For Ukraine, World Cup qualifying is chance to make a difference as war rages back home
GLASGOW, Scotland — Oleksandr Zinchenko tried to hold back his emotions, but when the Ukraine midfielder attempted to describe the importance of his country’s World Cup play-off semifinal against Scotland in Glasgow on Wednesday (streaming LIVE, ESPN+, 2:30 p.m. ET), his lip began to tremble and the tears started to flow.
When Manchester City‘s Zinchenko and his Ukrainian teammates face Scotland at Hampden Park, it will be 99 days since Russia invaded their country and instigated a war that continues to rage, with towns and cities in the east of Europe’s largest nation still under siege and citizens enduring a daily battle for survival. Football matters, and qualifying for the World Cup matters even more, but for Zinchenko, his tears delivered perspective.
“Every Ukrainian wants one thing: to stop this war,” Zinchenko said during the news conference. “I have spoken with people from all over the world, I have spoken to Ukrainian kids who just don’t understand what’s happening, and they have one dream: to stop the war. But when it comes to football, we have our own dream: we want to go to the World Cup, to give these incredible emotions to Ukrainians, because they deserve it so much in this moment.”
In many ways, this is a game of unimaginable proportions not only for Ukraine, but also for Scotland. For Ukraine, to be able to muster a team – 15 of the squad that played in the last competitive fixture against Bosnia in November, 2021 play for teams in the Ukrainian Premier League — is remarkable considering the situation. The pressure on Oleksandr Petrokov’s players to deliver some joy to their fellow Ukrainians will be huge. But for Scotland, a team that has not qualified for a World Cup since 1998, they know that their dream to end their 24-year wait puts them in an impossible situation. Even their own supporters, collective known as the Tartan Army, are planning to learn the words of Ukraine’s national anthem so they can sing it in a show of support before the game.
“I take this very well,” Zinchenko said, in response to the Scots singing Ukraine’s anthem. “We have to be together, fight Russian aggression and defeat the evil. This is an amazing thing.”
“Probably everyone in the world wants Ukraine to win,” Scotland captain Andy Robertson told BBC Scotland. “If it was any other country, I would probably want them to win, but unfortunately they’re playing against my country and we have to stand in their way.
“We’ll be so receptive of Ukraine before and after the game but during that 90 minutes, that 120 minutes or whatever it takes, we have to be ready to fight for our dreams as well.”
Life has stood still in Ukraine since Russia invaded on Feb. 24. Players like Zinchenko, West Ham’s Andriy Yarmolenko and Everton‘s Vitaliy Mikolenko have continued to play for clubs outside of their homeland while having to cope with news of events in their own towns and cities, with family members unable to escape the conflict. But many others have had to stay in Ukraine and either fight or protect their families. Taras Stepanenko, the Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder, was forced to move his wife and three children to a basement shelter in Kyiv.
Goalkeeper Georgiy Bushchan was photographed in an underground station, taking cover with fellow citizens in the capital. Dynamo Kyiv captain Serhiy Sydorchuk slept with his young children in his car, in an underground car park, while his then-pregnant wife slept on the floor.
There will be many other stories of horror, terror and hardship that may never be told by this group of Ukraine players, but they see this game as their chance to do something and make a difference.
“It is not only a football game,” Stepanenko said earlier this month. “We get messages from our soldiers, and they have only one demand: please do everything you can to go on to the World Cup. For the country, for them [soldiers] it’s a moment of hope.”
Oleksandr Karavayev, the Dynamo Kyiv midfielder from the besieged southern city of Kherson, said “just as our soldiers are defending our country, we will give our all on the soccer field. That’s the best thing we can do.”
Oleksandr Zinchenko in tears as he describes the emotion of playing for Ukraine against Scotland tomorrow… pic.twitter.com/R1T3F4S4ns
— Mark Ogden (@MarkOgden_) May 31, 2022
With all Ukrainian domestic fixtures suspended since February — in fact, no games have been played since the regularly scheduled mid-winter shutdown on Dec. 12, with the league officially declared “over” at the end of April – coach Petrokov has only been able to work with his players in training and in three friendly games against club teams, as 23 Ukraine-based players boarded a bus to take them to a training camp in Slovenia on Apr. 30. The journey took 37 hours as the bus navigated a safe route out of Ukraine to Brdo pri Kranju, a training complex in the Slovenian Alps, 12 miles north of the capital, Ljubljana.
Since then, the group have trained twice a day to be fit for the Scotland game, with the players based in European leagues joining the squad as soon their club commitments would allow. It has hardly been an ideal preparation period for the squad, but there are no complaints about the football complications.
“We are trying to do our best, despite all of the emotion and difficulties we have had to endure,” Petrokov said. “We have played three friendly games, so what the players will be like [in terms of fitness], we will see tomorrow on the football pitch.”
Throughout the war in Ukraine, Zinchenko has been a prominent figure attempting to ensure that his country’s story remains in the forefront of people’s consciousness. It has unquestionably been a difficult and traumatic period for the 25-year-old who, prior to the invasion, was a quiet, unheralded member of Pep Guardiola’s team of all-stars at the Etihad Stadium.
Zinchenko has since found his voice and says that despite being torn initially by being unable to defend his country by taking up arms, he has been determined to make his own crucial contribution.
“Maybe I would have been holding the gun, the weapon,” he said. “But I knew I would be more useful for Ukraine to be in Manchester and to try to help Ukrainian people as much as I can starting by sending stuff, money, telling all my audience on Instagram or wherever, to share the whole world what is happening right now in Ukraine.
“The whole world needs to know the real truth. That is my mission. I 100% agree with Andriy Shevchenko, who said exactly the same. You can ask any Ukrainian, the answer will be the same. You cannot describe the feelings unless in this position. The things that are happening in our country, it is not acceptable — things I cannot even describe. This is why we need to stop this aggression altogether. It is why we need to win.
“Ukraine is a country of freedom and will never give up. A lot of countries don’t understand: today it is Ukraine, but tomorrow it could be you. That is why we need to be united and beat this Russian aggression.”
Qualifying for the World Cup may be both meaningless and incredibly powerful for the people of Ukraine, and Zinchenko and his teammates know that many back home may not even get to see how the game plays out in Glasgow. “We totally understand there is not an opportunity for many people to watch the game,” he said. “But anyone with the opportunity, they will be watching us. We can speak a lot, but we have do it on the pitch – we are going to try to make them happy and proud.”
In many ways, just being able to play this game is a victory for Ukraine, but they want more than just symbolism. They want to win.
“Our mood is a fighting mood,” Zinchenko said. “Everyone understands what it is happening in Ukraine, what it’s like on the ground, that’s why our motivation is definitely 100% to win.”