The Ukrainian national team is on the verge of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup finals after an emotional evening at Hampden Park.
When Ukraine midfielder Oleksandr Zinchenko learned his country had been invaded in February, he didn’t think his country’s World Cup play-off match against Scotland would go ahead. Even after the match was rescheduled for June, the odds were stacked against Ukraine.
‘This is for the Ukrainian fans,’ says Zinchenko
Instead, on an emotional night in Glasgow, Zinchenko and his team overcame partisanship, a lack of match practice, and, most importantly, fears for the safety of relatives living and fighting on the frontlines back home to bring much-needed joy to their countrymen.
“Thank God the game happened,” Zinchenko said on Wednesday to UEFA.com. “We tried to give our best performance, to instill great emotions and positive feelings in all of the Ukrainian fans who were watching.”
“I understand that there aren’t many opportunities for all Ukrainians to come here and support our team, but I’d like to thank the fans who came today and everyone else who has been watching us.” We could feel their support.”
Not by themselves
Before the game, the visiting players emerged from the tunnel, each draped in blue and yellow flags, mirroring the scenes in the away section, where up to 3,000 Ukrainian fans had gathered to support their heroes, including orphans and refugees displaced by the war. They weren’t the only ones.
To the immense credit of Scottish football, the Hampden roar was transformed into a crescendo of unity. Local fans sang along with the Ukrainian national anthem, ‘Shche ne vmerla Ukrayina’ (‘Ukraine has not yet perished,’ using phonetic song sheets.
a massive task
However, it was impossible to predict how the emotion of the occasion would affect the performance of a team whose domestic-based players had last competed in December. Oleksandr Petrakov, the team’s coach, admitted that a month-long training camp in Slovenia and three friendlies against Borussia Mönchengladbach, Empoli, and Rijeka were inadequate preparation for a World Cup qualifier.
“It’s a very difficult task when each and every player is thinking about their fathers, mothers, and close relatives back in Ukraine,” Petrakov said on Tuesday. “Clearly, every player recognizes the enormity of the task… But we’re still doing our best to achieve our goals, and our team is ready to fight.”
Ukraine’s performance was inspired by the plight of their besieged nation, from the moment captain Andriy Yarmolenko, leading by example, put his side ahead until Artem Dovbyk’s late goal secured a win that will live long in the memory.
Football Community in Europe
The fact that Ukraine’s play-off against Scotland took place on Wednesday owed a lot to the wider European football community’s support.
In an immediate response to Russia’s invasion, national associations assisted the Football Association of Ukraine (UAF) in evacuating players and their families, agreed to postpone matches against Ukraine so that they could compete in the best possible conditions, and hosted training camps for Ukrainian teams.
Last month, at UEFA’s Annual Congress in Vienna, President Aleksander eferin praised European football’s united response to the tragedy in Ukraine. “Your solidarity means everything to us,” Mr. eferin said.
One last thing
Zinchenko and his teammates will have another opportunity to unite the football community when they face Wales on Sunday for a place in Qatar.
“Every game is like a final,” Zinchenko said. “As a team, we have dreamed of reaching the World Cup, and we have one more final – we need to win it or this means nothing – we all need to put in the performance of our lives and then let’s see what happens.”
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