In the end, his safe passage into Hungary was only secured after a call from the Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković.
“February 22 was my birthday, and the very next night I heard gunshots,” Djau Codjovi, who recently rounded out his teens, told CNN Sport.
“I told my team ‘oh yeah those are fireworks’ and then I went to sleep that night (February 23),” at the club’s accommodation.
His slumber was abruptly broken in the early hours of the following morning after the alarm sounded around the city of Poltava, central Ukraine. He checked his phone and saw five missed calls from his parents as the invasion became a reality.
“That’s when I start panicking,” said Djau Codjovi, who was born in Spain to parents from the Ivory Coast and Guinea-Bissau.
“I was like ‘oh my days.’ I opened my suitcase and put everything inside,” he said.
“And then I went outside to see what’s going on and all my teammates were saying they invaded Ukraine, it is actually happening.”
Earlier in February during a training camp in Turkey, Djau Codjovi said his parents, Amadeo and Sika Marie, as well as agent Soriebah Kajue, had pleaded with him not to go back to Ukraine with the drums of war beating louder.
Djau Codjovi says Vorskla played down the threat or war — describing them as Russian “propaganda” — and assured the players that they had backup plans should they need to evacuate them at short notice. At the time, much of the world wasn’t sure of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions, even as he massed troops at the border.
As a young player with hopes of breaking into the first team ahead of the Ukrainian Premier League’s resumption on February 25, Djau Codjovi opted to return in pursuit of his soccer dream.
That dream quickly turned into a nightmare.
‘Everyone for themselves’
When the Russians started attacking Kharkiv, which is 160 kilometers away from Vorskla, Djau Codjovi says he was told by his coach Iurii Maksymov that he should wait at the club’s accommodation while the player’s travel plans were being arranged.
But Djau Codjovi soon realized that he was on his own after he said some of his teammates, who were already plotting their way out, told him it was a case of “everyone for themselves.”
CNN has contacted Vorskla and Maksymov for comment on Djau Codjovi’s version of events but did not get a response at the time of publishing.
Loaded with water, chips and chocolate for the 1,500 kilometer journey, a group of 10 players and their families, including a toddler, hit the road unsure of what would await them.
After initially deciding to drive to the Polish border, they were informed of long lines of traffic and waiting times, so the traveling party headed towards the Hungarian border.
Petrol was scarce, the roads were full of potholes, and travel at night was challenging as explosions and gunfire could be heard.
Then disaster struck when one of the cars had a flat tire.
“We had to stop,” Djau Codjovi said. “And then you could see the big tanks going past and I was scared, because I thought it was Russian troops.”
“It was like 5 a.m. and nobody was going to stop and help.”
In fact the tanks rolling by were the Ukrainian army, according to Djau Codjovi, but that did little to reassure him as he was concerned that Russian troops could open fire on them and his party would be caught in the crossfire.
After a delay of several hours and finally organizing a spare wheel, they were back on the road, before a short pitstop to sleep and get their energy back.
On day two of their journey, they boarded a minivan, optimistically heading to the Hungarian border where they would be dropped off.
Freedom in sight
“After driving 10 hours to the border, we get there. We are obviously happy that we are finally here, but we got there and they say, ‘no, you can’t go through walking, you need a vehicle,” said Djau Codjovi, with frustration etched across his face.
“We were literally stranded outside in the cold, it was freezing. It’s like a 20-second ride … some people were actually bringing cars there and empty minivans but charging people … $1,600 per person. At that point I just gave up.”
When it seemed as if all hope was lost, help came from an unlikely source — the Croatian Prime Minister Plenković.
“My Croatian teammate Ivan Pešić was calling his embassy, while we sat down and were just giving up,” said Djau Codjovi.
“Then he called out to us — ‘come quick, come quick’ — so all the group we were together …. and the Prime Minister of Croatia, he called the embassy in Kyiv and they contacted the border and then they let us through.”
CNN has contacted the Croatian government and messaged Pešic on Instagram and on his email for further comment but didn’t receive a reply at the time of publishing.
Once in Hungary, Djau Codjovi contacted his family to let them know he was safe and enjoyed his first hot meal in days while in Budapest.
“It was just the best McDonalds I’ve ever had in my life. It tasted so nice,” he said.
However, that meal didn’t compare to his mom’s home cooking on his arrival in Manchester, England, when she made him his favorite Ivorian food four long days after he embarked on his great escape.
“I just felt good, but more for my family because I know my parents were not sleeping,” he added.
Djau Codjovi has since vowed he won’t return to Ukraine.
“Even when the war finishes, I don’t think football will be the same. To recover from a war doesn’t take a couple of years, it takes a lot of time,” he said.
Djau Codjovi’s hopes of playing in European competition for Vorskla Poltava might be over, but he’s keen to restart his career in Spain or England — given the opportunity.
He was born in Spain and lived there for 15 years before his family relocated to England. He had trials with Premier League teams Liverpool and Aston Villa, before eventually joining Morecambe where he made the first-team bench several times as a 16-year-old, though he ultimately failed to earn a pro deal there.
He joined Vorskla Poltava in the summer of 2020 but sustained a knee injury which meant he had to return to the UK for treatment. However, this season saw him break into the first team, making seven appearances before the winter break and scoring a memorable goal against Lviv.
If his dream of being a top soccer player is deferred for now, the 20-year-old has plenty of time on his side. More importantly, he’s alive.