During the match, your sense of danger completely disappears. You’re thinking mainly about playing the ball and avoiding making contact with the striker. And only later do you think back on how you played, and what could have happened.
-Serhiy Perkhun, in his last ever interview
He was always fearless on the pitch. Always willing to come out and challenge for the ball without any regard for his own safety. Always putting the team ahead of himself.
On August 18th, 2001, sensing danger as the opposing striker was running on to a lofted pass toward his goal, he came rushing out of his box to head the ball clear. But this time, he couldn’t avoid making contact. This time, he did not get the chance to think back on the play. This time, the sense of danger that he so often ignored to keep the ball out the net could have saved his life. Several hours after a violent collision with the striker, Serhiy Perkhun slipped into a coma. After ten days, he was dead.
Serhiy Perkhun began his career playing for the youth team of Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, his hometown club. He made his first team debut against local rivals Kryvbas in October of 1993 after an injury crisis left the senior side without a single healthy goalkeeper. At just 16 years of age, Perkhun was and remains the youngest goalkeeper to ever make an appearance in the Ukrainian Premier League.
The following year he was a key member of the Ukraine side that took home the bronze medal from the Under-16 European Championships in Ireland, the first international success for an independent Ukraine.
An auspicious beginning to his career did not bear immediate success. Perkhun only played sparingly for Dnipro through the 90s and in the winter of 1999 he made a surprising move to the Moldovan club Sheriff Tiraspol. While at the club he helped them to win the Moldovan Cup, their first ever piece of major silverware.
After a year and a half at Sheriff, Perkhun was ready to leave Moldova. A prolonged contract dispute, however, meant that for six months Perkhun was effectively without a club. His old club, Dnipro, refused to buy out his contract. Dynamo Kyiv were reportedly interested but failed to secure a deal. A tryout with Galatasaray proved unsuccessful. To remain in form he trained with CSKA Kyiv while waiting for an offer.
In February of 2001, one finally came. Pavel Sadyrin, manager of CSKA Moscow, invited Perkhun to the club’s winter training camp at the recommendation of an agent. Perkhun was fresh from yet another rejection; after a tryout at Torpedo-Zil he was told that the club already had enough keepers. But Sadyrin saw something in Perkhun that everyone else had overlooked:
You know, I liked Seryozha [diminutuve form of Serhiy] from the first day we met. I remember I called him over and truthfully told him ‘You know we have a first-choice keeper, Andrey Novosadov. So I can’t promise anything. Everything will depend on you.’ ‘I understand,’ the guy said, ‘I’m ready to wait for my moment for as long as it takes’.
Two weeks after arriving at the camp Perkhun was offered a contract. It was certainly a gamble. Perkhun had been without a club for six months, and before that had been playing in the footballing backwater of Moldova. Sadyrin, however, was convinced.
The gamble paid off. Perkhun’s moment came soon after joining the side. When starting goalkeeper Andrey Novosadov went down injured against Zenit three months into the season, Perkhun was handed the gloves at halftime and never gave them back. “You can say that he came pretty much out of nowhere,” remembers teammate Sergey Filippenkov, “we all thought, now we’d see what he’s made of. And then, a phenomenal take off.”
His performances – 12 matches, six clean sheets, six goals conceded – did not go unnoticed by Ukrainian national team manager Leonid Buryak, who called up Perkhun for a friendly against Latvia in Riga. Perkhun played the second half of the match, a 1-0 victory. As Buryak recalls,
As he was leaving the national team after the August match in Latvia, he came up to me and asked, ‘Leonid Iosifovich, am I going to be called up for the matches against Belarus and Armenia?’ I distinctly remember his eyes, they were gleaming with hope. I told him ‘of course you’ll be called up, without a doubt.
The friendly in Riga took place on August 15th, 2001. Three days later, CSKA Moscow travelled to Dagestan to take on Anzhi Makhachkala. The home side had the better of the play for most of the match, and could have been well ahead had it not been for the heroics of their Ukrainian goalkeeper.
In the 75th minute Perkhun was once again called into action. Anzhi midfielder Nebojša Stojković lofted a through ball into the path of Budun Budunov. Perkhun, quick off his line as always, came out to challenge for the ball. As he was already outside his box, he went up to head the ball clear, leaping right into the path of the onrushing forward.
It was exactly the type of self-sacrificing play everyone had come to expect from Perkhun. “The word fear,” remembered teammate Oleg Kornaukhov when looking back on the incident, “was entirely absent from his mind, and in that moment, he acted as he should have.”
Immediately after making contact with the ball, he clashed heads with Budunov. Both players lost consciousness and were taken to the local hospital. Perkhun’s cut on his head was stitched up and he was given two injections to prevent tetanus. After two hours under observation he was discharged, deemed well enough to return to Moscow along with the team.
On the bus to the airport Perkhun said he was feeling fine and asked about how the match ended. But after fifteen minutes he lost consciousness and was immediately rushed back to the hospital. He was in a state of clinical death for seven minutes before doctors managed to resuscitate him, after which he fell into a coma. The next day, the same plane which departed to Moscow without him returned to Makhachkala to take him back to the capital where he was transferred to a neurosurgery centre.
Perkhun’s CSKA teammates were left in a stunned daze, shocked by what had happened but remaining hopeful for the best. “For the whole week after that match we lived in hope,” remembers Filippenkov. “I thought Seryoga would make it. There were rumours he’d have to leave football. But I believed that he would survive.”
Fifteen minutes before each morning practice the CSKA players met and were updated on Perkhun’s condition. And if there was no practice, they found out for themselves. Teammate Stanislav Lysenko would call the doctor and ask if there were any improvements. “Still the same,” was the daily response.
On August 24th, as Perkhun was still in a coma, being kept alive by a respirator, CSKA hosted Torpedo-Zil. Hundreds of CSKA fans arrived in the stadium in specially made shirts with Perkhun’s #16 emblazoned on the back and the words “We believe in you, goalkeeper’ on the front. The supporters covered part of the west stand with a yellow-green banner made to look like Perkhun’s goalkeeper kit, also with his #16 prominently displayed. The match ended 1-1, but on that day the result was secondary.
Four days later Stanislav Lysenko once again picked up his phone and dialled the number of the doctor.
I asked him, as always, ‘how’s Seryoga?’ I even asked cheerfully. His answer was just ‘he’s gone.’ Right away there was a long pause. For a minute we were silent, both he and I. I just couldn’t believe that this could happen. And when I hung up the phone, I just broke down in tears.
At 5:30 AM on August 28th, 2001, 10 days after the collision, Serhiy Perkhun passed away. He left behind a daughter and a pregnant wife. Three months after his death his second daughter was born.
The next day thousands of people came to mourn Serhiy Perkhun at the CSKA sports hall. Teammates, club officials, fans. And not just of CSKA. Supporters of Spartak and Lokomotiv, among others, put aside their bitter rivalry to pay tribute to the fallen keeper, leaving flowers and scarves at the ceremony.
When the plane carrying Perkhun’s body arrived in Dnipropetrovsk it was greeted by scores of grieving mourners. The entire CSKA team came for the funeral, joined by 10,000 others.
Perkhun’s teammates spent the entire rest of the season playing in black armbands. His number 16 was retired by his club and a memorial was erected in his home town.
Before his own death from cancer three months later, Pavel Sadyrin, the man who brought Perkhun to Moscow, said in an interview:
He had everything a goalkeeper needed. Dedication, skill. He was very coordinated… he read the game very well, and often came out of his box. And that is what killed him.