A 6am start from their Kyiv home in exile is followed by an almost three-hour suspension in play for team who survive against the odds

In the low-lit gloom, Mariupol Women’s players huddle around their phones and try to work out how long the delay will last. “A MiG-31 took off, that’ll be about an hour,” reckons one voice, but nobody can ever know for sure. Ten minutes ago they were holding their own against EMC-Podillya, edging their way towards half-time and the prospect of a creditable away point, when the air-raid siren’s fearful wail sent them straight down the tunnel and back into the minibus. Now they are sitting in the basement of a vocational college 500 metres around the corner, a facility repurposed as an air-raid shelter for the surrounding community during wartime.

A group of young gymnasts occupies the bigger part of the space, using the time to hone its festive routine to a soundtrack of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You”. Down the corridor, the home team perch at a set of desks. It makes for a surreal backdrop as Karyna Kulakovskaya and Yana Vynorukova offer instructions to their squad, one by one, before addressing them as a collective.

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