Ukraine carry the weight of war on their shoulders ahead of World Cup play-off game against Scotland

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It is not long now until Oleksandr Petrakov and his patched-up squad head back on the road.

No 20-hour bus journey awaits this time; no driving near battlefields and scorched earth. Only a flight from Slovenia to Glasgow — the penultimate pit-stop, Ukraine hope, en route to Qatar.

Preparations for Wednesday’s play-off have been frantic and fraught. Even in Brdo, their adopted home on the outskirts of Ljubljana, minds never strayed far from home.

‘People are dying every day,’ goalkeeper Dmytro Riznyk said. ‘We’re thinking about it all, but we have to concentrate on our jobs.’

Ukraine last played a competitive game in November 2021,  beating Bosnia and Herzegovina

Ukraine last played a competitive game in November 2021,  beating Bosnia and Herzegovina 

The occasional distraction can help. Last Sunday, while in the gym, Petrakov’s squad watched Manchester City’s final Premier League game against Aston Villa. 

At half-time, with the title slipping from City’s grasp, one player reassured his team-mates: Oleksandr Zinchenko will come on and City will win. They were proved right. ‘Sasha’ created the second of City’s three goals.

Until recently, only Ukraine-based players have been part of camp. Riznyk, for one, had not trained properly between the Russian invasion in February and early May, when the first bus from Kyiv arrived in Slovenia.

‘For me, great moral support comes from the guys playing abroad,’ midfielder Serhiy Sydorchuk said earlier this month. ‘I’m looking at those guys playing and it helps me.’

Oleksandr Zinchenko helped Manchester City win the Premier League in dramatic fashion

Oleksandr Zinchenko helped Manchester City win the Premier League in dramatic fashion

Turns out rap music and a double bass can do the same. A week before Zinchenko’s heroics, the Ukraine squad came together for another, rare moment of national celebration during these dark days.

‘The whole team watched Eurovision,’ striker Roman Yaremchuk revealed. ‘I am proud I am a Ukrainian; that such people win at Eurovision; that the whole world knows about us. I want to congratulate the Kalush Orchestra.’

Back home, commentator Timur Miroshnychenko covered the show from a bunker in Kyiv. ‘I understand that now everyone is expecting the same feats from the national team,’ Yaremchuk said.

To reach the World Cup, Ukraine must beat Scotland and then Wales. It would be an astonishing feat, given the weight of war on their shoulders. And their hearts.

Ukraine faced Sweden in the round of 16 of last summer's Euro 2020 at Hampden Park

Ukraine faced Sweden in the round of 16 of last summer’s Euro 2020 at Hampden Park

Sydorchuk and his young family spent the invasion’s early days hiding in an underground car park. Shortly before arriving in Slovenia, however, they were walking through a park in Romania.

There, Sydorchuk’s twins chased after a butterfly, towards an elderly couple sitting on a bench. The gentleman offered Sydorchuk’s son a biscuit. ‘Please take it,’ he said. ‘Slava Ukraini! [Glory to Ukraine]’

Ukraine have only reached one World Cup

Ukraine have only reached one World Cup 

Sydorchuk said: ‘It’s important for us to feel that people want to help us with everything they have.’

Football has already lent a hand, too. UEFA’s Slovenian president Aleksander Ceferin offered Ukraine his country’s training base and they have found willing ‘sparring’ partners in Borussia Monchengladbach, Empoli and Croatia’s Rijeka. They hoped for more this week. 

A friendly against the Democratic Republic of Congo fell through and games against Lithuania, Malta, Venezuela and teams in the Spanish second division were all explored. 

Unfortunately, none was quite right. The issue with LaLiga 2 opposition? ‘[That] would not help us,’ Petrakov said. ‘To go to hot Spain, when you need to play in foggy Albion.’

These friendlies were about more than rebuilding fitness. They have raised funds for the war effort with Ukraine refugees admitted free.

Petrakov’s players have worn special shirts, too, with squad numbers made up of a patchwork of places suffering back home: Kyiv, Kharkiv, Bucha, and so on. Across the front is ‘United For Ukraine’, with an outline of the country, featuring flags of nations who have come to their aid.

Ukraine have raised funds for the continuing war effort through friendlies and warm-up games

Ukraine have raised funds for the continuing war effort through friendlies and warm-up games

For Petrakov and his squad, there is more at stake than the Qatar World Cup.

Against Empoli, they emerged on to the pitch with flags of the European Union. ‘We see support from the EU, but we want more,’ Yaremchuk said. ‘We need to make every effort to make people see that we want to live alongside them.’

Petrakov added: ‘We want everyone in Europe to know that we want to be part of the EU family. Ukraine is Europe.’

Ukraine’s players even released a video message asking the West to ‘embrace’ their nation. ‘Ukraine defends Europe,’ they said. ‘Ukraine should be in the European Union.’

That is not in their hands, but Ukraine’s World Cup fate is.

West Ham winger Andriy Yarmolenko, Zinchenko and the rest of Petrakov’s foreign legion have now arrived in Slovenia. ‘I could not wait for the end of the season, to come to the national team,’ Yarmolenko said.

‘I was very sad, I was in touch with them all the time. But it’s one thing to talk on the phone, another to meet them face-to-face; to share the pitch with them.’

Ukraine fly to Glasgow tomorrow — undercooked, perhaps underprepared, but with so much to play for. ‘We have to fight for our country,’ Riznyk said

Croatian League side HNK Rijeka drew 1-1 with Ukraine when the sides met earlier in May

Croatian League side HNK Rijeka drew 1-1 with Ukraine when the sides met earlier in May

‘We are preparing for one of the most important matches in our lives,’ defender Valeriy Bondar added. ‘There is no fatigue at all… we know why we are gathered here, why we do all this.’

During Eurovision’s public vote, Ukraine received 439 points out of a possible 468. No doubt Petrakov’s side will have the world, apart from Scotland, willing them on, too.

‘Because you want to give people at least some joy, it adds inspiration,’ Yarmolenko said. ‘You have to give all your strength for yourself, our fans, all Ukrainians, for those soldiers who protect us and our families.

‘Of course, the guys saw the appeal of our military, who are asking us to secure a ticket to the World Cup. I can’t guarantee that we will get there, but I promise that we will give our all.’

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