Missiles have landed near our training ground… if the Russians come, everyone will forget football and fight to the end


Just over a month ago, Maksym Bilyi’s biggest concern was how he and his Rukh Lviv teammates were going to fare in the second half of the season.

They had no hope of nabbing top two Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv, but a successful mid-season break in Turkey filled them with assurances of a solid mid-table place in the Premier League. Ukrainian.


Rukh Kviv owner Grigory Kozlovsky wanted his team to win the Champions League – now the focus is on staying aliveCredit: Chris Eades
Ukraine's Premier League side have some of the best football facilities in the country


Ukraine’s Premier League side have some of the best football facilities in the countryCredit: Chris Eades

Now centre-half Bilyi spends his time wondering not if but when he will go to the front line in his country’s war with Russia.

The shocking speed at which Ukraine has been devastated is best illustrated by how the lives of every person at a top club have been turned upside down.

Rukh Lviv are a rising team with the newest and best training facilities in the country, according to the staff who proudly proclaim: “Even better than Shakhtar’s!”

Driven by the wealth and ambition of a local millionaire businessman, Rukh was promoted to the top flight penultimate season.

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They aim to establish themselves as a leading force, but owner Grigory Kozlovsky’s ambitions go even further.

As well as clinching the Champions League, his dream is that one day all of a Ukraine international’s starting line-up will come from the club’s new youth academy.

But those dreams are for the future, because everyone from the hostess to the landlord cares only about the daily, bloody reality of war.

Kozlovsky has evacuated his family, the press officer is spending his days manning a village checkpoint, and catering workers are feeding 700 refugees at the club’s stadium.

Some personnel have joined army units and even players are considering joining.

Bilyi, 31, a top-flight player for 13 years including two seasons at Hajduk Split in Croatia, said: “No player from our club has gone to the front line yet. But we will.

“If the Russian soldiers come here, we will take up arms.

“No one thinks about football anymore. Before, we thought about it all the time and we trained a lot always thinking about the next game.

“Football has dominated our lives but now it doesn’t seem important.

“Before we cared about winning games, now we just care about being alive.

“We went to Turkey for our mid-season break which was good. We had good results and all the players were in great shape.

“The fans were looking forward to the games and the staff were busy preparing and selling tickets for the first game.

“But, just before it was due, the war started.”


His teammate, Bohdan Boychuk, feared for his parents after they were trapped in Kherson, the first major city to fall to invading troops.

Kherson is now under Russian control as desperate residents face a daily battle for food.

Boychuk, 25, says: “There is a real shortage. People can only get one item per day, like a loaf of bread.

“They are very scared but at least the shooting has stopped and luckily I can still call them. I call them every day.”

When asked if he would take up arms to defend his parents – and his country – when needed, Boychuk is as determined as his teammate Bilyi. Without hesitation, he said, “Yes, of course.

Press officer Bogdan Tymovchuk, 37, spent his days coordinating matchday media coverage.

He was also busy preparing for the inauguration of the training facilities – nine pitches and state-of-the-art sports facilities surrounded by commercial developments to boost revenue, including a hotel and a ski slope.

A lavish ceremony scheduled for May was scrapped, as were matchday press conferences.

Instead, he is one of thousands manning village checkpoints that have sprung up across the country in scenes reminiscent of World War II.

Tymovchuk said: “Our concern was whether the players were fit and whether we were going to win three points. Now we worry about the war.

If war comes to Lviv, we will all fight, including players

Grigori Kozlovsky

“Our Instagram account would be full of player posts. Now it’s about organizing volunteers to help the refugees and the military.

As the club’s owner, Tymovchuk sent his pregnant wife and their three-year-old son abroad out of harm’s way.

He said: “I’m happy she’s safe, but I know she’s going to be worried because there may come a time when I have to fight.”

Kozlovsky – called Mr. President by club staff – occupies an office on the top floor of the training center with a balcony that overlooks the pitch where the first team would train in peacetime.

Dressed in a yellow training top which, in football lore, bears his initials GK, he bursts out laughing when it is pointed out to him that they also represent the goalkeeper.

He is proud of his own career as a goalkeeper despite never reaching the top level.

It’s a rare moment of levity as the conversation returns to the war.

He said: “If war comes to Lviv, we will all fight, including the players.

“Everyone will grab a gun. We will fight until the end. Putin will regret ever invading.


Days after our conversation, war did indeed come to Lviv when four cruise missiles each carrying a 400kg conventional warhead slammed into the city’s airport a few miles from the training ground.

The front line that would involve players taking up arms may not have reached western Ukraine yet, but Lviv still looks like a city at war.

Downstairs in the deserted canteen, center half Bilyi speaks with an admirable modesty that not all footballers are lucky enough to have.

He recognizes how fan hero worship no longer matters and that he and his teammates are no different to others in a country of 44 million heroes.

He said: “Footballers are heroes all over the world because they score goals and win games. But this is no longer the case in Ukraine.

“We are no longer the heroes. Soldiers are the heroes and ordinary people who help refugees and volunteer for the army.

“We are like everyone else. We help the refugees and we will take a weapon if necessary.

“We stand in solidarity with all our fans and everyone in Ukraine. We are all the same.”

The city of Lviv has been attacked by Russian missiles as the war continues


The city of Lviv has been attacked by Russian missiles as the war continuesCredit: AFP

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