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Ukrainian soccer star Oleksandr Zinchenko confronted by realities of war in first visit home since invasion

By Ben Church, CNN

(CNN) — Ukrainian soccer star Oleksandr Zinchenko says his first trip back to his home country since the Russian invasion has been hard to comprehend.

The 26-year-old Arsenal star has been forced to watch from afar as devastation spread across Ukraine but he has continued to use his platform to raise awareness of his country’s plight.

Despite playing multiple times for his national team since the war started, the defender had been unable to return home amid the busy Premier League fixture list but with the English soccer season having now ended he has been able to witness the reality of war first hand.

“It’s completely different when you see all this news from your phone, from far away,” he tells CNN Sport, reflecting on his trip.

“First of all, I would like to say that I’m so happy to be back in my land where I’ve been born and raised, and where I feel the best inside of myself.

“To be honest, I’m not sure if I have enough emotions to show it to the other people when you see all these things. But in my head, there are a lot of thoughts.”

Violence continues to be the reality for many across Ukraine. On Thursday, Ukraine’s military said it shot down 10 Russian missiles that had been fired at Kyiv overnight.

At least three people were killed by falling debris, including a nine-year-old girl and her mother, as they tried to enter a bomb shelter that was closed, according to the national police.

Motivated by making a difference, Zinchenko recently became an ambassador of UNITED 24 – a fundraising organization set up by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy – and is fronting an initiative to rebuild a school, alongside legendary Ukrainian soccer star Andriy Shevchenko.

The pair have organized a charity match which will be played at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge stadium in London on August 5, with proceeds going towards the rebuilding project.

Rebuilding a school

Both Zinchenko and Shevchenko visited the school in Chernihiv Oblast, north of Kyiv, which had been damaged by a Russian missile.

UNITED 24 say no one was injured in the attack but the classrooms had been largely destroyed, meaning children from the surrounding villages have had to find alternative ways to study.

“We heard a lot of human stories,” Shevchenko tells CNN Sport, hours after visiting the school with both his eldest son and Zinchenko.

“These stories come from the children who basically were there when the full scale invasion started.

“These stories come from children and they’re telling the whole true story about how the soldiers occupied the town. When they came inside of the houses, obviously the children were scared.

“We can rebuild everything but the most important thing is to take the war out of the childrens’ lives.

“This project today, to rebuild the school, is very important. Very important just to give the right signal and the message.”

The former Ukraine captain and national team manager previously told CNN Sport that he had been deeply affected by the war and admits to being “touched personally” by the visit to the school this week.

He, alongside many other Ukrainian sports stars, have responded to Zelensky’s call to keep Ukraine in the headlines and sees it as his duty to speak to the media about such topics.

“I use every chance in public and using interviews to remind people that the war is still going on in Ukraine,” he says.

“We defend the most important fundamental of the freedom of democracy and our people, our soldiers, risk their lives to protect our country, to defend our country.

“For me, it is an honor to represent my country and help my country.”

Both Zinchenko and Shevchenko have children, which they say made the school visit even more difficult to witness.

Zinchenko, who last month announced he and his partner were expecting a second child, warned that the scars of war will be deeper than many think.

“I feel being a dad, I really feel pain,” he says.

“These kids don’t understand […] they just see the facts. Imagine you’re going to school and then your school has suddenly been destroyed. For what? For what reason?

“This is a big injury, mentally, for the rest of their lives. That’s what people have to know.

“Imagine your kid going to school and then one day a bomb lands and hits. This is a proper injury for the rest of their life. So that is what I would say is the most scary thing. Our kids are our future.”

While many his age are fighting on the frontline, Zinchenko has tried to fly the flag of Ukraine through his sporting exploits.

He’s been a leader for the national team and helped his Arsenal teammates push Manchester City for the Premier League title.

But when asked how he’s managed to balance all the emotions over the past year with playing and training at such an elite level, he’s reluctant to dwell too long on his own personal struggles.

“Difficult is for our soldiers who are staying on the front line, for the people who are taking a risk every single minute during these days to help Ukraine and to defend our land. That’s the people for whom it is difficult,” he says.

“For me, to be honest, I would say that maybe Ukrainian people are not the most talented people around the world, let’s say in football, but I know for sure that our mentality and our character is so strong.

“We’re never going to give up and we’re going to adapt in all cases and we’re going to fight until the very end.”

Charity match

Zinchenko says it was an honor to meet with President Zelensky this week, adding that it had inspired him to keep helping his beloved country.

The meeting was also an opportunity to discuss the charity match, which will see both Zinchenko and Shevchenko lead opposing teams.

The match will be broadcast free for Ukrainians and people have been urged to donate to the cause, with a host of modern and past players expected to feature.

The two stars were reluctant to give too much away, promising that more would be revealed in the run up to the match.

Arsenal will be in action in the Community Shield that weekend after Manchester City beat Manchester United in the FA Cup on June 3, meaning Zinchekno may be forced to miss one or the other.

“We would like to keep it quiet,” Zinchekno says when pushed for names of possible participants. “But for sure, it’s going to be so interesting.”

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