From the pitch to the front lines: Winnipeg goalkeeper enlists with Ukrainian armed forces
'The feeling of pride and taking responsibility, it surpasses the sense of fear,' Svyatik Artemenko says
A professional soccer player from Winnipeg is trading in his cleats for a rifle to fight on the front lines for the country he was born in.
Despite not owning a Ukrainian passport, Svyatik Artemenko enlisted with Ukraine's armed forces Friday — one day after Russia invaded Ukraine. He tried to enlist Thursday in the western Ukrainian city of Khmelnytskyi, but was turned away before being approved the next day.
In an Instagram video call from the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa on Saturday afternoon, Artemenko said he waited in line to enlist for over two hours Friday.
He was born in Odesa before his family immigrated to Canada when he was two years old, but has gone back to the city several times since.
"I honestly was expecting to have a sense of fear among the crowd, like silence … but that was absolutely not the case," Artemenko said of the atmosphere among those waiting to enlist.
"Everyone was going there. They were ready to put their lives down on the line, and there was absolutely no sense of fear."
The 22-year-old arrived in Ukraine on Jan. 29, and was in Khmelnytskyi for a tryout with FC Podylla, a second division professional soccer team in Ukraine. His tryout proved successful and he inked a contract with the club the day before Russia's military attacked Ukraine.
Artemenko was living and playing soccer in Guelph, Ont., last fall when someone affiliated with FC Podylla saw him play and offered the former Valour FC goalkeeper a tryout.
He was coming off two championships in November.
Artemenko led Guelph United F.C., a men's semi-pro soccer club, to win the League1 Ontario title, and backstopped the University of Guelph Gryphons men's soccer squad to an unbeaten Ontario University Athletics regular season and the conference title.
No second thoughts of fleeing
For the time being, however, Artemenko's soccer career has been put on hold.
"I came here for soccer but soccer's cancelled due to the war, so I want to get back on that football pitch here and the only way to do it is to end the war," Artemenko said.
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He travelled from Khmelnytskyi to Odesa on Saturday and said there is a stark contrast in the mood between the two cities.
There was one bombing outside Khmelnytskyi and military troops were patrolling the city, with martial law being enforced, he said, so nobody is allowed outside past 10 p.m. But in Odesa, which sits on the Black Sea, Artemenko says it's a more serious situation with shootings and bombings happening more regularly.
"It's something you have to just, get used to and just adapt to it," he said.
Artemenko told family and friends about his decision, and had been communicating with them regularly through a handful of social media channels.
Those communications are likely to be very sporadic because he says Russian intelligence is starting to track cell phones in Ukraine.
Artemenko says his friends are more concerned because they're not accustomed to witnessing a conflict zone, or having a friend in one.
His family asked if he was 100 per cent certain with his decision, or if he should try to return to Canada.
"That wasn't even a thought in my head to leave or to flee the country," Artemenko said. "My initial thought always stayed with me to go enrol and go to war here."
He said everything is a rush and there is need for more soldiers in Ukraine, despite the country mandating all male citizens between 18 and 60 years old to stay and fight the Russians.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister invites foreign nationals to join the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine 🇺🇦 <a href="https://t.co/JVOjKuuMXW">https://t.co/JVOjKuuMXW</a>—@Ukraine
Many new Ukrainian military troops missed out on training, but Artemenko says he's fortunate to already have some military training. Between the age of 16 and 18, he was a combat engineer with the Canadian Reserve Force in Winnipeg.
Artemenko met face-to-face with a member of his extended family Saturday after they both signed up to fight in the same battalion, but it wasn't an emotional meeting.
"There's not a lot of time for emotions right now," he said. "All your emotions have to be on the front line there for protecting your country."
Former coach calls Artemenko 'fiercely patriotic'
That devout patriotism is a characteristic one of his former soccer coaches has always seen in Artemenko.
Rob Gale, the former Valour FC head coach and general manager, has known Artemenko for nearly a decade as he rose through the provincial soccer ranks — including when he represented Manitoba at the 2017 Canada Summer Games in Winnipeg before landing a spot with the Canadian Premier League club in its inaugural campaign in 2019.
Artemenko also saw pre-season action with Valour during the 2020 and 2021 campaigns.
"He's a fearless character and I hope and pray that that character he has got about him helps him in the current situation obviously that he finds himself in," Gale said.
"I remember him getting into a bit of skirmish when he was younger defending Ukraine actually with some comments in a training session. He's fiercely patriotic. He wears his heart on his sleeve on and off the soccer field."
Gale isn't surprised by Artemenko's decision, but selfishly wishes he was back home away from the fighting.
"He was always going to be that guy who stands up for what he believes in and to fight for his countrymen like he would his teammates in sport," Gale added.
He prays Artemenko remains safe and doesn't witness too many atrocities.
Gale hopes to see his former goalkeeper "continue to live his dream" of playing soccer after the conflict concludes.
Artemenko says he is scared, and he also believes by fighting, he is fulfilling his duty to Ukraine.
"Deep down inside there's always the fear of losing my life, and obviously it's a war, so it's normal to feel a bit of fear," Artemenko said.
"But the feeling of pride and taking responsibility, it surpasses the sense of fear."