Ukraine suffer heartbreak as own goal sees Wales qualify for 2022 World Cup
CARDIFF, Wales — Oleksandr Petrakov wanted to apologise. The Ukraine coach had just seen his team dominate a World Cup playoff final against Wales in Cardiff, but a combination of Gareth Bale’s match-winning qualities and a stunning performance by goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey earned a 1-0 victory, and World Cup qualification, for the home side.
Ukraine’s dream of overcoming impossibly difficult circumstances to make it to Qatar — the country has been at war since being invaded by Russia in February — might ultimately seem a trivial pursuit, but football still matters, even in the bleakest of times. That dream is over and Petrakov knew how much reaching the World Cup mattered.
“We did everything we could, but I want the people of Ukraine to remember our efforts,” Petrakov said. “We didn’t score, and I want to say sorry for that, but this is sport and this is what happens.”
It was Arrigo Sacchi, the great AC Milan coach, who described football as “the most important of the unimportant things in life” and, as Ukraine’s players lay on the turf at the end of the game, Sacchi’s statement was given a living embodiment by the scenes on the pitch.
Ukraine’s players were crestfallen and heartbroken, but their red-shirted opponents sprinted to hug a teammate, slide on the pitch or tearfully seek out family in the crowd. The contrast was stark, but it showed the importance of this game to both sets of players.
It seemed the whole world wanted Ukraine to win this playoff and make it to Qatar 2022, if only to enable the country to have a sporting outlet for its defiance against Russia’s ongoing invasion, but for 90 minutes this was all about football, and Wales haven’t been to a World Cup since 1958, so their celebrations at the end were all about drawing a line under their 64-year wait.
Despite their determination to make the most of that moment, though, there was a poignant scene when Bale and his teammates walked to the section housing the Ukraine supporters to applaud them as a group.
“We wanted to show them respect,” Wales manager Rob Page said. “They (Ukraine) have played really well over two games and their fans travelled here in numbers, but we are all aware of what is going on there and we don’t agree with it. We just wanted to give our support.”
So it is Wales who will take their place in Group B in Qatar, alongside neighbours England, the United States and Iran, but Ukraine left absolutely everything out on the pitch. Petrakov might have apologised for the failure to score, but his players did everything but put the ball in the back of the net.
Ukraine’s dominance was so comprehensive that Wales keeper Hennessey made nine saves — the most he has ever made in an international fixture — and his midair stretch to keep out Artem Dovbyk’s header on 84 minutes was one that will ensure his place in Welsh football folklore.
But sometimes the underdog, the people’s champion, doesn’t have its day, and having seen everything roll their way during last Wednesday’s 3-1 semifinal win against Scotland in Glasgow, Ukraine tasted the bitterness of everything going against them in Cardiff.
It wasn’t just Hennessey’s outstanding performance. Andriy Yarmolenko, whose misplaced header diverted Bale’s free kick into his own net on 33 minutes, should have been awarded a penalty seven minutes later when he was tripped by Joe Allen, but despite a VAR review, Ukraine were not given a spot kick by referee Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz.
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They were still the better side, in both the first half and second half, and their fighting spirit and refusal to accept defeat was their national character played out on a football pitch.
For those Ukrainians able to watch this game back home, in the towns and cities that have endured terrible hardship at the hands of the Russians, it might have brought some comfort to see the likes of Oleksandr Zinchenko, Viktor Tsygankov and Ruslan Malinovskyi display such tenacity and drive, but nobody who has not lived their life in recent months could ever make that assumption.
In a high-quality game played at Premier League pace, Ukraine just couldn’t find a way past Hennessey and the so-called Wales “Red Wall” — the bank of supporters whose vocal backing made such a difference.
They sang throughout, giving noisy renditions of the Welsh national anthem and “Yma o Hyd,” a rousing folk song that has become an unofficial anthem for the cause of Welsh independence.
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Whereas Hampden Park was largely silent during Scotland’s defeat against Ukraine, the Cardiff City Stadium was like a football cathedral, and it seemed to push Wales over the line.
But while Wales would celebrate, Ukraine ultimately left the pitch having failed to qualify for the World Cup.
In the postmatch news conference, a Ukrainian journalist passed up the opportunity to ask coach Petrakov a question, instead choosing to urge the world’s media to “please do not forget what is happening in Ukraine.”
And as Petrakov left the room, he stood up and gave the same message.
“You know what is happening,” he said. “We have war raging in Ukraine, women and children dying every day. Our infrastructure is being ruined by Russian barbarians. They want to hurt us and take our land, but we just want your support.
“God forbid if it touched any of you. You cannot know how we feel, what is going on inside.”