World Cup qualifier is ‘like a moment of hope’ for Ukraine

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, Oleksandr Petrakov showed up at military service in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and demanded a gun.

“I’m 64 but I thought it was normal to do that,” Petrakov told a Guardian reporter a month later. “I think I could take out two or three enemies.”

The Territorial Defense thanked him but declined the offer due to Petrakov’s lack of military experience. He was also used elsewhere as a coach of the Ukrainian national football team.

That brings us to Sunday when Petrakov can deliver a blow on a manicured patch of grass in Cardiff, Wales that is as vital to Ukrainian sovereignty as anything he could have accomplished on a battlefield at home.

If Petrakov’s side beat Wales, Ukraine will qualify for their first World Cup in 16 years and only their second since becoming an independent country in 1991. And while that won’t stop the bombs from falling or the battles from raging, it will bring a burst of pride and an invaluable moral boost to a nation that is beginning to wither after more than 100 days of war.

Andriy Yarmolenko (left) scores Ukraine's opening goal in a World Cup qualifier against Scotland.

Andriy Yarmolenko (left) scores Ukraine’s opening goal in a World Cup qualifier against Scotland.

(Scott Heppell/Associated Press)

“We are all fighting, each on our own front,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote on social media. “For our blue and yellow flag, for our coat of arms on our hearts.”

No sport honors national identity as much as international football, where teams play for their country rather than their club and carry a flag rather than a crest over their hearts. That’s why Zinedine Zidane, the child of Algerian immigrants, called “La Marseillaise” played in Paris after France won the 1998 World Cup. Because of this, much of Brazil is always closed the Seleção plays a big game. That’s why the chance to cheer for the national team at the 2006 World Cup convinced the two sides of Ivory Coast’s three-year civil war to lay down their arms and return to the negotiating table.

That’s why Sunday’s World Cup qualifier is much more than a game for Ukraine. The army, which fought the invading Russians to a standstill for three months, has suffered a series of setbacks of late. The situation is particularly dire in the east, where the civilian death toll is rising as the Russians consolidate their gains.

A win against Wales won’t change that, but it will be welcome good news amidst the bad.

“Everyone knows the situation in Ukraine,” midfielder Oleksandr Zinchenko told ESPN. “We have to show the best performance of our lives.”

Ukraine's Oleksandr Zinchenko reacts during a news conference May 31 at Hampden Park in Glasgow, Scotland.

Ukraine’s Oleksandr Zinchenko reacts during a news conference Tuesday at Hampden Park in Glasgow, Scotland.

(Andrew Milligan/Associated Press)

As midfielder Taras Stepanenko told reporters last month, “We receive messages from our soldiers every day. Many soldiers, many people in Ukraine love football, and they do [have] only one demand: ‘Please do everything to go to the World Cup.’

“It’s like a moment of hope for them. That’s why we have to play… with our soul, with our heart. This is very, very important. It will be very emotional for my country, for our players and for all of Ukraine.”

Ukraine are unbeaten in World Cup qualifiers but with six of their eight group stage games ending in a draw they finished second to reigning world champions France and did not automatically secure a place in this autumn’s tournament in Qatar. Instead, it was a 12-team playoff for three more World Cup spots.

Poland was supposed to play against Russia in a playoff group, but declined out of solidarity with Ukraine. Sweden and the Czech Republic, the other teams in the group, also refused, opting to gamble away their chances of a World Cup spot rather than sharing a field with Russia.

Four days later, world football’s governing body FIFA suspended Russia and Poland continued to qualify.

For Ukraine, the war pushed back its first playoff game by 10 weeks to June 1. It then played an inspired 90 minutes to beat Scotland 3-1. However, that means nothing if they don’t beat Wales on Sunday.

“Many soldiers, many people in Ukraine love football, and they [have] only one demand: ‘Please do everything to go to the World Cup.’ For them it is like a moment of hope.”

— Ukraine midfielder Taras Stepanenko

The odds are long. The game against Scotland was Ukraine’s first competitive game in 6½ months, and now it’s four days later with tired legs against the world number 18. line up who will be rested.

Football is not a national obsession in Ukraine like in Argentina and Brazil, but Argentina and Brazil are not at war. This reality changed the way the team is viewed in Ukraine.

The fighting has banned large gatherings across much of the country, especially at night, forcing people to watch the game alone or in small groups in Scotland. They will play for the Wales game on the same Sunday.

“Of course we’re all proud of the team,” said Oleg Prystavsky, 21, a fan in the western city of Lemberg. “And we will watch.”

But while Ukraine takes inspiration from their soccer team, the players draw their strength from the struggling people at home.

“Sometimes you don’t need many words,” Zelenskyj wrote. “Pride only.”

That’s what the team gets from Petrakov, who, like Zelensky, has taken on a challenge many thought would overwhelm him.

Raised as a player in the Soviet football system, Petrakov had a long if not outstanding playing career that included a brief stint with an army team prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As a coach, he progressed through a number of amateur and division pro teams before joining the Ukraine national team program at age group level 11 years ago.

Ukraine coach Olexandr Petrakov (left) shakes hands with Andriy Yarmolenko

Ukraine coach Olexandr Petrakov (left) shakes hands with Andriy Yarmolenko during a World Cup qualifier against Scotland in Glasgow on Wednesday.

(Scott Heppell/Associated Press)

His biggest success came at the 2019 U-20 World Cup when Ukraine beat South Korea in the final. It was the country’s first international trophy at any level. When Andriy Shevchenko stepped down as senior coach last August, a month after he was eliminated by England at the European Championship, Petrakov was chosen to replace him.

Since then, Ukraine has not lost.

When the war began, Petrakov showed leadership qualities of a different kind. As the Russians approached the capital, Petrakov’s family urged him to leave Kyiv, but he refused. The Germans occupied his mother’s house in World War II, he said, so he would stay and fight if the need arose.

Speaking Russian since childhood, today he only speaks Ukrainian in public. He is unusually succinct about his feelings about the Moscow government that once employed him.

“It’s just hate,” he told reporters.

“For me, there is no longer a country called Russia,” he added. “I don’t have any friends there anymore.”

Despite Sunday’s game being played at a packed Cardiff City Stadium, there will be no shortage of support for the Ukrainians. The Football Association of Wales and the Welsh Government have given free tickets to Ukrainian refugees and invited the Ukrainian ambassador to attend the game. Even Welsh fans, who haven’t seen their team at a World Cup since 1958, admit they’re torn.

“You obviously have mixed feelings because it’s the sympathy you have for Ukraine,” former Wales striker Rob Earnshaw told the BBC. “It’s very hard when you’re faced with something like that because it’s about humanity at that moment and I think everyone felt so much for Ukraine. They feel the pain, they feel the pain of a country at war.”

Outside of Wales there is no such dilemma.

“I think we all draw for Ukraine,” said US coach Gregg Berhalter, whose team will play Sunday’s winner at the World Cup opener in November. “We are all behind them, everyone supports them.”

Foreign correspondent Patrick J. McDonnell, reporting from Lviv, Ukraine, contributed to this report. World Cup qualifier is ‘like a moment of hope’ for Ukraine

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