Roberto De Zerbi and the war in Ukraine

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The Albions have named their fair share of characters with interesting backstories as managers in the past. However, none arrived after being in a war zone six months earlier – and initially refusing to leave – as new Brighton boss Roberto De Zerbi was in Ukraine.

De Zerbi was halfway through his first season in charge of Shakhtar Donetsk, a Ukrainian Super Cup in the bag and top of the Premier League when Vladimir Putin launched the Russian invasion of the country.

Shakhtar was first affected by Putin’s megalomania as early as 2014, when Russia occupied the Donbass region. Since then, they have lived a nomadic existence in three different Ukrainian cities.

Between 2014 and 2016, Shakhtar played in Lviv. They moved to Kharkiv between 2017 and 2020. By the time De Zerbi arrived in May 2021, Shakhtar were playing at home in Kyiv.

Putin’s illegal war has drawn blood in the capital. As Russian forces moved towards Kyiv, hundreds of thousands of people began fleeing west in an attempt to get out of the country.

With commercial flights grounded almost immediately, it fell to UEFA and individual football associations to evacuate their players from Ukraine. A difficult task given all the uncertainties and chaos that entails.

When the invasion began, De Zerbi and his Shakhtar team were taken to a hotel in Kyiv with a bomb shelter. There, Roberto De Zerbi and his coaching staff were among the first to be offered a departure from Ukraine to return to his native Italy.

De Zerbi said no. He would not leave the country until all of his international players, their partners and their children were safely evacuated.

Staying in an active war zone in a city under bombardment is leadership on a different level. And it pokes fun at those pundits who wonder if De Zerbi can handle the pressure from the English Premier League.

If he was okay staying in Kyiv under threat of being bombed, then he’ll probably be fine with a Tuesday night trip to Nottingham Forest.

Inside the hotel, most players slept in the air-raid shelter. De Zerbi, however, spent his time alternating between a bunker and a hotel room.

Speaking to Italian radio station Radio 105, De Zerbi said: “I slept in the room to understand what was happening outside the hotel, when I heard a roar enter the bunker. Then I would go back to my room after a few hours.

For three days, De Zerbi and his coaching staff took refuge in the hotel. Three days spent hoping that the building would not be hit by Russian artillery. Three days hoping that the Russian army does not enter Kyiv.

“I’m here to play sports and I couldn’t turn my back on the fans,” said De Zerbi Sportitalia the first day of the war. “There are 13 Brazilian players here and my staff. We could have gone home, but we preferred to wait. Last night we woke up to the sound of explosions.

“There are no heroes here, but our work places us in front of responsibilities. We were supposed to play on Saturday, so I couldn’t run away.

De Zerbi had a second chance to escape once some of his players started being evacuated to Romania via coach and train. Again he said no. He wouldn’t go anywhere until everyone was safe outside of Ukraine.

After two and a half days at the hotel, the Brazilian Shakhtar contingent and their terrified families were the last to leave.

A few hours later, Roberto De Zerbi and his coaching staff received a call saying that they too could now be evacuated from Ukraine. They took it, beginning their own arduous journey to Italy.

They walked to a nearby train station in Kyiv, risking encountering Russian saboteurs. After an hour of waiting, they boarded a nine-hour train for Lviv.

Two slowly progressing bus rides in the snow and De Zerbi and co reached the Hungarian border, about 20 hours after leaving Kyiv.

It took another hour to get to Hungary, followed by another three hours by bus to Budapest. From there, Shakhtar’s coaching staff flew to Milan Bergamo airport.

De Zerbi’s first act upon arriving in Italy was to deliver a message to the Ukrainian people via Sky Italia: “We are at home, we are happy because we have returned to our families, but we will only be truly happy when the people of Ukraine is free.

“We are truly sorry for the people of Ukraine, who teach Western countries a huge lesson in terms of pride, dignity and a sense of belonging.”

Shakhtar’s Ukrainian players stayed put, ready to defend their country against invaders. “I think of the players,” De Zerbi said later.

“The Brazilians were safe but the Ukrainians were at home ready to fight. The Ukrainians surprised everyone with their resistance. The Russians underestimated the spirit of these people.

De Zerbi’s Shakhtar story wasn’t quite over. The players and manager have been reunited for the Global Tour for Peace, playing friendlies in Greece, Turkey, Poland and Croatia throughout April.

We know that when Tony Bloom appoints managers, he is looking for good personalities as well as talented football coaches. With Roberto De Zerbi, Brighton have found themselves one of the best if their actions in Ukraine are up to par.

There is more evidence to back up his character. De Zerbi has been in demand since becoming a free agent. Juventus fans seem particularly irritated that the Old Lady didn’t sack Massimiliano Allegri and replace him with De Zerbi when they had the chance.

Bologna was a party whose interest was concrete. They offered De Zerbi the chance to succeed Sinisa Mihajlovic, who was battling leukemia for the second time in three years.

“I would love to, but I can’t do it after Sinisa. Money can’t buy everything,” De Zerbi reportedly told Bologna when turning down the job because he didn’t want to replace Mihajlovic in the circumstances.

Brighton get a class act as 36th manager.

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