Striker returns to Brazil but heart still in Ukraine

SAO PAULO (AP) — Veteran striker Junior Moraes has returned to Brazil to join Corinthians, but admits his mind is far from sport.

The 34-year-old Moraes, who obtained Ukrainian citizenship three years ago, fears for his friends, colleagues and teammates amid Russia’s invasion.

Moraes played in Ukraine for most of the last decade, scoring dozens of goals for Metalurg Donetsk, Dynamo Kyiv and most recently Shakhtar Donetsk. He learned the language, played 11 matches for the national team and planned to settle there after his professional career.

Now he has serious doubts about a possible future in Ukraine.

“It is still very hard for me to talk about it. I can’t forget it as long as the war continues,” a tearful Moraes said during a press conference Tuesday at the Corinthians training ground in Sao Paulo. “I remain connected to the people there. I talk to people who are still there every day, they need some support to get their families out.

“I can’t smile in a way I would like to. I think I will only do that once this war is over.”

Russia’s invasion of Moraes’ adopted country in February forced him and millions more to flee. He left Ukraine on Feb. 27 with the remaining five members of a group of 40 foreigners, mostly Brazilians, that he helped organize at a Kyiv hotel transformed into bunker.

All of them escaped the war, most through the Romanian and Moldovan borders.

Moraes’ wife and two children had been in Brazil, where he spent a large part of last year recovering from a knee injury that kept him out of the latest European Championship.

The striker had his best seasons with Shakhtar, which he joined in 2018. The Brazil-born player won two consecutive league titles, both as the competition’s top goal scorer. He played 106 matches for the team and scored 62 goals.

His deal with Corinthians was only possible after FIFA opened a short transfer window for Ukraine-based players so they keep playing elsewhere. The Ukrainian league is suspended.

One of the striker’s new teammates, midfielder Renato Augusto, also had tears in his eyes in a news conference last week when asked about Moraes’ efforts in Ukraine.

“That is a top man. Many friends that were with him (in Ukraine) tell me how much he did to help others. That’s much beyond soccer,” said Augusto, adding that many foreigners struggling to leave Ukraine were not players of top-flight division teams full of cash and connections.

Moraes has helped players of Ukraine’s second division, women’s soccer and futsal.

“Many of them were going there to find a new challenge, to have chance of playing more,” the striker said. “The number of Brazilians based there, for example, tripled last year.”

The striker, like many other Ukrainian national team players past and present, has made donations to the country’s government in its war efforts. Brazilian media reported that Moraes has given at least $55,000.

Asked what he expects for his future and the future of Ukraine, Moraes said: “The only hope that Ukrainians have is for this war to stop. Many have left to remain safe. And others are alone in the bunkers, just hoping for this war to be over.”

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