When Sebastián Blanco arrived at Providence Park ahead of the Timbers’ Mar. 12 game against Austin FC, he carried over three years of memories with him in the form of an old yellow and blue jersey.
Proudly held out in front of him, Blanco displayed the back of a jersey he donned over a decade ago when he played for Ukrainian club FC Metalist Kharkiv. Above the number 23 read “Бланко,” or “Blanco” in Ukrainian.
For years that jersey sat in his home in Argentina until, with the recent conflict between Ukraine and Russia, Blanco had the idea to bring it to a Timbers game and asked his wife to pack it with her when she returned to Portland.
Originally, Blanco wanted to wear the jersey on the pitch for warmups. While the league told him that he couldn’t, Blanco still wished to bring it to the stadium with him that Saturday.
“I just tried to show a little support for the people who live in Ukraine,” Blanco said. “I lived there for a long time and I really felt at home.”
Blanco spent over three years in Kharkiv, Ukraine, and while over a decade removed from his time there, the Argentine describes the city as beautiful and can't speak highly enough of the people who lived there.
But Blanco also remembers what it was like to have family and friends call from Argentina worried because they heard about bombs fewer than 200 meters away from where he lived. He can’t shake the memory of walking into stadiums past hundreds of protesters as well as people living in hundreds of tents and behind makeshift barriers during a time of civil unrest.
“I can’t pretend that everyone understands the feelings [in Ukraine],” Blanco said. “Kharkiv was my home for a long time.”
Showcasing one of his old jerseys ahead of a weekend MLS game was more than a timely fashion statement. Ukraine was the first place Blanco lived on his own outside Argentina and he experienced both the best and most challenging parts of the country first hand.
That’s why when Blanco suits up for the PTFC for Peace charity match on Apr. 27 – a special 60 minute scrimmage featuring Portland Timbers and Thorns FC players in a mixed teams match to benefit UNICEF’s relief efforts in Ukraine and bordering countries – it will mean much more to him than just a co-drafted match taking place more than 5,700 miles west of the city he once called home.
- PTFC FOR PEACE TICKETS: Free with encouraged donation
Kharkiv, located in the northeast corner of Ukraine and its second most populated city, is a natural hotbed for tension. A city where Russian is spoken just as commonly as Ukrainian, to reach the Goptivka Border Crossing all Blanco had to do was hop in a car and drive 25 miles along E-105, roughly the equivalent of making a roundtrip journey between Providence Park and Hillsboro Stadium.
Set amongst the backdrop of war between Russia and Ukraine, Kharkiv has frequently appeared in the news. On Apr. 8, the New York Times reported that landmines containing three pounds of explosives were found close to the city’s borders, while on Apr. 10 reports surfaced of an eight-mile long Russian military convoy east of the city.
Kharkiv became the first city Blanco knew outside of his native Argentina, where he played professionally until he left for Ukraine in his early 20s. When he first heard of the potential of playing in Eastern Europe, he wasn’t all that keen on the opportunity. Ukraine, Blanco believed, was too far away from home with a difficult language barrier and countless other challenges.
While hesitant at first, Blanco quickly settled into his new environment. He still remembers the country’s friendly citizens and the natural beauty of Kharkiv itself. The fact that FC Metalist played in the quarterfinals of the UEFA Europa League, qualified for the UEFA Champions League and finished second in the Ukrainian Premier League during his time with the club helped with the adaptation process, too.
“When I lived in Kharkiv, the people treated me really well,” Blanco said. “That’s why I feel very sad. In my opinion, [the Ukrainian people] don’t deserve to be in this situation.”
But the pitfalls of Kharkiv’s geographical location were always palpable. Blanco’s friends and family occasionally worriedly called him, having seen his city in the Argentinian news just a little too much for their comfort.
As tensions escalated in 2014 with high amounts of civil unrest, the living situation became nearly untenable; at one point, Blanco was aware of bombs planted meters away from where he lived. When it reached that point, Blanco knew that he needed to leave the country as quickly as possible.
“We had too many bombs, it was crazy,” Blanco said. “We fled the country at that moment, taking everything that we could and went.”
Blanco still has the old photos on his phone and as he scrolls through image after image he can’t help but comment after each.
“This was my friend when I played in Ukraine,” Blanco said as he showed a picture of a man in a black long-sleeve shirt and jeans giving a thumbs up as he stood among a few soldiers in camouflage surrounded by old furniture, boards and tires.
In the next photo it was hard to make out even a street as boards and old scraps of metal formed a makeshift barrier colored with graffiti. Above the structure waved the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag and behind it stood several tents that went as far as the eye could see as well as Kyiv’s Independence Monument.
Another photo shows several people walking down a street near the midfield entrance of a stadium as tent after tent lined the sidewalk.
“This was before a game,” Blanco said. “It was terrible. You lived in fear all the time.”
Those photos were taken in April 2014, near the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian War and Russia's annexation of Crimea. At that time, Ukrainian Premier League games continued to take place, but those images were enough to keep Blanco’s mind swimming as he played in front of both empty stadiums as well as those filled with people who had nowhere else left to go.
That season FC Metalist played in Kyiv – Ukraine’s capital and most important city – when the conflict was at its peak. Blanco remembers being at the team hotel just 200 meters from the center of protests and walking to the stadium past hundreds of tents and burnt scraps that lined the streets.
“I saw many things that I thought never in my life I would have experienced,” Blanco said.
Those experiences in Ukraine are why the upcoming charity match at Providence Park matters so much to him. While his current teammates and others around him see and hear about what is happening in Ukraine, Blanco has memories attached to the names of every city he hears.
“I played many times in Mariupol, in Kyiv, in Lviv, Dnipro and Donetsk,” Blanco said. “I lived there. I know the cities. I know everything. I remember every city and when I see them in the news it’s very sad.”
Over the years, Blanco has stayed in touch with past teammates and other friends who still play and work in Ukraine.
Before war broke out, Blanco was invited to play in what would have been a one-off all-star game in May meant to celebrate the club’s most successful seasons. During Blanco's time with the club, FC Metalist played in European competition and punched above its weight in a league also home to Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv.
In December, Blanco talked with Gerónimo Poblete, who he knew from Argentina and had signed as a midfielder with FC Metalist weeks before. During their conversation, they discussed the city and Poblete commented on just how great the soccer facilities were.
Two months later, war broke out.
When the team was in Turkey for preseason, Poblete’s wife and two young children sheltered in the basement of the family’s temporary hotel because of bombs.
“You only want to play football and live in peace,” Blanco said. “You never expect to sign in a new country and finish in a war.”
Back in 2014, five days before Blanco hopped on a flight back to Argentina, local banks shut down, forcing him to pack physical cash, along with other belongings, in suitcases. In Kyiv, the bags were dumped and searched in a small room because security officials knew that Blanco was a soccer player. Not long after he landed safely back in Argentina, Blanco found out that the airport he flew out of was closed.
While over seven years removed from his time in Ukraine, Blanco still vividly recalls his time in Eastern Europe. He remembers the friendly people as well as his talented teammates who he still keeps in touch with, but also the conflict and destruction that occurred before he left in 2014.
So that’s why as Blanco arrived at Providence Park, left his car and made his way to the stadium’s player entrance that Saturday in early March he proudly carried the old yellow and blue jersey, holding it out in front of him on full display. To him, it meant a lot more than just an empty message; it was his way of showing support to the people in both Kharkiv and Ukraine that he played for and lived among as a young professional.
“The people don’t deserve this for a political decision,” Blanco said. “We cannot live like this without peace. People deserve to live in better conditions. [Conflict in Ukraine] is never finished, and it’s very sad.”