On Saturday evening, the outpouring of support from the four stands at Goodison Park for the Ukrainian footballers Oleksandr Zinchenkoand Vitaliy Mykolenko brought both players to tears.
As the teams walked off at full-time, Zinchenko, the 25-year-old Manchester City defender, applauded the visitors’ section of the crowd – several of whom were waving Ukrainian flags – after a 1-0 victory over Everton, which took his side one step nearer their aim of securing the title.
In normal times on a Saturday night in the city of Lviv in western Ukraine, Oleh Luzhnyi – the country’s first footballer to win the Premier League – would sit in front of his television and watched the day’s Premier League action.
Luzhnyi is one of Ukraine’s most decorated players. It is two decades since Arsenal won a second double in the space of five years. The 2001/02 side lost only three games all season, giving a hint of what was to come a couple of years later during their Invincibles season.
Amongst their number in defence during that campaign was Luzhnyi. He won eight league titles with Dynamo Kyiv in the Soviet Union and latterly – after the declaration of independence in 1991 – Ukraine. Luzhnyi played a central role in Kyiv’s dominance of football in his homeland throughout the 1990s until he was signed by Arsene Wenger in 1999.
Luzhnyi also made 60 international appearances, captaining Ukraine 37 times. The first of his caps, for the USSR, came at the age of 20 and only injury kept him out of an appearance at the 1990 World Cup finals, which was the last tournament before the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Just two months ago during a Zoom call, Luzhnyi was speaking enthusiastically about his plans to return to England and resume a coaching career that has spanned eight years, over two spells, as assistant manager with Dynamo Kyiv.
But instead of watching the television pictures of his compatriots embracing on the pitch at Goodison Park, Luzhnyi spent much of Saturday travelling between his home and one of the city’s many makeshift air-raid shelters.
“The situation is horrific,” he tells Sky Sports via a Whatsapp message. “I want to come to coach in the UK but before anything I will stand firmly and fight for my people, for my country and for democracy.
“We all hope this will be over soon as innocent lives are being lost and families are being torn apart. A country being invaded and destroyed is all for what? We need to stand together as one and bring to an end this criminal warfare.”
As recently as a week ago, Lviv was supposedly the safe place for domestic refugees fleeing the more vulnerable capital, Kyiv. Many arrived by train and set up a temporary home with relatives or found apartments to rent. The American embassy was established in the city and it was regarded as a safe space even with the imminent threat of a Russian invasion. But over the last couple of days the air raid sirens have become more frequent and the US embassy has now moved its operations to Poland.
Since the start of the conflict with Russia, Luzhnyi has tried to maintain contact with his childhood friend, Simon Stakhiv, who lives in London. Communications are unreliable as mobile coverage has become intermittent, but Luzhnyi wants to keep the people of Ukraine in the minds of football supporters in this country.
The pair met in Lviv in the late 1980s when Luzhnyi’s career was about to take off with a move from SKA Karpaty Lviv to Dynamo Kyiv. Stakhiv moved to London for work in 1997 and, when Luzhnyi followed two years later, their friendship was revived.
“Oleh has told me that everybody is in shock and stressed by what is happening,” Stakhiv adds. “It is a scary thing to have to go to the bomb shelters and sleep overnight there. We are lucky here in England, today we had blue skies and peace but it’s a different story when you are living with sirens and war. From six o’clock in the evening until eight o’clock in the morning nobody is allowed outside apart from the army.”
Now aged 53, Luzhnyi is preparing for the prospect of becoming personally involved in the war.
“Everyone from the age of 18 to 60 can be called to fight, everyone is prepared to fight,” Stakhiv explains. “People love Oleh everywhere he goes. There are youngsters who weren’t even born when he was playing who will stop him on the street to say ‘hello’ or have a picture with him. They respect him so much and he will be a source of strength to the people in the city throughout this when they see him.”
Stakhiv speaks passionately about the plight of his childhood friend and hopes the day will come when they can talk at length about something as straightforward as football once more.
“Of course, he still supports Arsenal. We talk every week about them and he would take great strength in knowing that Arsenal fans still remember him.
“He still has ambitions to come to England. He is a legend, he captained our country, and I would love him to come back here when all this is over.”