The remarkable story of Nivaldo: From fleeing war-torn Ukraine to swapping the Europa League for England's eighth tier
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At a busy leisure centre in Wilmslow, Cheshire, there is a brief moment of silence as Nivaldo ‘Rodrigues’ Ferreira makes a quick dash into the entrance foyer. The 35-year-old shrugs his shoulders after another heavy downpour of rain. "The weather is not like this in Brazil!" he laughs.
It is an especially cold Wednesday evening in north-west England and Nivaldo is thousands of miles away from his birthplace of Iati, a city located in the heavily populated state of Pernambuco.
There are obvious differences between both areas, including the climate, but some things have remained constant. A regular visitor to the council-owned building, Niva has agreed to a 30-minute chat ahead of his daily gym session. "I've trained every single day for most of my life," he tells SPORTbible.
"Growing up in Brazil, I wasn't blessed with talent, so I needed to work hard to become a professional. When I got to play in the Europa League, it was a special moment after everything I’d been through. I remember thinking, 'Oh my god, I can tell my kids that I played in one of Europe's biggest competitions'. I'm very blessed to say that."
The Brazilian forward says he has experienced more than most during an eventful 15-year career in football, and it's hard to disagree.
At the age of 21, Niva upped sticks to the second-smallest region in Kazakhstan to play at the 8,690-seater Munaishy Stadium; home of first-division side FC Atyrau. He would later make a name for himself in Uzbekistan, Russia, Malta and Belarus, where his Europa League dreams became a reality with Premier League side Dinamo Brest.
A short spell at current Ukrainian Second League leaders FC Chaika Kyiv, a team based on the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital, soon followed but last year – in perhaps his most surprising transfers to date – he joined up with Radcliffe and Bootle, who welcomed Niva with open arms after his life took an unexpected, albeit terrifying turn.
So, why the Northern Premier League? And how did it happen? Those were my exact thoughts in late October, when I stumbled across the majestically-named striker while scrolling for an affordable addition to my promotion-chasing Chester team on the latest version of Football Manager.
Naturally, my interest peaked because, let's be honest, how many Brazilians have played in England's eighth tier over the years? A quick Google search would provide little-to-no information about his most intriguing career moves to date, so there was only one solution.
I was going to track this man down and find out for myself.
"Two or three weeks before the war started, I remember my wife saying, 'I think it's best that we move away.' I played it down because nobody believed it would happen."
It is January 2022 and Anna Karavayeva, a former professional tennis player-turned-coach, could sense a shift in the ongoing battle between Ukraine and Russia. According to western experts and senior officials in Kyiv, Russia were unable to gather enough troops on the border to carry out a full-scale military invasion and occupation of Ukraine.
But tensions were building at an alarming pace. "Every time she [Anna] proposed the idea of leaving, I would say, 'Where would we go? We have three kids who are settled in school and I play football here.' It was a difficult situation," Niva says, looking at the ground. "Our lives were in Ukraine. Everything was there."
A short while later, it would transpire that Anna’s instincts were indeed correct.
In the early hours of February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine in the biggest attack on a European country since World War II. As the rest of Europe slept, thousands of residents from Kyiv and its neighouring areas made the long and terrifying journey west.
"I can remember the war starting like it was yesterday," Niva recalls with a tear in his eye. "It was around 4 o'clock in the morning and the first bomb went off. My wife sat up and screamed, 'C'mon wake up! The war has started!' I said, 'No way' but as I walked to the window, the second bomb dropped… boom."
As soon as Anna heard the explosions, she made a number of snap decisions.
"We packed whatever we could into two bags, got our passports and tried to leave town as fast as we could," she says. “Luckily, we had a full tank of fuel and my father gave us an extra two gallons. We were told that Russian troops were getting into Ukraine. We had to act quickly.”
With the sound of explosions and gunfire ringing in his ears, Nivaldo sprinted to the car with his wife and three young children. Just six months after moving to Kyiv Oblast – a province surrounding the capital city – they were already leaving behind their family home and possessions.
Safety, however, was the main priority. "As I was driving, I remember being so scared for my family,” Niva remembers. “There's only so much you can do behind the wheel. You don't have time to think about other options. My mission was to just get out of there.”
As thousands feared the worst, a steady stream of people were making their way to the border on foot, carrying suitcases and holdalls stuffed with belongings as Russian forces closed in on the Ukrainian capital. Many others, including Niva, Anna and their three children, slowly edged towards refuge.
"I remember it being so busy,” recalls Nivaldo. “Everywhere was crazy. We could hear explosions on our way to the border and at one stage, there was a long line of tanks flanked by soldiers. It's the kind of stuff you only see in movies and here I was, in my car, seeing it happen in front of my eyes."
It was a scary and confusing time. A day after leaving their home, the UN refugee agency confirmed that more than 50,000 people had fled Ukraine as Russian forces advanced on Kyiv. Later that week, it was confirmed that at least 352 civilians, including 14 children, had been killed since the invasion began, with a further 1,684 people wounded.
"The youngest didn't really understand what was happening, to be honest, but my oldest son, Alexander, who is 11 years old, was very upset," Niva says. "I played in Russia for five years and we have a lot of friends there. He didn't understand when the country invaded."
In total, Nivaldo drove his Kia Sorento for three days straight. To get to the main border crossing of Medyka in south-eastern Poland, it took around 15 hours as they navigated around the far more dangerous main roads, which were swarmed by military.
When they eventually got to the border, Niva and his family had to sleep in their car for another two nights as they waited their turn to squeeze through the checkpoint in Poland. "We were told to switch off all the lights, including our phones, to avoid detection."
