The emotion, in anticipation, had been so raw that at times it was easy to worry that it might prove overwhelming. Oleksandr Zinchenko, a Ukraine midfielder, had talked about pride, about freedom, about proving to the world that his country would “never give up.” He had welled up with tears as he spoke.
His coach, Oleksandr Petrakov, had acknowledged that many of his players were consumed by thoughts of family members trapped back home, haunted by air-raid sirens and threatened by war, and still picking up the pieces of lives shattered by a brutal Russian invasion.
Yet as they prepared for Wednesday’s European playoff match at Scotland, the first of two playoff games that could, in the end, deliver them and their nation to the World Cup, Ukraine’s players faced a daunting physical challenge.
A handful of the players at Petrakov’s disposal compete in the leagues of Western Europe; they had been able, in some superficial, professional sense, to continue as normal these last three months. Their minds might have been elsewhere, of course, but their bodies were training and playing.
For the rest of his team, though, there had been no competitive soccer for months. Those players attached to Ukraine’s two most famous clubs – Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv, both now in exile from their homeland – have featured in a smattering of charity games in Poland and Croatia, staged to raise money for the many millions fleeing Russia’s invasion.
Petrakov had been able to call his squad together last month for a training camp in Slovenia, the monotony broken only by the occasional tuneup match against club opposition. There had, though, been nothing comparable to the intensity of meaningful action. Quite whether his team would have the physical capacity to match Scotland, the first opponent blocking its path to the World Cup, remained open to question.
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More pressing still, though, was the psychological hurdle. Ukraine’s players have not shied from what the symbolism of winning a place at the World Cup would mean to their country. They haven’t tried to downplay how important something as trivial as soccer can be, even when it seems to be very trivial indeed.
Several players are in regular contact with those fighting on the front line; they had come to understand that qualifying for just the second World Cup in the country’s history would have a significant effect on national morale.
“We want to go to the World Cup, to give these incredible emotions to the people,” Zinchenko had said. “Ukrainians deserve it so much at this moment.”
As the players emerged into a sunlit Glasgow evening, each one with the country’s flag draped around his shoulders, it was impossible not to wonder if perhaps it could all prove too much. The pressure of playing to reach a World Cup can be inhibiting; the pressure of playing to reach a World Cup on behalf of a country at war, a country fighting for its existence, could be asphyxiating.
And yet, what stood out about Ukraine, almost immediately, was a coolness, a composure, a detachment from the significance of the country’s first competitive game since the invasion. It shone through not simply in the three goals it scored to beat Scotland, 3-1 – a delicate lob from Andriy Yarmolenkoa precise header from Roman Yaremchuk and an emphatic finish late from Artem Dovbyk – or in the welter of other chances it created.
It was also in dozens of little things. Ukraine passed neatly, incisively, with plenty of speed but a distinct absence of haste. Zinchenko, so affected by his sense of “mission,” as he put it, played with intricacy, verve and assurance. Yarmolenko was indefatigable. In defense, Ilya Zabarnyi and Taras Stepanenko were imposing, unruffled.
Rather than being overwhelmed by emotion, Ukraine seemed to be unshackled from it, once the anticipation had ended and the moment itself had arrived. For the first time in a long time, the players were doing what they had always done, what they had been trained to do, and they reveled in it.
It was not pride – a sense of purpose, a desire to make the people happy – that carried them through to a final playoff, against Wales in Cardiff on Sunday, in a game that will determine whether Ukraine’s story will end with a World Cup appearance in November. Instead, as soon as the whistle blew, they found freedom, and that had been more than enough.