IT was the sound of bombs striking targets 10km away from his village in Mariupol early one morning that alerted Aleks Prykhno the war with Russia had started. Within days his city was in near ruins and he had some life-changing decisions to make – and make in a hurry.
“We lived 10km from the combat line and when the shelling began we learned about the beginning of the war,” Aleks told Inside Back through an interpreter. “The next day, residential areas were shelled and bombed. There was no electricity, water or gas and civilians began to die.
“There were shortages of food and it became more and more difficult to buy food. It became dangerous to move around the city.”
Living with his wife and 84-year-old wheelchair-bound mother, Aleks realised survival was only possible by fleeing the war zone as quickly as possible. The trio drove across Ukraine from east to west in their Kia, arriving in Warsaw and then flying to Sydney to be reunited with their son, who has been living and working in Australia for five years, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.
The Australian government offered Ukraine’s war refugees sanctuary, for which the Prykhno family is most grateful for.
But it’s the inner west’s football community, led by Balmain FC, that has been the real pillar throughout this harrowing time. Aleks and the Tigers struck up a friendship in 2015 when he played against their 45s and over team in the final of the European Masters Games in Nice.
The bond grew stronger four years later at the 2019 European Masters Games in Torino, with Balmain inviting the accomplished goal-keeper to stand between the sticks as they went on to win the gold medal in the 50+ age group.
When the Tigers heard Ukraine was under attack, they contacted Aleks to check on his family’s wellbeing, offering them whatever support they could. Since the Prykhnos’ arrival in Sydney, the club has organised meals, work, transport and financial assistance. And they picked up a quality goal-keeper in return. Aleks, who saved a penalty in his second game, is helping the Tigers’ over-50s side work their way up the table in the Canterbury District competition.
“Football is my life and always has been. It is on the same level as work and friends,” Aleks said. “Many thanks to the Balmain team who supported and sympathised for me and my family during the difficult days for us, when we were still in Mariupol. Playing football here helps to distract from worries and negative emotions for a while.”
Balmain FC treasurer – and Aleks’ teammate – Keith Irving said: “Whilst it is a small thing against the backdrop of conflict in his country, as a community club we are delighted to be able to offer him a small escape from the worries he undoubtedly has.”
But the war is never too far from Aleks’ thoughts. He said: “My rage is still hard to imagine. I try to support my mother and wife and be of service to my family in Sydney, but I really miss my country.”
Story written by Adam Lucius for The Inner West Review
ABC Radio Interview
Listen to Balmain DFC Treasurer, Keith Irving, speak to James Valentine on ABC 702 about Aleks journey: www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_SHsEHAHrU