On an icy morning in southern Ukraine, football coach Vyacheslav Rol shouts to his team over the sound of distant explosions: “Everybody on the bus!”

A group of girls aged between nine and 11 pile in.

The “Krystal Kherson” football team were headed for a competition in Mykolaiv, some 70 kilometers (43 miles) west of Kherson, their hometown near the southern front line that is shelled by Russian forces almost daily.

“The training is good for them,” their 67-year-old coach told AFP. “They forget about the bombs,” he said.

Russian forces occupied Kherson city for eight months last year.

It was recaptured by Ukrainian troops last November, but the city still sits near the front line.

As the bus passed through war-ravaged countryside, the team intoned a popular local song to keep their spirits up: “Kherson, I dream of you at night!.”

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During the journey, Deputy Coach Igor Psurtyev recounted how he went around the empty, devastated city during the occupation looking for his players.

“When this one saw me her eyes lit up,” he said, pointing to one of the children whom he calls “Messi in a skirt.”

In Mykolaiv, another player, Dana, said she used to not like football but that changed during the war.

“I followed the example of a friend who was doing it. I didn't want to stay at home,” said the 11-year-old, wearing the club's blue and green fluorescent jersey.

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Dana said she and her family now live in Odesa – even further to the west – ever since a missile landed near their home.

“I was very afraid. My father covered me with his body,” said Dana, who continues to play in Kherson even though it is 220 kilometers away “because it's my city.”

‘It was important for her’

On the pitch in Mykolaiv, the teams sing the national anthem with their hands on their hearts and Rol says a few words to motivate the players before kickoff.

“I see before me girls that stayed strong during the occupation and the bombing. Nothing will stop them playing football!”

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The team then held a minute's silence for the war dead, including the team’s captain, who lost her father at the front.

When the whistle blew, Lyudmyla Kramarenko, Dana's mother, cheered as if the game was a World Cup final.

“Go Kherson!” the 45-year-old shouted.

Kramarenko recounted how Dana would have nightmares when the city was under fire while they were still living there.

“I had to sleep with her during the attacks,” she said.

But her daughter would come back happy after football training.

“I saw that it was important for her.”

At the end of the competition, Rol took down the Ukrainian flags put up for the matches.

“I used to hide them at my place during the occupation,” he said.

He also described how he was approached at that time by members of Russia's FSB security service to train a team for them.

“I refused. The children thought I was going to be killed but nothing happened to me. I played the old senile guy.”

At the end of the tournament, the Kherson girls placed third out of six teams.

“Kherson stays strong!” the coach tells them as they return to their bombed-out city with smiles on their faces.

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