Four years ago Sweden’s Gustav Svensson, then on the books of Ukrainian club Tavriya Simferopol, fled the country after Russia invaded the Crimea peninsula in 2014.
Now, the midfielder is back in the region at Sweden’s World Cup training base in Gelendzhik, less than 200 kilometres (124 miles) along the Black Sea coast from the region annexed by Russia.
“I’m very close to where I used to be,” Svensson, 31, told reporters as the Nordic side prepared for their World Cup opener against South Korea Monday.
“Some memories are coming back, but not all bad ones, I mostly remember the positive ones from there,” he said.
The former IFK Goteborg and Bursaspor stalwart signed for Tavriya Simferopol in 2012 and played 21 times for the club.
Then in February 2014, pro-Russian militia suddenly appeared in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, taking over the airport and other strategic locations in the city.
By April, Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered military units to enter the peninsula, prompting Svensson and foreign teammates to flee from Crimea on a bus past militia checkpoints into mainland Ukraine.
“Power and military enters and takes over what it thinks is theirs. There are other ways to solve things, it was a very wrong way to act,” said Svensson.
The player had hoped to return to Ukraine, but decided it would be wiser to return to his former Swedish club Gothenburg.
After moving back to Sweden, Svensson, who now plays for Major League Soccer side Seattle Sounders, says he lost contact with his former Tavriya teammates.
“Most of them went back home, to Argentina and Brazil. It became a bit chaotic,” he said.
These days, two teams called Tavriya carry on the club’s name.
Tavriya Simferopol are now based in mainland Ukraine across the de facto border, while TSK Simferopol, a club founded after the annexation, remains on in the city and plays in a new Crimean league.
Svensson said he had “no idea” the club had split in two.