A group of young Sussex-based Ukrainian children were given the chance to meet some Brighton & Hove Albion stars in Lancing.
Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Albion in the Community, the official charity of Brighton & Hove Albion, has noticed a growing number of Ukrainian participants joining their football sessions across Sussex. With many of these children having limited opportunities during school holidays, 15 young participants were invited to the American Express Elite Football Performance Centre in Lancing for a very special half-term treat.
After taking part in some fun football drills on the Community Pitch in a session delivered by the qualified coaches of Albion in the Community, the group were given a surprise invitation to watch the Albion men’s first team in training.
Many of the first team stars including Pascal Gross, Solly March, Adam Lallana, and Robert Sanchez came to meet the young Ukrainians after training to answer questions, pose for photos, and sign programmes.
The group was also introduced to Men's Head Coach Roberto De Zerbi and members of his coaching staff. Their meeting was especially poignant because of De Zerbi's close personal ties with Ukraine.
The Italian spent more than a year in Ukraine as manager of Shakhtar Donetsk, where he led his side to the top of the Ukrainian Premier League before conflict broke out in February.
When the invasion began, De Zerbi and his Shakhtar squad were taken to a bomb shelter in a Kyiv hotel. Roberto and his coaching staff remained in the country until all of their international players and their families had been safely evacuated.
He said, "It was wonderful to have the chance to meet this amazing group of children.
"I am so glad that they are happy and safe here in Sussex and enjoying themselves playing football with Albion in the Community."
Roberto and his coaches were delighted to meet the young Ukrainians; they spoke together in Ukrainian and talked about his former club.
Coaches have been particularly taken with one bubbly participant - Valentine, aged 8. Valentine, who now lives in Hove, moved from Ukraine with his father Sergiy.
Valentine is a huge Brighton fan - his bedroom is covered with Albion posters and memorabilia - and he has a special place in his heart for his favourite player Leandro Trossard.
"It was very, very magical [to meet Trossard], he is my favourite player. I have lived here for four months and this was a special day for me."
Dad Sergiy says that playing with Albion in the Community has made a massive difference to Valentine: "He loves playing football, and we were very lucky he was invited to play with Albion in the Community. It is a dream come true!
Sergiy spoke about how his family were forced to leave Ukraine with almost nothing because of the war.
"We left Ukraine because of the war, we only had two or three suitcases. We had to forget almost everything. We had to quickly, quickly get a train to Budapest, and we were lucky to come to the UK. Now we live in Brighton - it is the best city in the world!"
Matt Dorn, CEO at Albion in the Community, was delighted to see the young Ukrainians enjoy themselves and said it was a special occasion.
"Albion in the Community is all about creating opportunities and giving people access to partaking football. Today was a fantastic opportunity [for the children]. It's one of those things they'll take away and remember forever."