“When you sleep, you forget about the dramatic moments in your life. You forget about complications and obsessions, so every morning you can start a new life with new hope.”
The words were written by the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran but they could just as well have belonged to the Dynamo Kyiv manager, Mircea Lucescu. When the first Russian bombs landed near Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities in the early hours of 24 February Lucescu was sleeping.
“I woke up in the middle of the night and thought: ‘What’s with the weather? Thunderstorms in February? I heard a huge noise and the sound was frightening,” he tells the Guardian. “In the morning, the alarm woke me up again. Then I found out what had happened. There was panic everywhere.”
That morning there was no time for people to recover their hope. Life was purely a race to survive. Russia had invaded Ukraine and instead of fresh smiles millions of people started to run, looking for an escape from the horrors of war.
At 76, Lucescu is one of the oldest managers still operating at the highest level. The Romanian wrote history in neighbouring Ukraine, spending 12 years at Shakhtar Donetsk between 2004 and 2016, then accepting an offer from arch-rivals Dynamo Kyiv in 2020. His career started back in 1979 and he has coached clubs such as Inter, Galatasaray and Besiktas as well as the Romanian and Turkish national teams.
With 36 trophies to his name, Lucescu is the second-most decorated manager in world football, behind only Sir Alex Ferguson’s 49 and still ahead of Pep Guardiola by five. But this is no time to dwell on silverware. Lucescu’s mind and heart are at war too, thinking about those he left behind when he returned to Romania a few days after the invasion took place.
“I didn’t want to leave. I only did it because I realised I could help more from Bucharest than if I was with my players in Kyiv,” he says. Together with Uefa and the Romanian and Moldovan FAs, Lucescu helped the foreign players at Dynamo and Shakhtar get home through Bucharest. “The Romanian embassy insisted I left and my club also thought I should go. But I first wanted to know what would happen to my boys in the team,” Lucescu says. Dynamo’s players knew they were not going to play at the weekend, despite reporting for training that morning. Football and all other sporting events had been put on hold after the state of emergency had been introduced nationwide.
“We thought that players would be safer in Dynamo’s training camp, which is a few kilometres outside Kyiv,” Lucescu explains. Once he got to Bucharest, he started planning to get his players’ families to safety. Players’ wives, parents and children – more than 80 people in total – were helped out of Ukraine in two buses.
“I was not overwhelmed. Someone needed to do things,” he says. “I helped how I could, I did my best in assisting. Their families are safe and the players feel encouraged by that.” Two Shakhtar players, Serhiy Kryvtsov and Taras Stepanenko, along with the Dynamo captain, Sergiy Sydorchuk, could leave Ukraine as they were fathers of three children. Lucescu found them homes close to him.
“Sydorchuk became a father for the fourth time during his stay in Bucharest, so he has a special connection to the city now,” Lucescu smiles. It is the only moment during our interview when his eyes and mind seem to leave the war behind. But not for long. “What I found hard to handle were the scenes I witnessed on my way to Romania. People with children would leave their cars kilometres away from the border then walk with luggage in one hand and kids in the other, hoping to get to the border faster. The car queues at the border were enormous,” he says. “I try to stay informed but I don’t watch the news too much. My soul hurts when I see what’s happening in Ukraine.”
Sydorchuk, Kryvtsov, and Stepanenko have set up a fund to send lorries of food and supplies back home. “I appreciate a lot what they are doing. They have asked for meetings with supermarkets and they bought a lot of things for those affected in Ukraine. They have showed a lot of solidarity,” Lucescu says.
What is football’s place in a war-stricken Ukraine? Nothing, at the moment, inside the country, but on 6 April Dynamo Kyiv’s Under-19 team will play Sporting in the Uefa Youth League in Bucharest. It will be the first official match a Ukrainian team has played at any level since the start of the war. Lucescu made efforts for the game to go ahead after it was postponed at the beginning of the month. He wants to give the Ukrainian people a reason to be happy.
“I know many will say it’s morally wrong for some of the people to fight in a war while others play football,” he says. “But each person can fight in a personal way, they can do their best to help or support those at home. Performance on the pitch can encourage and inspire so many.
He hopes to help the national team as well. “I have told the Ukrainian FA about my thoughts,” he says. “I think it would be a good idea to have a common team created from Shakhtar and Dynamo players training and playing [in Bucharest] before Ukraine’s World Cup playoff match against Scotland in June.
“I wish for the international players to form a team that would train and play friendlies against the clubs that are not involved in the European competitions. Dynamo’s players are now close to Lviv, they are training there. Each day, my people there send me videos of the training sessions. I only asked them to keep their fitness, to run a bit, and to go to the gym.”
There have been talks about finishing the Ukrainian season abroad with Romania, Poland or Italy seen as possible host countries. “I’d want the season to finish on the pitch but it’s very difficult right now. Imagine Shakhtar have lost more than 10 players with the South Americans returned to their homes,” he says. “Right now, there’s no place for rivalry, we are one. We stick together and we try to help as much as possible. That’s my only objective. I’ve been through something similar when I was working at Shakhtar in 2014.”
Eight years ago Shakhtar had to abandon their stadium when the conflict in the Donbas region began. Lucescu himself left feelings and memories in Donetsk. “When I left I never imagined I wouldn’t return,” he recalls. “I’m not talking about objects, but I left memories, games, my working files and my evenings in Donetsk. I loved the evenings at Shakhtar’s new stadium, I think it was the nicest in Europe. The city was changing too, the football team gave the entire place a western European vibe. Life was good in Donetsk, we had everything we wished for.”
Lucescu won eight league titles and six domestic cups at Shakhtar, as well as the Uefa Cup in 2009, and added the treble with Dynamo last season. He loves the game and sees it as a highway to peace more than anything else.
“I believe those who spoke in favour of the invasion should be suspended because sport doesn’t have anything to do with this,” he says. “Sport should be about fair play and passion. It’s not in a sportsman’s structure to validate war. Those who do talk about it positively are victims of propaganda, you just can’t do that.
“I said Russia’s athletes should not pay the price for what’s happening in Ukraine and many attacked me for that. But I believe sport can contribute to peace efforts. Maybe not impose it but it can pave the way to something we all want. What will we do after the conflict ends? How will we come at peace between ourselves?”
The manager doesn’t think about retirement, not even in this terrible context. He is still dreaming of a return to Ukraine to lead Dynamo. “I miss my daily routine, I miss my training sessions, my boys there. I’m lucky that my son [Razvan Lucescu] is the coach of PAOK in Greece and I’m following his games all the time. My dream is to see Ukraine and its people smile again. As long as I have the energy and I’m healthy I’ll never stop.”