As well as trying to stay warm in sub-zero temperatures, food supplies were naturally low but thankfully – amid such a hostile and violent war – the kindness of others, as we find out later on, helped in what was an incredibly distressing and uncertain time.
Anna remembers taking the kids for a short walk to stretch their legs and an older resident from one of the nearby villages handed them some much-needed hot soup and rice. "That was the first time in three days that they'd eaten normal food," Niva says. "From that moment on, things looked more positive."
Once they crossed Poland's border, the family would check-in at a nearby hotel. A decision was eventually made to leave the country for Brazil, where they would stay with Nivaldo's family in Pernambuco. The ultimate goal, however, was to find a place to settle down.
"I wanted my kids to grow up in a country where they could flourish and be safe," he says. "Brazil is a good but there's a lot of corruption. We spoke about potentially moving to America but I suggested England as we both had friends here. We spoke to them and they recommended it. We got the papers together and moved."
As of May this year, around 174,000 people had moved to the UK under the Ukraine Family Scheme. That being said, the process to leave Brazil and make a 4,000 mile trip to England, especially at such a busy time, was not an easy one.
After a two-month wait, it was eventually agreed that Niva, Anna and their three children would stay with another family on a farm in Nantwich, a popular market town in Cheshire.
Things were slowly starting to take shape but there was something missing; even if he was initially unsure.
“When I moved to England, I didn't want to play football anymore," Nivaldo admits. "It didn't even enter my thought process. I just wanted to take care of my family but my friends kept on saying, 'C'mon let's try and find a club for you'. So they sent my CV to Radcliffe."
Soon, a Brazilian forward with multiple honours to his name, including the Belarusian Cup and Belarusian Super Cup, was on trial at eighth-tier Radcliffe, after Bobby Grant discussed the opportunity with Nivaldo over the phone. It was, in his own words, a chance to fall in love with football again.
After an impressive pre-season trial last summer, Nivaldo was snapped up on a permanent deal.
Radcliffe chairman Paul Hilton was inspired. "From the heights of the Europa League, to packing his life and family into a car overnight and driving for the border as the bombs began to fall in Kiev is an experience that I don’t think many people can truly ever understand," he said. "But the humility and dedication to his family is there for all to see."
To their credit, Hilton and Grant went above and beyond for the experienced striker.
"They both knew my situation but at the time, I was living quite far away, so they gave me a car so I could drive to training and matches," Niva says. "That was a really big help."
With his family watching on from the stands, Niva would make nine appearances for Radcliffe in the early stages of the 2022/23 season. He scored a memorable 87th-minute winner against FC United of Manchester; a goal that sparked huge celebrations in the Broadhurst Park away end.
But he soon came to realise that some aspects of the English game were more difficult than others.
"I didn't expect how physical it would be," he laughs, before recalling a red card incident involving a mass brawl. "I was nowhere near the ball and they'd beat me up. It was constant. I remember saying, 'C'mon guys. What is your problem? Let's just play football. Just improve yourself. Why do you need to do this?'
"I soon realised that If I didn't do the same, they'd kill me."
After struggling to adapt, Niva agreed that regular first-team minutes were a necessity, so a loan move to Northern Premier League side Bootle was made official in October. Looking back, his mindset was different compared to previous spells in Belarus and Ukraine.
"You've got to remember, I came here to look after my family," he maintains.
"I don't play football for money anymore. I play to enjoy. I met some guys recently and they invited me to play a game of Sunday League... is that what it's called? I needed to play some games, so I went and scored a hat trick for Bury Street. The level wasn't the same but I really enjoyed it."
Still, the Brazilian managed to find the net on five separate occasions at New Bucks Park; a stadium located at the southern edge of an industrial estate in Merseyside. Nivaldo, who says he "loved" his time at the club, quickly became a fan favourite with the Bootle faithful.
Stephen Killen, a non-league reporter on Merseyside, has fond memories of his short, but very sweet, spell in Bootle.
"He instantly became a cult hero with the fans, notably the younger ‘ultras’, who had a chant along the lines of ‘Viva Nivaldo’," Killen says. "He almost became the main attraction with crowds of the young ultras waiting for a picture and a high-five on the way past."
Got him in for a friendly for my Sunday league side, some player! pic.twitter.com/Yr0VrNbw0J— Ethan Feaver (@feaver_ethan) October 22, 2023
As they slipped down the league table, Nivaldo's time at Bootle slowly fizzled out under former Tranmere defender Steve McNulty. On his return to Radcliffe, it was agreed that both parties would part company.
He later attended a trial at Welsh Premier League side Bala Town, which was another country to add to his ever-growing CV, and is said to have impressed against Wrexham in a pre-season game but after picking up an injury, the move never materialised.
A few training sessions with local side City of Liverpool FC took place more recently but at the time of writing, Nivaldo is a free agent. The funny thing is though, after dedicating so many years to football, the most important thing in his life right now is elsewhere.
Throughout our chat, you can see and hear how thankful he is to simply be here, in England, at a time when Ukraine is still at war.
Anna says it has taken time to properly adjust but they have received help from so many kind people as they continue to settle at their family home in Wilmslow. "We definitely feel safer," she says. "That is the most important thing."
Niva smiles, looking around the crowded room. "We've been here for 18 months and life is comfortable. The kids are enjoying school and I'm studying to become a football coach. I'm doing a Level One course at the moment and eventually, I would like to open my own football academy.
"Most importantly though, my family is safe."