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West Ham’s Ukrainian hero

West Ham’s Ukrainian hero

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Andriy Yarmolenko was given compassionate leave when his home country of Ukraine was invaded by Russia. Now, he’s led West Ham to an historic European quarter-final.

Two weeks ago, as missiles continued to rain down on the city of Chernihiv in Northern Ukraine, its football stadium was hit. 

The home of FC Desna Chernihiv – now reduced to ruin.

Desna was the first professional club that West Ham forward Andriy Yarmolenko played for, before moving to Dynamo Kiev in 2007. 

He’s a hero in Ukraine, having played over 100 times for the national team.

But as the invasion of Ukraine unfolded, his family were forced to flee their home, whilst he was still in England, playing for the Hammers. 

He was given compassionate leave by manager David Moyes, and according to his national team manager, Andriy Shevchenko, flew to Poland to rescue his family.

He returned to England, having missed two games.

He was brought on as a substitute in West Ham’s next match against Aston Villa, and with the game at nil-nil, this happened…

“Benrahma… curled the ball into Yarmolenko! What an emotional moment for the Ukrainian…” 

Sky Sports

West Ham went on to win the game 2-1. 

Andriy Yarmolenko has had a patchy season – he hasn’t actually started a game in the Premier League for the Hammers this campaign, and the 38 minutes he played against Aston Villa was the most he’s played in any league game this season.

So to have arrived back after compassionate leave and perform in such a way was nothing short of remarkable. 

In a post-match interview, you could tell how much it meant to him.

“You know, it was so emotional for me, because you know the situation in my country, and it’s so difficult for me right now, thinking about football, because every day in my country, Russian army is killing Ukrainian people, and it was so emotional.”

Sky Sports Football

In these moments, football is of course secondary.

But it also has this incredible habit of throwing up narratives and storylines that leaves you shaking your head in disbelief.

Last Thursday, West Ham faced Sevilla in the second leg of their Europa League round of 16 match.

It’s important to remember that Sevilla are the current holders, and have won the competition six times in the past 15 years – the Europa League is Sevilla’s thing

West Ham were trailing 1-0 from the first leg, but got a goal back to take the tie into extra time.

And, I think you know where I’m going with this – in the 112th minute, this happened…

“They’ve got it out to Fornals, let’s go with the shot, and there is Yarmolenko! Can you believe this? The Ukrainian, with the goal which may take West Ham to the quarter-finals. Who is writing this script?”

BT Sport

Like the goal against Aston Villa, it was an emotional moment for Andriy Yarmolenko. 

There’s a beautiful moment as the players celebrate that also sticks out – Andriy Yarmolenko’s teammate Tomas Soucek goes to celebrate with him with his hands on his head.

There’s a sense that even he couldn’t believe what was happening in front of his eyes. 

It was a view echoed by another team-mate, Michail Antonio, after the match. 

“Yarma’s such a lovely guy and what he’s going through right now… I couldn’t imagine. But it seems like it’s coming down to that touch, he’s got that finishing touch right now and I’m so happy for him.”  

Michail Antonio

Andriy Yarmolenko’s goal secured West Ham’s first quarter-final appearance in a European competition since 1981. 

It was an historic night in East London, made possible by a footballer dealing with the trauma of seeing his country relentlessly bombed by Russian forces.

Today’s story was written by Andrew Butler, and produced by Claudia Williams.