Striker Junior Moraes returns to Brazil, but heart still in Ukraine

Veteran striker Junior Moraes is returning to Brazil to join Corinthians, but admits his mind is far from sporting.

The 34-year-old Moraes, who was granted Ukrainian citizenship three years ago, is afraid of his friends, colleagues and teammates amid the invasion of Russia.

Moraes has played in Ukraine for most of the last decades, scoring dozens of goals for Metalurg Donetsk, Dynamo Kyiv and most recently Shakhtar Donetsk. He learned the language, played 11 games for the national team and planned to establish himself after his professional career.

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

“It’s still very difficult for me to talk about it. I can not forget it as long as the war continues,” a tearful Moraes told a news conference Tuesday at the Corinthians’ training ground in Sao Paulo.

“I stay connected with the people there. I talk to people who are still there every day, they need some support to get their families out.

“I can not smile the way I want to. I think I will only do that when this war is over.” Russia’s invasion of Moraes’ land in February forced him and millions of others to flee. He left Ukraine in February. 27 with the remaining five members of a group of 40 foreigners, mostly Brazilians, whom he helped organize in a Kyiv hotel transformed into a bunker.

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

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

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

His deal with Corinthians was only possible after FIFA opened a short transfer window for players in Ukraine, allowing them to play elsewhere. The Ukrainian league is suspended.

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

“That’s a top man. A lot of friends who were with him (in Ukraine) tell me how much he did to help others. That’s much more than football,” said Augusto, adding that many foreigners who wrestle to leave Ukraine, no players were from top division teams full of cash and connections.

Moraes helped players from Ukraine’s second division, women’s football and futsal.

“A lot of them went there to find a new challenge, to have a chance to play more,” the striker said.

“The number of Brazilians based there, for example, tripled last year.” The attacker, like many other Ukrainian national team players past and present, has made donations to the government of the country in his war efforts. Brazilian media reported that Moraes had given at least $ 55,000.

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