Ivan Zhelizko – Valmiera FC midfielder, a member of the Ukrainian U-21 team achieved great things in the year 2022. He became Optibet Virsliga champion, while also during international duty he helped his national squad to reach Euro 2023 group stages. In the interview, he reflects on the previous season while also discussing other important topics.
Preparations for the new season have started, how do you feel?
I feel great because it had been almost two months since the final game against Liepaja. We are all hungry for training sessions and games. The first month of training camp has been the hardest one. We have done a lot of running and strength exercises and now we can look forward to training camp in Turkey where we will switch focus to football. There are many friendly games ahead of our league matches.
How did you spend your vacation?
There is a war going on in my country so I couldn’t go home. I stayed here in Latvia, spent my time between Valmiera and Riga and for ten days I went on a 10-day vacation abroad.
As you mentioned – you are from Ukraine, can you compare the countries of Latvia and Ukraine? How different are they and how did you adjust since moving here?
Ukraine is so much bigger than Latvia. The weather is almost the same. It wasn’t that hard to adjust and get used to living here. Culture wise it’s similar. As for football – in Ukraine, I only played at the youth level. When I turned eighteen I went straight to Europe so I don’t know much about the football culture there. I was prepared to make a move to a different country even though it was hard to make that step.
You had Roman Yakuba here with you – he is also Ukrainian, did that help you?
Of course! We are very good friends and I’m really happy for him now that he is making the next step in his football career. I wish him all the best in his future career. Although he is now on loan I truly hope that he can help his team to make it to the highest league in Poland and they can become a really good squad.
Roman is not the only one who has moved on – how would you describe these changes for Valmiera?
After such a good season that we had it was expected that there will be some changes and we were ready for it. Unfortunately, too many players have gone and now we have to prepare and look for new, quality players to build the team. It is very important to build a good squad that can represent Valmiera in Virsliga and Champions League qualification.
Speaking of transfers – there have been many big moves for Ukrainian players, and many have jumped to the Top 5 leagues – is it that this generation is more talented or there is another, more specific reason?
These players have shown that they can play at a good level for a long period of time. However, for the past year, they have shown that they can keep progressing. I’m hopeful and actually certain that more and more players from Ukraine will play in the top leagues.
What are your ambitions?
I want to achieve only the highest results – I want to play for the top clubs in the top leagues. I am working very hard and I know that it will happen in the future.
Looking at the previous season – the start was rough but then things improved, from your point of view – what changed?
Honestly, after the first game against Riga and then the third and fourth matches I couldn’t understand what happened. We were prepared but we couldn’t score in those games, we couldn’t find spaces to shoot. Once you work harder and harder in training – good things happen. After that, we won fifteen games in a row.
When did you realize that we could become champions?
I remember the 2:0 victory against Riga, after that I told Roman that I don’t know if anybody can beat us. After that game? We lost to Spartaks here at home. After that game, I said that we will be champions and nothing bad happened down the road.
Everything was decided in the last match of the season, what do you remember from it?
Honestly, we were ready for it. We were confident that we will be champions. We actually had to clinch the title earlier – against Daugavpils or Tukums. Those matches were hard, the opponent felt more motivated and they challenged us better than we did challenge them. Our thought was that we would easily win those matches. Until the last match, we didn’t lose confidence and we already felt like champions.
Djibril Gueye scores, final whistle – what happens next?
The cameras weren’t on me but I just dropped to my knees and prayed to god and then Roma came up to me, and we hugged. It was so unbelievable that we both cried together.
Have you finally digested it?
In our minds, it is now in the past. Sure we have great emotions but we have to move on. We don’t have to live in the past. We are now preparing for the season and we have to focus on that as well as showing good results in the Champions League qualification as it will be the first time for me and the other players. We have to work hard because that will be on another level.
What do you wish to accomplish in this upcoming season?
We have to try and win another title and show the results in Europe. Last year in Euro Cups wasn’t as good, we were not ready mentally. Now we are much stronger and I wish that this year will be better.
We have to talk about the fans – they supported the team, it must be special to you as well.
I want to say that the last year was amazing. They were at every game and we won because of them. I want to ask them to continue supporting us, to come to each and every game, and to keep cheering and shouting because it gives us strength. Even if we are playing ten against eleven on the pitch – their emotions help us a lot and we can only achieve things with them by our side.
You received multiple call-ups to the Ukrainian U-21 team, what does it mean for you to get to represent your country?
It always is a special moment. This year was hard for us – we didn’t get to play the home games in our country. It doesn’t feel like we are playing a game but it feels like we are playing for our people, the people that are defending our country in the war. It means a lot and we showed good results. We will be going to European Championship in the summer.
Qualification to Euro 2023 – what does it mean to you as a player and the whole country?
I don’t know exactly how many years Ukraine has missed out on qualifying for the tournament so it was really special. The style we played, the things our coaches asked from us – they tried to change how we play, they tried to change our mindset, and they thought that we are no worse than countries like Belgium, Spain, or France. We had to play like a number one – controlling and moving the ball. When we adjusted and started to understand how to play it improved and truly that is the way to keep playing.
How far along are you from being a starting eleven player?
I have good competition on that team, some play for Shakhtar some play in the Champions League and it is a little bit difficult for me to compete but when I join the training process I only improve. I’m also not jealous that someone else is playing and I am not, we have a good team internally which is why we have been successful.
At the start of the season, Valmiera FC showed support for Ukraine by wearing special shirts, our goalie played a whole game against Riga FC in custom gear – how special is it to receive such support from the team and everyone around it?
From the very first day of the war, we were still at the training camp in Turkey – the teammates, and the team president showed that they are with me and Roma and that they are ready to help in any way they can – be it through medication, or living arrangements for our families if we wanted to move them to Riga. I knew that there is something being prepared for the first game. Those were very good emotions because I saw that the team was with us all the way in and that they wanted to show support to us personally and our country.
There is a lot of discussion about Russians being allowed to take part in sports competitions – a Russian playing against a Ukrainian, how do you feel about the topic?
You know it is crazy that Russian players are still playing and competing. We cannot say that sports are not politics or politics are not sports. It is crazy that they are in the top leagues and that they are now speaking that they should be going to the Olympics. Unfortunately, everything in this world goes around money and that is the only thing that Russia is good at. When it comes to money FIFA closes its eyes and IOC closes its eyes. They haven’t gone to the Donetsk region or Bahmut to see things with their own eyes and then came out to say that Russia can take part in any kind of sports competition or cultural event.