Estadio da Luz
We watch, aghast and horrified. A dark, ominous cloud hovers over Eastern Europe, by extension over the entire globe, as Russian troops pour across the Ukraine border in an unprovoked onslaught.
An increasingly isolated and deranged president, Vladimir Putin, further orders indiscriminate artillery and rocket strikes, air bombardments, and cyber attacks. He is intent on pounding major Ukrainian cities into rubble. His maniacal actions, a combination of nuclear sabre-rattling, barbarism, ego and hubris, draw the wrath of NATO and countless countries around the world. Immediately, they implement severe and crippling economic sanctions against Russia, in addition to providing military and financial aid to bolster fierce and courageous home resistance.
People from all walks of life join the groundswell of support for the beleaguered nation. Vigils, demonstrations, protests, prayer gatherings, rallies, fundraisers, grow in numbers, the blue and yellow national flag of Ukraine always in evidence.
Inevitably, sport too plays its part. Fans join together to condemn the full-scale invasion, all the while demonstrating unwavering support for Ukrainian athletes. International athletic federations ban Russian players and teams from major competitions.
And so, against this backdrop, my mind traces back in time to the charming city of Lisbon and a long ago visit to the famous Benfica FC. I vividly recall my initial love affair with football (soccer) as an impressionable young boy. I remember the club’s golden years in the 1960s, its domination of the Primeira Liga, the main Portuguese competition. European and World Cup successes, spearheaded by Simoes, Torres and Eusebio, the legendary “Black Panther”, soon follow.
I remember equally the warmth of the crowd, the love for the club and its players.
Flash forward to the present. February 23, 2022. Roman Yaremchuk, a recent Benfica signing, wins the grateful plaudits of those in attendance when, midway through the second half, he notches an equalizing goal in a UEFA Champions League round of 16 match vs visiting Ajax. The Ukrainian striker celebrates in style, stripping off his jersey to reveal a black tee shirt emblazoned with a trident, his country’s national symbol.
Days later there is more. The Russian assault on Ukraine officially begins. Yaremchuk, no doubt now full of emotion and deeply concerned for the plight of family and friends back home in his native Kyiv, enters a game vs lowly Vitoria FC as a second half substitute. Benfica leads 3-0 as he makes his way to the pitch.
It is then it happens. Slowly, steadily, inexorably, the applause begins to build. The actual game itself now an afterthought, some 40,000 fans are on their feet, rising as one to give the soccer star a spine tingling, standing ovation. Hundreds of Ukraine flags and banners wave proudly. Then, in a further show of solidarity and to rapturous acclaim, Benfica defender Jan Vertonghen hands his teammate the captain’s armband.
Indeed, the Estadio da Luz, the Stadium of Light, becomes a beacon of love and promise, blazing brightly despite a grim, oppressive and calamitous moment in history. The compelling scenes, broadcast across the world via social media, give me shivers. Even a heart made of stone cannot fail to be moved by the power of the moment, the power of the gestures. They are certainly not lost on Yaremchuk, who chokes back tears.
Time passes. The increasingly tense Russia-Ukraine conflict enters a ninth, tumultuous day. Without question, the bitter struggle represents the most significant threat to Europe since the end of World War II. Already there are massive human costs in terms of lives lost and refugees forced to flee their homeland. Dialogue, diplomacy and overtures for peace operate in the shadows of strife and hate. Putin appears to have lost touch with reality, choosing a path of deliberate death and destruction.
When or how will the war end? It is impossible to know. The Ukraine remains defiant, its armed forces and citizens, well marshaled by charismatic president Volo Zelenskiy, seemingly prepared for a long and protracted resistance. In return, Russia, directed by a madman, plans to crush the entire country.
We take note, detached in some ways, from a distance. Yet, painful and heart wrenching updates and photos from the war dominate our lives and our thoughts. Focus shifts away from climate change and the Covid pandemic, from inflation and supply chains. From all the other myriad problems facing society.
Still, life goes on. I choose to be encouraged by the response shown in Lisbon. By similar responses elsewhere around the world. That, as we navigate uncharted territory, the forces of light will eventually prevail.
While people forever continue to trade in that most human of qualities - hope.
Aizludz par Ukrainu.