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We meet female soccer players in Ukraine who are training during wartime

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Even with the U.S. team out of the running, record-breaking millions are watching some great soccer at the Women's World Cup right now. Meanwhile, far from that spectacle, just outside downtown Kyiv, a professional women's team is training during wartime. NPR's Jenna McLaughlin and producer Kateryna Malofieieva went to check it out.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: Young women are warming up on a beautiful green pitch, passing the ball and hyping each other up. It's perfect soccer weather, breezy, a few stray clouds, cooler temperatures after an overnight summer storm on a Saturday morning in late July. But this is Kyiv, and the country is at war. I'm here to watch a friendly match between two professional women's teams. Our host, Shakhtar FC, represents Donetsk, one of the cities close to the eastern border with Russia. But the club hasn't played there in years.

IELIZAVETA MOLODIUK: (Through interpreter) Yes, from 2014, if we talk about football, it affected traveling abroad. If we talk about life, it affected my parents financially. Now the whole family had to move to Kyiv region. They've been here for more than a year, since the moment of the invasion.

MCLAUGHLIN: For players like Ielizaveta Molodiuk, the war started a long time ago, back in 2014. But she says that playing for Shakhtar, it's always been a dream.

MOLODIUK: (Through interpreter) Because I'm myself from Donetsk region. At that time, it was a dream to play for them. That's why I joined them.

MCLAUGHLIN: Her team lives and trains in Kyiv now. It's safer here relative to the front lines in the east. But the war has left its marks on all these women. If there's a missile alert, the game will stop abruptly. For now, all is quiet except for coaches yelling on the sidelines.

UNIDENTIFIED SOCCER COACH: (Shouting in non-English language).

MCLAUGHLIN: Shakhtar FC are in orange and black. They're playing a team from Kharkiv in blue.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOCCER BALL BOUNCING, SHOUTING)

MCLAUGHLIN: Within the first 30 minutes, a tall, thin woman on Shakhtar receives the ball at her feet. She leans back and takes a difficult shot from outside the 18-yard box. The ball sails across her body, through traffic, into the top right corner of the net.

(CHEERING)

MCLAUGHLIN: Shakhtar is up a goal. Her teammates gather her up in a celebratory group hug. But what you wouldn't know is that the goal scorer lost her father just days ago. He died fighting on the front lines in the fiercely contested city of Bakhmut.

GOLOVACH VICTORIA: (Through interpreter) We stay with her, help her financially. Also, some girls who are close to her stay with her overnight. It's much better to play than to be alone by yourself.

MCLAUGHLIN: Golovach Victoria is 26 years old, the captain of Shakhtar FC. Being on a team and playing the sport they love, these women say it helps them cope with the trauma of war while also proudly representing their country.

VICTORIA: (Through interpreter) Sports in general helps to overcome stress.

KATERYNA MALOFIEIEVA, BYLINE: (Non-English language spoken).

VICTORIA: (Non-English language spoken).

MALOFIEIEVA: I asked her, did she play with you together? She said, yeah, she scored the first goal today.

MCLAUGHLIN: It was a great goal.

MALOFIEIEVA: (Non-English language spoken).

MCLAUGHLIN: Like so many young fans around the world, they're rooting for their heroes at the World Cup, like Danish star Pernille Harder, Alexia Putellas, the two-time Ballon d'Or winner from Spain, and Jessica Silva from Portugal, who played against the United States in their third match of the tournament. Silva is Oleksandra Krevska's hero. She's from the west of the country.

OLEKSANDRA KREVSKA: (Through interpreter) I would like soccer in Ukraine to develop on a professional level as fast as in Europe. I would also like to play in a professional championship among the professional teams. When I watch the FIFA championship, I see there is room to improve.

MCLAUGHLIN: Professional women's soccer is still developing in Ukraine. Only two years ago, clubs were first required to have a female squad. And there's still a lingering cultural attitude here that soccer is a boy's sport, people tell me on the sidelines. When I asked the players about their dreams for the future, they say they hope their premier league will grow to be like the European leagues, whose players are at the World Cup.

Like a lot of things here in Ukraine, dreams of progress might be delayed, but these women aren't standing still. At the end of the game, the players shake hands and return to the side of the field, huddling together. This is the last practice match before their season starts. The war drags on. Ukraine is making slow progress in its counteroffensive, reclaiming territory inch by inch. Meanwhile, these women will look for victory on the field and for strength in each other.

Jenna McLaughlin, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.