Six months ago, Yuriy Vernydub was partying at the Bernabeu. His team Sheriff Tiraspol had just produced one of the great shocks of the Champions League, beating Real Madrid 2-1. It was a seismic result for the Moldovan league winners, who hail from Transnistria, a breakaway republic under heavy Russian influence. A triumph against the 13-time European champions was hard to believe for a side that went through four qualifying rounds to reach the group stage and did so on an annual budget of around £5m.
Just over a week ago, on Thursday February 24, having finally finished third in their Champions League group, Sheriff found himself in Portugal for a Europa League knockout tie. Ukrainian Vernydub and his players had arrived in Braga on Wednesday to prepare for the game and he had gone to bed hoping for a good night’s sleep as they prepared to defend a 2-1 lead at first leg.
Then, in the early hours of Thursday morning, the 56-year-old’s life would change forever.
My son called me at 4:30 in the morning and told me that the Russians had attacked us. I knew then that I would return to Ukraine to fight.
We returned home and landed in Iasi, Romania. I then went by bus to Tiraspol, Transnistria with the rest of the team on Friday evening and left for Ukraine on Saturday morning first thing in the morning. I signed up on Sunday. It took 11 hours from Tiraspol to my home in Ukraine, via Odessa, then Kirovgrad, Kryvyy Rih then Zaporoje, but I can’t say it was difficult.
I do not want to lie to you. On returning home, I saw many strong men leaving the country. If they come back, I will be happy. I understand that they left with their families for Moldova, Romania, etc. Many men left from our region… men from Kharkov, Zaporozhe, Lugansk, Donetsk. I understood at that moment that I could not do the same thing. I told myself that as soon as I got home, I would go and register.
My relatives tried to stop me. My wife, my children, my grandchildren. I stayed strong and I thank my wife for supporting me. She knows my character. If I make a decision, I won’t change it.
We could have gone to Moldova and this option is always open for my children, for their wives, for my grandchildren. But me and my wife – we stay here for sure.
At the moment, I think I’m not very far from the conflict. The hardest battles are probably 120 km from where we are. But I’ve made my decision so it’s fine. I am not afraid.
I was in the army when I was young – it was mandatory to do it for two years. But it was in an athletic unit. For two months, we were taught the theory and then we learned to handle a weapon. But that was so long ago. I can’t say that I have trouble using firearms, I know how to use them.
The collective around me is crazy. In a good way, of course. It’s really cool that I’m part of such a team. There are different characters here. But they are united, friendly and very motivated. Everything is shared between us. From this point of view, everything is fine. It’s also nice that many wanted to take pictures with me.
I met a nephew here, but in general I don’t know who is here and who is not. My brother is over 60. My youngest son can’t fight because of his health. My eldest son is not here because I insisted that he stay home – he has two young children. If he will be needed, he will surely come, I have no doubt.
I’m not allowed to divulge my role in the military. Now we are educated. Every minute we are ready to go where they tell us. I haven’t used my weapon yet but I’m ready, always. Anytime.
I can not understand [Russia president Vladimir] Putin and his entourage. And I can’t understand the Russians who are not against him. I understand that many Russian citizens do not realize what is happening. In Russia, things are presented quite differently than they are. They say they are releasing us. But of what ? They said we were fascists, Nazis… I can’t even find my words to describe what they are doing. They attack the homes of civilians, but say only that they hit the military infrastructure. They lie.
I have no doubt in my mind that Ukraine will win this war. I can’t think of anything else. I’m sure. I saw this tragedy unite us as a nation.
I have total respect for [Ukraine president] Volodymyr Zelensky. It doesn’t matter what they say about him. I voted for him. People called him a clown, but he showed he was a real leader.
He is honest. He made mistakes too, but it’s normal for everyone to make them. I can imagine how difficult it is to run a country. I have no doubt that he is a good man. We have a president who will do the right thing. I believe in him.
I think peace will only come when we win. I think Russia’s demands are unattainable. We will not withdraw. There is a need for dialogue, but we will not satisfy their ultimatums. We see negotiations taking place and I hope they have enough intelligence to stop this war. First of all, I hope children and women don’t die anymore. This is the most important thing.
I would like to thank the rest of Europe for its support. Many children and women left for other countries. I thank these countries for that. I thank everyone for their support. I know they face a difficult choice themselves. I think they realize that right now Ukraine is the shield of the whole continent.
I still think about football all the time. Football is my life. Since I was a child, I started playing there, I was a professional player, then I became a coach. I am sure that I will continue to be a manager and that I will win trophies.
When we beat Real Madrid, I couldn’t imagine that. I started having doubts at the beginning of February. That’s when the news escalated about it. On February 14, I started to worry. Players kept asking me why I’m so sad all the time. Did something happen to me? I kept saying everything was fine, but soon something will be. They kept saying no, but I felt something.
Some of the sheriff’s boys called me and I got voicemails. They asked how my family was doing, how my children were doing. On March 1, Sheriff played in the league against a rival and they won. I appreciate that. Some coaches also sent me words of encouragement.
Thinking about football motivates me. Football is my life. I hope this war will not last long. We will win and I will return to my beloved job.
Additional reporting by Dumitru Garcaliuc