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Ukrainian athlete-refugees return to 2023 Target USA Cup

Ukrainian athlete-refugees return to 2023 Target USA Cup

BLOOMINGTON, MN and UZHHOROD, UKRAINE -- JUNE 30, 2023 -- FC Minaj (pronounced: min EYE), the team of Ukrainian athlete-refugees who captured the admiration of fans, players and coaches alike last summer, will return to Minnesota to compete in the 2023 Target USA Cup, North America's largest youth soccer tournament, July 14-22 at the National Sports Center in Blaine.

While they dominated their Boys U16 Gold division in bracket play last year, they fell in the final game of the championship tournament to their well-matched opponents, JaHbat 2006 Premier (IL). Now a year older, team members are laser-focused on bringing the USA Cup championship trophy home from what has been called "the greatest soccer experience in the world."

"All but one of my players will graduate from high school and turn 18 in the coming school year," explains Coach Rudolf (Rudy) Balazhinec (pronounced: bah LAH zhen etz). "Next summer they may be preparing for college or playing on semi-professional or professional team. Ukraine may even require them to stay within the country, depending on the war. Of course, we pray that we will have defeated the Russian invaders by then."

Family of Christ International, the Christian humanitarian aid organization Balazhinec founded in 2012, is sponsoring the team's journey. Volunteers from the organization's Minnesota branch will gather to greet the team when they arrive on Friday, July 7 at 5:30 p.m. at the International Arrivals gate in Terminal 1 of the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport and have planned several events for the athletes for the week prior to the tournament.

Balazhinec reports his team has been training hard all year to be ready for the competition, traveling via train to play against other Ukrainian teams, often in towns that have been targeted by Russian shelling. The field in Kherson where they played a match in May was submerged under 13 feet of water after Russians detonated explosives that destroyed the Nova Kakhovka Dam on June 6.

"Coming to the USA Cup last year was a dream come true for us," Balazhinec says. "Now when we come back to Minnesota, we carry with us a year more of war trauma. Seeing again our Minnesota friends and focusing on football helps us to heal for a little time. And when we bring home the winning trophy to Ukraine, God willing, we will bring a little hope and healing home with us too."

Coach “more broken, more determined than ever” to deliver aid to his people

Although he is eager to coach his players as they compete in the sport they love against teams from around the world, Balazhinec says he and his team are just as motivated to focus attention on and raise funds for the people of Ukraine. He recently led a team of 11 volunteers in five cargo vans from their base on Ukraine's western border on a 10,000-mile round trip to distribute 10 tons of food, water and medicine to people displaced by the Kakhovka flooding. As they distributed bags of needed supplies in town after town, a repeated refrain they heard

from grateful people was, "Without what you have brought us today, we would not be alive tomorrow."

As they unloaded their precious cargo, Family of Christ volunteers listened to flood survivors' stories -- a man who buried three sons in one day, a woman who discovered a severed human leg as she tried to reclaim her now-swamped garden, the struggle of mothers to keep their children safe from Russian landmines unearthed by the flooding and now floating ashore, the trauma of seeing and smelling the bodies of women and children still floating in the river. The Family of Christ volunteers listened compassionately as they worked, hearing the sound of Ukraine's High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launching rockets against an incoming Russian attack. They knew they had only minutes in each town to unload before they had to leave for their next stop, but they also realized the importance of allowing victims to share their trauma.

It was a harrowing experience that shook Balazhinec to the core, wiping the usual easy smile from his face and silencing the hearty, good-natured laugh that is his trademark. "I came home from that trip more broken, but more determined than ever to get aid to our people," he recounts. The distribution sites where he and his volunteers make their deliveries are often run by pastors of congregations who have opened their buildings to serve as shelters for displaced families and senior citizens and feeding centers for members of the Ukrainian military stationed nearby. They never fail to express their gratitude for the humanitarian and medical aid, food and water to them. "It may not seem that big to you," they tell him, "but it is a breath of fresh air to know that those in western Ukraine and in the United States are supporting us."

Balazhinec is hopeful that this year's return trip to Minnesota will be an opportunity to prove once again just how strongly Americans support the people of Ukraine.

Arrange an Interview

To arrange an interview with Rudolf (Rudy) Balazhinec, coach of FC Minaj and founder of Family of Christ International, while the team is in Minnesota, please contact Family of Christ Communications Manager Nina Gilliam at 612-618-6331 at nina.gilliam@familyofchristinternational.org.

Media & Press


Links for More Information

  • Meet the Team: View photos of the coaches and players and read player bios. 
  • 2022 Video Highlights: Scroll down to the second video on the page to view a fast-paced and colorful highlight reel of the team's tour of Minnesota last year. Be sure to watch to the very end to see midfielder Slava Karaman's extreme reaction to riding a roller coaster at Valleyfair!
  • Calendar of Events: Click on "Calendar of Events" or scroll to the middle of the page to learn where you can see the team in action and/or hear Coach Rudy Balazhinec speak prior to and during the USA Cup.
  • Media Kit: Find branding elements and assets for Family of Christ International and FC Minaj.
  • Volunteer Opportunities: Volunteer to host a player or two in your home while they're here!
  • Donate: Click on the yellow button at the top of the page to help Family of Christ International fund the team's expenses.

About Family of Christ International

Family of Christ International Favicon Logo (Black)

From focusing attention on ongoing humanitarian needs, to coordinating volunteers and planning mission trips, to raising financial support, the purpose of Family of Christ International is to deliver help, hope and healing in the name of Jesus Christ to people and places in crisis. Whether you contribute online, donate stock or mail a check, every gift makes an impact. Learn more about ways to get involved and donate to support.

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