Artem Zaloha experienced bad things - and made a fairy tale out of it. The 15-year-old comes from Dnipro in Ukraine. A few weeks after Russia attacked the country, he, his mother and younger brother fled the war. They made it to Bielefeld, where they have lived ever since.
A year later, Zaloha celebrated a historic success. With Arminia Bielefeld he became German U17 soccer champion, and as a goalkeeper he played a key role in the East Westphalian club winning the title. In the final, he and his teammates defeated VfL Wolfsburg 2-1. During the award ceremony and the celebrations with the fans, Zaloha had a Ukrainian flag slung over his shoulders. From refugee to German champion – Artem Zaloha would never have dreamed of that.
"I've never played in front of so many people before. Before that, 1,500 spectators was the maximum. The tension was there in the game too. And after about 25 minutes I thought to myself: This is going to be a long day today," reported the goalkeeper on the Arminia's website on how he experienced the final. "The first thing I did after the game was call my father. He watched the final at home and was just very proud of me."
Zaloha already played as a goalkeeper in his home country at SK Dnipro-1. Arriving in Bielefeld, he first joined the small club VfL Theesen. His coach there, Paul Neu, wrote on Twitter that Zaloha didn't speak a word of German or English, "didn't say a word, didn't make a face, but saved every ball that came on goal". The keeper soon got the chance to train with Arminia. "But the first training session surprised me. The speed and the level were very high," he recalls. "Nevertheless, I managed to assert myself and play my way into the team."
Zaloha has already had a steep learning curve in Bielefeld - and possibly the potential for more. The goalkeeper is still at the beginning of his career, but he has clear goals: "In terms of sport, I want to reach the highest level, play well and, of course, become a professional." That probably applies to all of his teammates. But given his history, it's clear that sport isn't everything. And so Artem Zaloha has another big wish: "That we stay healthy, the war will be over as soon as possible and that my father can come to Germany. I hope that we can get back together as a family as soon as possible."
Sources: Arminia Bielefeld / Paul Neu on Twitter