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Shakhtar Donetsk judge who died fighting for Ukraine


“Away from Home” is a six-part podcast series that follows the tragedy and triumph of Shakhtar Donetsk’s Champions League odyssey as Russia wages war in Ukraine.

You can listen to the series for free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Listen to the series here and subscribe to the stream so as not to miss an episode when it drops. Episodes 1-3 of the series were released last week and Episodes 4-6 are now live. The interview below is a written excerpt from an interview featured in the series.

As a little boy, Vitaliy Sapylo lived a life of simple innocence. In the words of his mother, Maryana, he was a “joyful child”.

Vitaliy spent time with his friends, he loved his football, and father-son bonding trips took the family to local lakes, where they went fishing together. “This time it was sacred,” smiles Maryana.

Speaking from her family home, located just outside the city of Lviv in the far west of Ukraine, Maryana takes refuge in nostalgia for her son’s childhood. But while Vitaliy will always be her baby boy, Maryana chose to do this interview because she wants the world to know Vitaliy the man, Vitaliy the soldier, Vitaliy the hero of Ukraine.

Vitaliy started playing football at the age of nine and he had a knack for it – he stood out as a young teenager in a local sports-oriented school team. He performed well enough to catch the eye of young scouts at Ukrainian football club Shakhtar Donetsk, the eastern-based side that have won 12 of the last 16 Ukrainian top-flight titles. At Shakhtar, he made a strong impression playing as a central defender. He was noted to be quick, strong in the tackle and dominant in the air, although not the tallest. But the competition was high.

Vitaliy, in the foreground of this photo holding a bottle of Coca-Cola, was the captain of his youth team

“He was a little deflated,” his mother says of her son’s experience. “But later, when about six months passed, he was invited to FC Lviv.”

As a teenager, his mother foresaw a future for Vitaliy in football. He planned to attend a specific sports school when he turned 16, with the paperwork about to be formalized.

But about five years ago, the direction of his life changed in a fatal way.

“One day he came home and said, ‘I want to join the army. We tried to discourage him. I said, ‘How can you change your mind so strongly?’ He said, ‘No, now is the time for me to go, to serve.’ He chose this path for himself.

Vitaliy, like so many others across Ukraine, had sensed the growing threat to his country’s freedom and security after Russian forces annexed Crimea and made inroads into the Donbass region in 2014.

Almost immediately after signing up for military training, Vitaliy made his ambitions clear. He told his parents he wanted to command a tank. Maryana sends photos of her son in military uniform. His boyish features are immediately striking, a baby face living the most adult life.

Vitaliy, left, with his mother Maryana and younger brother Yuri

In 2021, as intelligence services warned of Russian intentions, the training of Ukrainian troops intensified. Maryana explains how, from August, he spent time at military training schools in the northwest of the country in Rivne. At the age of 21, Maryana says her son served as a commander in her unit.

“He said to me, ‘Mom, they’re preparing us, because right now it’s a difficult time’.”

At the turn of 2022, Vitaliy returned home for a week during the winter break. “After that,” Maryana said, “He wasn’t released.”

She would never see her son again in person.

At 4:30 a.m. on February 24, Maryana woke up with a start. His phone started ringing, as messages arrived from friends in Kyiv. Russian President Vladimir Putin had launched his “special operation”, which meant a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

As Maryana scrolled through her phone, she saw a text message from Vitaliy, which landed shortly before midnight after she had fallen asleep.

“He was like, ‘Mom, I really love you,'” she recalled. And then another one came, who said, “Together with my younger brother, I will talk to him too, so that he will always be polite and listen to you.”

During a Zoom call, Maryana is visibly distressed. She sobs while reading the text messages. But she insists she wants to continue.

“At first, I didn’t understand why he was writing this to me. But our friends started sending us messages telling us that in Kyiv there were explosions. So I understood that some kind of situation was happening with us, which was not supposed to happen.

“At 11 a.m. the next morning, he made contact. He said, ‘Mom, don’t worry, we’re fine. We hold the defense, we are left in Rivne, we will start from the Belarusian border (rather than from Kyiv)”. As a result, it became a bit easier for me (mentally), because we realized that maybe it wasn’t as critical there, from that position.

But as Ukraine fought for its existence, more support was needed in Kyiv.

“The next evening, at 7 p.m., he got back in touch and said, ‘Mom, don’t worry, but we’re an hour away from Kyiv.’ I wondered how and why. He said, ‘With tanks we are going. In Kyiv there are problems and all our units have been diverted to Kyiv. At 7 p.m. I still had contact with him, the 24th.”

This was warfare in the modern age, where military loved ones can, in some ways, keep a constant eye on the well-being of their loved ones. They check messaging services, they see when their child, partner or sibling last went online or posted on social media. On some occasions, this triggers relief. At other times, it should only bring fear and paranoia. Vitaliy, proud of his role in repelling the Russians, provided an update.

Maryana continues: “On February 25, around 10 am, he managed to call me and he seemed so happy. He said, ‘Mom, you can’t imagine. We fought off a group of tanks coming right at us, in groups, but we took care of them. We crushed them all. They (the Russians) destroyed a village here and destroyed houses. It was a calamity, but we faced it. It’s fine, don’t worry.

He told his mother that in the evening they would return to the Rivne base, as their tanks needed repairs. He said he would call back in the evening, to confirm his safe return.

Maryana stops, dabbing her eyes. “But he wasn’t getting in touch at the time. At first I didn’t understand why.

She waited by the phone, a call, a message, anything to tell her that her little boy was still alive.

“On the morning of the 26th, around 7 am – we can’t sleep, because Vitaliy doesn’t communicate – I called one of the mechanics (in Rivne) on the phone. The guy picked up the phone and remained silent. He was also injured, he had a concussion, he couldn’t hear me well. He said to me, “I don’t know how to tell you, but our vitality is gone.”

The phone line is silent. Maryana, her husband and her youngest son started crying.

By the end of August alone, the Ukrainian armed forces had confirmed that almost 9,000 servicemen had been lost in the war effort. Those deprived of loved ones try to accept these losses with stoic patriotism, acknowledging the larger cause. In Vitaliy’s case, the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, later bestowed on him the title “Hero of Ukraine.” But even a national hero remains a mother’s son, a 21-year-old who had so much to give, so much to live.

Maryana then received a full account of her son’s death. On the return trip to the Rivne military base, Vitaliy’s unit traveled in two separate tanks and they were hit by an air attack nearby. Two of the six people traveling died.

Maryana searches for the right words. “I’m sorry, it’s a bit difficult for me,” she said. “We work, we try to live. Thank God I have work to do, which is a bit distracting. But, at the moment, we face great difficulties.

His footballing roots in Ukraine mean the Ukrainian equivalent of the Association of Professional Footballers (a footballers’ union) has helped the family, while FIFPro, the global union for professional footballers, has sent condolences.

Maryana has, at least, found her child.

“Our child has been returned to us. Their section commander contacted us. He found the keys, the phone of (Vitaliy) and as such the child was handed over to us and brought home. We buried him with dignity. There were threads, they say, where there was nothing left (of their bodies) to bury. Ours was at least whole.

Vitaliy, left, was killed by an airstrike while traveling in a tank

For Maryana, the pain does not subside. Neither does resentment towards Putin’s forces.

“For them, justice simply does not exist,” she says sternly. “Let us just be in our homes and not bother each other – just let us live our lives. What punishment for them? I think God will punish them. As long as we can, we will continue to hold on — we will hold out until the end, because how many of these children are dead, how many people? All this should not be wasted.