Having fled war to Germany in March 2022, 15-year-old goalkeeper Artem Zaloha has become a German youth champion with Arminia Bielefeld U17. bundesliga.com outlines his heart-warming tale...
Life is far from easy for anyone forced to leave their home due to the tragedy of war. That could be instantly seen by Paul Neu, a coach of VfL Theesen U16, when a young goalkeeper began to train with his team in spring 2022.
Artem Zaloha had just fled Dnipro in eastern Ukraine for the safety of Bielefeld in Germany. Neu recounted how the straight-faced and silent Artem could not speak a word of German or English in his first session, but saved every single shot he faced.
Zaloha told the Arminia Bielefeld website that he came to the city with his younger brother and mother, who had a friend already living there. Like millions of Ukrainians, they had no big plan, apart from escaping the horrors of war, but Zaloha did take the items most precious to him.
He said: "I packed a bag with my goalkeeper gloves and football boots in Ukraine and took it with me. Football is my life."
Zaloha had played for youth teams of Ukrainian top-flight side SK Dnipro back in his homeland, and it was immediately clear his potential stretched far beyond the small suburban club he first trained with, VfL Schildesche. "The coach told me that I was too good for them, and I noticed that too," is how the goalkeeper recalls it.
An acquaintance helped him to try his luck at a somewhat bigger club, VfL Theesen. After seven months at Theesen, Zaloha joined the youth ranks of Arminia in the new year - having arranged a trial at the Bundesliga 2 side with the help of his coaches at Theesen. He was immediately promoted one age grade up to U17 level and had a chance to play regularly from March 2023 in the U17 Bundesliga.
His inspirational story then became even more incredible, with Arminia being crowned U17 German champions in April - beating favourites Wolfsburg 2-1 in the final.
Neu said he has proud of his former player, whom he describes as a "mentality monster who gives 100 percent in every match and every training session."
Given such a meteoric rise within the German game, it is no surprise Zaloha is now fielding questions about his future plans. He told the Arminia website: "I would like to stay in Germany for a while, as I think I have the better chances here to build my career. I would like to play at the highest level possible, play well and become a professional, of course."
When not successfully guarding goal, Zaloha's mind has naturally often been on the safety of his loved ones back home, with his father, who he speaks to daily, not permitted to leave Ukraine. He said: "I wish that we can get back together as a family as quickly as possible."
His wonderful story has earned attention beyond football, with Zaloha being highlighted by politicians for showing the chance football offers to integrate migrants into Germany society.
Who is Serhou Guirassy?
With 10 goals in five games, the Stuttgart star has equalled a record set by Robert Lewandowski, but just who is VfB's phenomenal forward?
Fantasy tips and picks for Matchday 5
Not sure which players should be in your Fantasy team? bundesliga.com's got you covered...
Matchday 5 probable teams
Will Gio Reyna be back to help Borussia Dortmund past Wolfsburg?