“I am Ukrainian! Peace to Ukraine! Stop the war!” Yaroslav Rakitskiy wrote on Instagram last Thursday after the Russian army began its invasion of his country.
That was his first post in Ukrainian, as he had been used to communicating with his followers in Russian.
The account, which features countless photos from Rakitskiy’s life and career, has since been made private – an unusual move for a football star.
The defender was supposed to start for Zenit in last week’s Europa League fixture at Betis, but remained on the bench.
The coach, Sergey Semak, explained that poor form was the reason behind the decision. Rakitskiy didn’t play for Zenit against Rubin Kazan on Monday as the Russian Premier League restarted after the winter break, with the club claiming that he was unfit.
It was crystal clear that truth lay elsewhere, though, and, on Wednesday, Zenit announced that the defender had left the club.
“Due to a difficult family situation, the player asked to end his contract prematurely,” the official statement read.
“We want to thank Yaroslav for his time at St Petersburg and his professional and passionate approach to the game.
“We sincerely wish Yaroslav and his family all the best and hope to meet him on the football field.”
The news was hardly unexpected because Rakitskiy found himself in a desperate situation, with the nation of his employers having launched an invasion of his homeland.
For many decades, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, and there was no border between the peoples of Russia and Ukraine. The breakdown of the USSR left a lot of Russians in Ukraine and a lot of Ukrainians in Russia.
Take Zenit coach Sergey Semak, for example. He was the captain of Russia national team for the historic Euro 2008 campaign, when they reached the semi-finals.
He also starred for CSKA Moscow, Rubin Kazan and Zenit as a player, and has since won three championship titles in Russia as a coach.
However, he was born in Ukraine, and his parents still live there, just like most of his family. Is he Russian? Is he Ukrainian?
It’s impossible for anyone other than Semak to say, and he would understand Rakitskiy’s situation very well.
Rakitskiy was born in the eastern part of Ukraine to a Russian-speaking family in 1989, just before the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
After his parents divorced in the 1990s, his father remarried and moved to St Petersburg, where Yaroslav had always been welcome. The city became his second home.
The first home was Donetsk, as he joined Shakhtar’s academy at the age of 13, and was soon touted as one of the most talented prospects around.
By 2009, he was promoted to the first team by Mircea Lucescu, who liked to field Brazilians in midfield and attack, but based the rearguard on Ukrainians.
Shakhtar fans immediately took him to their hearts. He was a local boy, an academy graduate, who played with magnificent style.
Rakitskiy is a powerful central defender, who loves a physical battle, yet is very elegant on the ball and is capable of sending pinpoint long-range passes with his magical left foot.
His fierce shots from distance were superb, and he soon established himself as a dead-ball specialist as well.
A star was born, and Rakitskiy became one of the most popular Shakhtar players, winning championship titles in each of his first five seasons.
Numerous foreign teams were keen to sign him during that period, but he loved Donetsk and didn’t want to leave – until the entire club was forced to do so in 2014, moving to Kyiv because it was unsafe to stay.
Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, separatists began activities in Donetsk and Luhansk regions as well and civil war began. That is when life changed completely and the entire country has not been the same since.
Suddenly, the Russian regime became an enemy and national pride was much more important than before. People had to choose a side even if they didn’t want to.
Rakitskiy was a beloved star of the national team and, until 2014, nobody cared that he didn’t sing the national anthem.
When the armed conflict started, the issue became crucial, and his refusal to do so led to harsh feelings towards him.
The defender, who never wanted to speak about politics and kept his reasons to himself, was whistled and jeered.
His team-mates tried to defend him, and the veteran goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov claimed: “70 percent of the players don’t sing the anthem, and it was irrelevant.”
That didn’t help, though – and fans treated Rakitskiy as disloyal, not patriotic enough.
That was nothing, though, as compared to his decision to move to Zenit in the beginning of 2019.
Tired of a poor attitude towards him and willing to play in a bigger league for a better salary, while living close to his father, he accepted the offer to sign a three-and-a-half-year contract with the club owned by Gazprom, the Russian state-owned corporation, and which has been accused of being a sportswashing exercise for Vladimir Putin’s government.
As far as some Ukrainians were concerned, that was an act of treason. The reaction on social networks was fierce but it didn’t end there.
Rakitskiy was immediately dropped from the national team and his name was erased from the Ukrainian FA’s official website.
“I don’t want to deal with politics, but I knew what to expect,” he told Championat in February 2019.
“I understood everything, and took the decision nevertheless – and I think that was the right choice.
“I really hope that the [Ukraine] coach Andriy Shevchenko chooses who to call up and not some politicians. Let us wait and see, they might yet recall me.”
At Zenit, Rakitskiy encountered Anatoly Tymoshchuk, the former Shakhtar star and one of the best Ukrainian footballers of his generation, who represented the national team 144 times – by far the most-capped player in its history.
The Ukrainians were jubilant for him when he won the UEFA Cup with Zenit in 2008 but everything changed by 2014. Tymoshchuk was also seen as a traitor in his homeland when he rejoined the Gazprom club as an assistant coach in 2017.
Rakitskiy made attempts to establish better relations with those Ukrainians who used to adore him.
“Russian and Ukrainian people are brothers,” he once wrote on Instagram, but only got more abuse in response. Eventually, he announced retirement from the national team by the end of 2019.
At Zenit, he was loved and well respected. Fans liked his passionate style, as he is a player who almost gives his utmost effort on the pitch, and his passing was especially important for Semak’s tactics.
He brought steel and imagination to a team that became dominant on the domestic scene and won three championship titles in a row with Rakitskiy in the line-up.
As far as form was concerned, Rakitskiy deserved a place in the national team on merit but he was never recalled.
He watched Euro 2020 as a fan last summer and reflected in the Championat interview in July: “It is painful. Every time I watch the guys playing, I want to be there with them. But that is life, and I can’t change anything.
“Yes, I didn’t sing the anthem, but there were reasons behind it. That doesn’t mean that I am not a patriot. I love Ukraine.
“I have always done my very best when I represented the national team. Some people invented stories about me, but I don’t care what they say.”
On one hand, it is obvious why the FA took a political decision against Rakitskiy. But on the other hand, Shevchenko spoke Russian with his players and, according to some reports, that was one of the reasons for not prolonging his contract after Euro 2020.
The issue is difficult and painful for all involved, and armed conflict in Donbass, fuelled by Russia, has been going on for eight long years.
However, nobody could have expected that it would turn into a full-scale invasion by Putin, leaving Rakitskiy and others in a truly desperate situation.
At the beginning of February, he was still negotiating his new contract with Zenit – the club offered to keep him for two more years while the player wanted an even longer deal.
Now, all of a sudden, it has all become irrelevant, and he has left the club before the expiration of his existing deal.
His fans in St Petersburg reacted with huge disappointment. They are sad to see one of their best and most popular players go but they understand the situation.
There is little doubt that most of them would love to change the political climate and ‘Stop the war’, as Rakitskiy asked for, but they are powerless.
People across what have traditionally been seen as brotherly nations are now in impossible situations. Rakitskiy’s fate is just one such example.