Paulo Fonseca: Ex-Roma coach shares story of family escape from Ukraine

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Paulo Fonseca, the former Shakhtar Donetsk and AS Roma football coach, and his Ukrainian wife Katerina first tried to flee the country by car, along with their toddler and Katerina’s parents.

After encountering traffic jams, they were forced to spend another night in the capital inside a hotel bunker, before enduring a 30-hour road trip through Moldova to Romania.

“It was really very difficult, but I think it’s much more difficult for the Ukrainians who continue there in Ukraine where the situation is getting worse every day,” Katerina told CNN Sport’s Amanda Davies.

“This war is, I believe, one of the most cruel in the history of everyone, because the soldiers who kill us, they speak the same language and it is incredible.”

“We left everything in Ukraine,” added Katerina, including friends and relatives who remained in the country. “All the places that mean so much to us are still there, so my heart is there and my heart is broken for everything.”

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More than 3 million Ukrainians have fled in a refugee exodus following Russia’s invasion of the country, according to the United Nations. To put this into context, it took six months for one million refugees to leave Syria in 2013, nearly two years after the country’s civil war began.

Many cities in Ukraine were devastated, Katerina said, adding that it was important to stop the war and prevent it from spreading to other European countries.

The Fonseca family arrived in Portugal, Paulo’s home country, on February 28 and are currently working with the Portuguese Football Federation as ambassadors for an initiative with Portuguese national football clubs that aims to help refugees Ukrainians to find housing and employment.

After his playing career, mainly with Lisbon club Estrela da Amadora, Fonseca, 49, first became a coach in Portugal in 2005. He went on to win the Ukrainian Premier League best manager accolade in 2016- 17 as Shakhtar. Donetsk coach, where he won seven trophies in three seasons.

“I’m very proud to be part of this world, to be part of football, what football people do, it’s amazing. But I think we can do more,” Fonseca told CNN Sport.

“I would like to see the big names in football standing up for peace in Europe. I think that can be very important,” he said.

In the 2017-18 UEFA Champions League season, Fonseca’s Shakhtar Donetsk handed Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City their first loss in 29 games to advance to the knockout stages.

Memorably, he made headlines after that famous victory when he appeared in the post-match press conference dressed as his childhood hero, Zorro.

A move to Italy followed and after an almost two-year run with AS Roma, the Portuguese was last year linked with top jobs at English Premier League clubs Tottenham and Newcastle United.

Since the end of his stay in Rome in May 2021, the manager had engaged in various conferences in Ukraine.

He returned to Ukraine early after a vacation to help his wife and family escape.

In an Instagram post announcing the Fonsecas’ new roles as ambassadors for Ukraine’s refugee initiative, the former Roma coach added that the Portuguese Football Federation had “shown that football can and should be used as a tool for social change.

He called on all clubs to join in solidarity with the initiative.

Katerina expressed her gratitude to the Portuguese Football Federation saying: “They receive our little young players with open arms. It is a very big support for the children, who have lost all the happiness of their daily life.”

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