train through’
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A year of war or not, football is still being played as usual in Ukraine. One Dutch trainer is active in the national league, the Premjer Liha: Patrick van Leeuwen is the coach of Zorya Luhansk, the current number four.
Last summer, the 53-year-old Van Leeuwen made the move from Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv to Ukraine, with Raymond Atteveld as assistant. To Omroep West, Van Leeuwen told about his experiences.
“At the time I was in talks with the club, the competition was going to start abroad. There was talk of Poland and Turkey,” Van Leeuwen said. But things turned out differently: president Volodymyr Zelensky decided that the league should just go ahead domestically.
“So that in that way there was some form of motivation towards all compatriots: that something positive was also happening in the country,” van Leeuwen said. “It was a message not only for Ukrainians and fans, but also to the outside world. That people and athletes, despite the war, continue to develop themselves in sport.”
Youth training Shachtar Donetsk
Between 2006 and 2013, van Leeuwen also worked in Ukraine, in the youth training of Shachtar Donetsk, Feyenoord’s upcoming opponent in the Europa League. He left just before the Russian annexation of Crimea for Kazakhstan club Kairat, where he became technical director. This was followed by a period in Israel, where things are not always peaceful either.
“There, too, football was just played on. We were right outside the area where rockets could fall every time. In Tel Aviv at that time it meant that we would train in Netanya, because then we were outside the rockets. But that was only a few weeks a year.”
In Ukraine, the situation is a lot more intense. In Luhansk, in the east of the country, fighting is so intense that football cannot be played at all. Zorya therefore plays its home matches in Kyiv, but even there it is rarely peaceful.
“All sorts of things fly over. One moment it could be missiles and the next a drone. But it could also be a plane taking off and doing some ‘orbits’ along the border. In Ukraine, then the air alert goes off immediately, because that is seen as a threat.”
Air alert sounding
During the first half of the season, the air alarm has sounded a few times during training. “Those often sound a little further away, so there is no request to stop. We just continue training, with the same enthusiasm and intensity as we normally do.”
Van Leeuwen hasn’t really felt unsafe yet. “While playing soccer, I haven’t had an incident yet to head towards the border and leave the country. In that, Raymond Atteveld and I remain fairly calm. When the moment comes that we both think something has to be done, we do it.”
Zorya Luhansk resumes competition on March 5. During the winter break, the selection stayed at training camp in Turkey at the time of the devastating earthquakes. “We were hundreds of kilometers away, but we felt it. Our hotel was shaking, but in the end no things happened to us.”
No foreign players
Despite everything, Van Leeuwen and his young selection are resuming the league with good spirits, seven points behind leaders SK Dnipro-1 and two points or Shachtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv. Almost all foreign players have left Ukraine, giving many young domestic talents a chance.
“My experience with youth was also one of the side-effects of getting started here,” said Van Leeuwen, who also spent six years at Feyenoord’s youth training program at the beginning of the century.
Van Leeuwen: “It remains a challenge to get the boys to that point and make them believe in it. In the end, everyone has the same problem: no one has good foreigners who used to raise everyone’s level. The differences are there, but the chances are there for everyone to compete. The top teams have surrendered a lot of quality.”
As for the future, Van Leeuwen is trying to stay positive despite everything: “I hope that everyone will become a little more sensible and that people in Ukraine can start thinking about rebuilding again. It doesn’t look like it, but let’s assume the positive that there is going to be a solution. The whole east is down. That was a booming industrial part with a lot of jobs. A lot of families are left without houses and apartments and have to look for something else.”