Despite all the time that’s passed, Dmytro Chyhrynskyi is immediately recognisable. It’s been 14 years since he signed for Barcelona and 13 years since he left, but he still has that same unmistakably scruffy shoulder-length hair.
We are meeting in Hamburg, where Chyhrynskyi’s Shakhtar Donetsk are hosting Barca. If hosting is the right word.
Chyhrynskyi and his team-mates have been playing their Champions League home matches in the north German city this season because of the continuing war in their native Ukraine.
He says they arrived for this evening’s match on Sunday, after a 12-hour journey by bus and plane that included a three-hour wait at the Polish border.
“It’s a challenge for us because, in the end, things are not easy and this is our reality,” says the centre-back, who turned 37 today. “We’re Ukraine. It’s like we were defending our country, our independence.”
Away from Home, The Athletic’s podcast series following Shakhtar Donetsk through the war
Chyhrynskyi was 22 years old when Pep Guardiola’s Barca signed him in a €25million (£21.7m; $26.7m) deal with Shakhtar in August 2009. The Spanish club had won the treble the summer before and the defender arrived after a specific request by the coach of the moment, who wanted him to become Gerard Pique’s partner at the back once Carles Puyol retired.
“Chyhrynskyi is the first option, the second option and the third option,” Joan Laporta said that summer, then in his first spell as Barca president.
At the time, he was the second most expensive defender in the club’s history, behind Dani Alves. But his Barca story would not even last a year.
“As Xavi has said, the weight of the Barca shirt is a hundred times heavier than any other,” Chyhrynskyi says now, summing up what he most struggled with during that disappointing spell.
“Only when you come to Barca do you realise the level of the pressure they have there. And even more at that time because it was one of the best Barcas in history.
“My biggest difficulty was that I came on the last day of the transfer window, so the season had already started and I didn’t have time for the adaptation. I had to integrate directly into the team and that was the difficult part because without knowing the language, not knowing the ideas of Guardiola… it was difficult just to come and start to play.”
Chyhrynskyi played just 14 games over the 2009-10 campaign — of which just 10 were starts — as Barca won La Liga, Supercopa de Espana, UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup. Eight of those starts came in the season’s first 15 matches.
“When you start and you don’t make a good game, it’s OK. But when you don’t do a second good game, you start to have extra pressure,” he says. “People start speaking about the money, about a hundred things. You can know the reasons — some other people can know the reasons — but for the majority of fans it’s Barca and you just have to show the level immediately. Only a few teams in the world have the same pressure like that.”
He started putting extra pressure on himself — and Guardiola noticed.
“I came with a mentality of thinking that work would show me the way,” he says. “So I worked a lot. Since almost the first day, I’d started Spanish classes, for example. But to tell you the truth, I was a little bit stressed.
“I remember that I was speaking with Guardiola and he told me: ‘Dmytro, I see you are confused a little bit, so please, don’t try to overload yourself. I know you always do extra things in the hotel where you live, you go and make a gym there, but listen: I want you to be focused on the things that I say to you’.
“I probably was not experienced and calm enough to slow down and to see things clearly. I was 22 years old, I was still young and inexperienced. You cannot be super balanced mentally, so of course you need the support. You need people who will help you, who will lead you. People who will make you understand.
“My relationship with Pep was fantastic. He tried to help me when I had some extra pressure. Even later when I stopped playing a lot, I was always in contact with him. I always felt support from him. He said: ‘I see how you train, I see your effort. I like everything about you, Dmytro. Just keep the same intensity’.
“I’m grateful for the support he gave me, for the belief in me. We were still on great terms when I left.”
After being thrown into the starting line-up at the beginning of the season, Chyhrynskyi made just seven appearances between November and May. In July 2010, Laporta was replaced as president by Sandro Rosell, who immediately set about commissioning player sales.
“We found the club in debt and with cash flow tensions, but we are resolving them,” Rosell said. “The members can rest assured. The club is not bankrupt.”
They are words that would not seem out of place today. Chyhrynskyi’s departure — back to Shakhtar for €15million — was sanctioned “in order to pay the salaries of club employees”.
Back in eastern Ukraine, he suffered a series of injuries that prevented him from playing regularly over the next three seasons. In 2015, he left for Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, then he joined AEK Athens in 2016, where he rediscovered his form and fitness.
“Now I see it like this: that everything you pass in your life is for a reason,” Chyhrynskyi says. “Maybe I lost quite a big part of my career, but for sure I’ve also gained many things mentally and psychologically that have been useful — not only for my football but for my life.
“I couldn’t hate football because I love it. That’s why it gave me the power to continue.”
This year, Chyhrynskyi returned to Shakhtar for a third spell after spending the past seven seasons in Greece — five years with AEK and two with Ionikos FC. The war broke out while he was in Greece and he acknowledges that the situation in his home country also influenced his decision to return.
Hamburg unites for Shakhtar Donetsk’s Champions League campaign
“It’s really difficult to be abroad when you know that your country, your family, your friends, your loved ones are always in danger,” he says. “They were suffering from missiles, attacks, bombing and other nightmares of war.
“In the end, I know I’m a football player, but the mental support and psychological aspect is extremely important, especially now. So it’s good for me now to be in Ukraine, to be next to my family and to my friends. Just the presence there in Ukraine makes it already a support.”
(Top photo: Lluis Gene/AFP via Getty Images)