The unprovoked invasion of sovereign territory is a war crime of the very highest order. But while politicians weigh up the implications, a human tragedy is unfolding in the most graphic way. Our hearts poured for Ukraine as they bravely fought to repel Russian forces, and our own Andriy Yarmolenko was caught in the eye of the storm.
He was immediately given compassionate leave when hostilities broke out. Yarmo was born in Russia to Ukrainian parents but the family returned home when the Soviet bloc collapsed. They settled in Chernihiv which has been badly hit by the invasion. His immediate family are now safely in England after securing safe passage via Poland.
One can only imagine the agony he must have endured as the country’s very existence came under threat. We assume that football is meaningless in such troubled times. But again the sport becomes a reference point, a rallying call and symbol of hope. Yarmo and his fellow countrymen still found time to train and play as war raged.
He returned in time for the home game against Aston Villa. Coming on as a 52nd minute substitute he delivered the perfect riposte. With 20 minutes to go Yarmo struck a sublime volley that set us on the road to victory. He sank to his knees, arms raised with tear stained eyes looking to the heavens. It’s an enduring image that will stand alone in this remarkable season.
‘…a goal for Ukraine’
Players mobbed their teammate more in support than celebration. The stadium announcer roared with some justification ‘a goal for West Ham and a goal for Ukraine’. It was proof that a goal sometimes means more than a fleeting moment of elation. It becomes a statement of intent; a declaration that we are not beaten and we can win.
The ability to focus on the task in hand is a rare quality but Yarmo had it in spades as he explained afterwards: ‘I was just thinking about my family and my people. I just tried to give everything on the pitch’. The team spirit was further reinforced as Lucasz Fabianski helped with his family’s safe passage. People pull together in the darkest of times and the squad has never looked more together.
His story assumed a poetic dimension in the Europa League second leg against Sevilla. With both teams level on aggregate, Yarmo came on as an 88th minute substitute. With eight minutes of extra time remaining Pablo Fornals’ rasping shot could only be parried; inevitably it was Yarmo who buried the rebound. This couldn’t be scripted; a footballer rescues his family from a war zone and returns to score the winner in a vital European tie.
We look forward to a quarter final against Lyon and dream of what lies beyond. More importantly we pray that Ukraine once again enjoys the freedom we all take for granted.