Sheriff Tiraspol coach Yuriy Vernydub pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Champions League history by beating Real Madrid — months later he is shouldering arms in defence of his native Ukraine against the Russian invasion.
The 56-year-old told the BBC he did not hesitate in returning home once his son informed him last week that Russian President Vladimir Putin had launched military action.
“My son called me at 4:30am and he told me the Russians attacked us. I knew then that I would return to Ukraine to fight,” he said.
Vernydub is one of several well-known Ukrainian sporting personalities, including world heavyweight boxing champion Oleksandr Usyk, who have returned home to fight.
Vernydub got the call while in Portugal for a Europa League play-off match — Sheriff lost on penalties to Braga after the tie finished 2-2 on aggregate.
While Sheriff play in the Moldovan league, they are from Transnistria, a pro-Russian separatist state created after a civil war following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Vernydub, who ended his playing career at Russian side Zenit Saint Petersburg, spent 11 hours travelling home to Ukraine on Saturday.
Many of his family tried to dissuade him.
“I thank my wife for supporting me,” he said.
“She knows my character. If I make a decision, I won’t change it.”
‘United us as a nation’
Vernydub says he did receive two years of military training when he was younger and said “I know how to use” firearms.
At the time of the BBC interview he was 120 kilometres from the fighting.
“I am not allowed to disclose what my role is in the army,” he said.
“Now we are being instructed. In every minute we are ready to go where they tell us to. I have not used my weapon yet but I am ready, always. Any time.”
His passion for this unexpected turn in life is clear.
“They (the Russians) said we are fascists, Nazis… I can’t even find my words to describe what they’re doing,” he said.
“They are attacking civilian homes, but only say they hit the military infrastructure. They are lying.
“I don’t have any doubt in my mind that Ukraine will win this war. I can’t think of anything else. I’m sure of that. I saw this tragedy united us as a nation.”
Vernydub says he had “total respect” for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “People were calling him a clown, but he showed he is a real leader,” he said.
Vernydub said his mind often drifted back to the evening in Madrid when Sheriff triumphed over 13-time European champions Real.
“When we beat Real Madrid, I couldn’t imagine this,” he said.
At the start of February, he became worried.
“The players kept asking me why I am so sad all the time. Did anything happen to me? I kept saying nothing’s wrong, but soon something will be.”
It is his first love football, though, that keeps Vernydub’s adrenaline pumping.
“Thinking about football motivates me,” he said.
“Football is my life. I hope this war won’t last for long. We will win and I will go back to my beloved work.”
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