Former Ukraine striker Sergei Rebrov, now coaching in Dubai, is ‘not thinking about football’
The club team he manages are three games away from winning their domestic title. The national team, the one he played for with pride 75 times, played for at the World Cup finals, are two games away from another World Cup finals.
But that’s in normal times and these are not normal times for Ukrainians. Former striker Sergei Rebrov, now based in Dubai where he’s coach of the Al Ain club, is happy to take a call from a journalist from Ireland. “I’ve spoken to media from Poland, Greece, the Czech Republic and now you in Ireland, I want the world to know what’s going on,” he says by phone from his UAE base.
“But I cannot talk about football. Of course, we are not even thinking about football now, we are thinking about protecting our country. I am very proud of the people, the soldiers who are trying to save our country. We are on the right side, but we have to fight for our freedom.”
He has a job to do, with club side Al Ain. They had a game yesterday, they play again next Tuesday and Saturday, then their season is over. And Rebrov will go back home. To fight.
“I have a job here but as soon as my season is over, I will be back home, with my people. As soon as I can, I will go,” he says.
“I will fight. Everyone is going into the streets, we are united as a people. The world is asking how Ukrainians can protect their people. It’s because people will go in the streets and fight, everyone is united, we know what we have to do.”
Does that mean he will take a weapon? “Of course I will take a gun in my hand,” he says.
“We will survive. We will win. I see no compromise as there is no compromise with Putin, he only wants to go to Kviv and show he has occupied our country, he has no interest in compromise, we will fight for our people and stay to the end. We are now fighting for our country, we want to decide our fate, not have other people run our country or tell us what to do in the future.”
This phase of Russia’s aggression against his country is new and is at an unprecedented level of brutality and destruction, but conflict is not new to Rebrov. He was born, in 1974, in a city called Horlivka in what was then the Soviet Union, later part of an independent Ukraine from 1991, but which was taken by Russian-backed forces and claimed for the so-called DNR (Donetsk People’s Republic) in 2014.
“Trouble started there in 2014 and now there’s nothing there, it’s the territory of the DNR. But we are fighting not just for places like Horlivka but for all of Ukraine, Russians took it in 2014 and we are still waiting, it’s under DNR control for eight years,” he says. “My parents are now in Kyiv but I could not go back to see my grandparents’ home, not for a long time.”
His parents moved to what they thought was the safety of Kyiv some time ago but they remain under threat. “My mother and father have been underground in Kyiv for three days. My parents are quite old, they don’t want to move, they just go underground when it’s time, but it’s impossible for them to move from Kyiv, at their age it would be too difficult to move them,” he says.
“But you see Kharkhiv, the whole city underground for seven days. I am in Dubai where life is calm. Kharkiv is a university city, it used to be calm, a nice life there, we had a lot of students who go from the UAE to Kharkiv, and now the city is destroyed. We all worry, it’s not just about Kyiv.”
Now 47, Rebrov finds it hard to believe how his country has found itself being destroyed. Language, culture, history and identity are driving the mindset of Vladimir Putin and then drove his tanks onto Ukrainian soil, vowing to protect Russian-speakers in Ukraine who had been, Putin claims, discriminated against, punished and terrorised.
In his home city, two decades ago there was an even split between ethnicity, as 51pc of the population defined themselves as Ukrainian (44pc claimed to be Russian) but 85pc of the city said Russian was their language. Rebrov is keen to stress the point about language.
“Russian propaganda is unbelievable, they try to explain that they are ‘saving’ us. I know this is not Russia, this is one person who is trying to destroy his neighbour country, Putin. But the problem is the propaganda and it’s difficult for the Russian people to change their minds,” he says.
“I only speak Russian, but I am Ukrainian. No one ever said anything stupid to you if you spoke Russian, I know that, I spoke Russian but I was living in Ukraine. This is the lie that Putin uses to get his war. I understand Ukrainian, I can speak it, but most of my life I speak Russian.
“This is why I wanted to talk to you in Ireland, people need to know that this region was always Russian-speaking but everyone respected that. And they made this war because of people who spoke Russian, they said that Nazis were doing terrible things to them. It’s lies. Complete lies.
“Putin can say what he wants but this is our country, Ukrainians will decide what we do in our country, we can decide what language we speak, I can’t understand why Putin says he is protecting people.”
Carrying on something like a normal life in Dubai is difficult when fellow countrymen are dying. “I spend a lot of time on the phone, I call my family every few hours, everyone is always on the phone to see the news,” Rebrov says, as he has had support from people at his club.
“It’s not easy and I explained to my players from the first day of the war that they had to help me, that my mind was with the people of my country, and they understood, we have played three matches in the wartime and it’s not easy.
“When I am here I am always with the Ukrainian flag, when I speak at my press conference here I try to explain to people what is going on in Ukraine, to show people the truth. And us Ukrainians who are away from our country, that is our duty, to explain to people in other countries what is real as people here don’t understand.
“We worry for Kviv. I saw a video today of a journalist reporting when a rocket flashed beside him. This is Kyiv, one of the great cities of Europe. We need help, we need to close the air space, Putin is trying to destroy all of Ukraine from the air. This is not a ‘military operation’ this is real war on our country.”
Possible sanctions on Roman Abramovich will make little immediate difference but Rebrov welcomes moves within football. Ukrainians will not forget that the impetus to kick Russia out of the World Cup play-offs later this month came not from UEFA’s decision-makers but from Poland (who were due to play Russia in a play-off), Polish players saying they would simply refuse to play against Russia if a game went ahead, and Ukrainains really appreciate that, early on in the war, Robert Lewandowski wore the Ukraine colours as his armband while captain of Bayern Munich.
Rebrov, who played in England with Spurs and West Ham and who has coached in Hungary, also says the decision by German coaches, like ex-Norwich boss Daniel Farke, to leave their jobs in Russia was greeted warmly, while foreign players in Russia are desperate to flee.
“People from football are very popular and if they are doing real things, it helps. They are showing an example, I was glad to see people like Farke leave Russia, to move from the country that is the aggressor.
"The propaganda from Russia is terrible, Russian people are told Putin is right so to see those guys leave, like Krasnodar (Farke) and the Lokomotiv Moscow coach, it’s a positive for us.”
Support from abroad is appreciated. “Europe is helping up with taking our people, sending money, sending weapons,” he says.
“Ireland has been good to us, you might think it’s small to take in our women and children but it’s big for us, we have lost a million people and it’s hard to find a place for them all, they leave without money, without tickets, so for Ireland to take our people is good.
“We are happy with the people in Europe who reacted quickly, but first we have to stop the war, everything else is secondary.
"Support from Europe, countries like Ireland opening your borders shows we are not alone, but it’s important that people understand this, Ukrainian people are not just fighting for our freedom, but for all of Europe.
“We are not protecting Ukraine, we are protecting all of Europe. If Europe will not wake up now and give us real help, we don’t know what will happen in the future. I am sure we will finish the war and win the war, but we need support.”