Ukraine’s World Cup playoff victory is bigger than just sports
A victory in a soccer game won’t stop the bombs from raining down on eastern Ukraine. A spot in the World Cup won’t end Vladimir Putin’s murderous ambitions to obliterate an independent Ukraine and erase its culture.
But any triumph by Ukraine’s men’s national team is a triumph for all of Ukraine, and that is reason enough to root for The Blue and Yellow. No matter what country you call home.
With war-weary fans watching from basements and bomb shelters, Ukraine moved within a game of its second-ever World Cup appearance Wednesday night. Despite not having played a competitive game since mid-November and its players scattered across Europe by the Russian invasion, Ukraine upset Scotland in a thoroughly convincing 3-1 win.
Congratulations to Ukraine 🇺🇦
— Scotland National Team (@ScotlandNT) June 1, 2022
Ukraine now plays Wales in Cardiff on Sunday, with the winner joining the United States in Group B in Qatar later this year.
“Obviously, of course everyone knows the situation in Ukraine right now, and every single game for us is like a final game,” Oleksandr Zinchenko, the Manchester City midfielder, said after the game. “But we have a dream … to be in the World Cup, so we have one more game, one more final. We need to win it, we need to take it.
“Otherwise this game is not going to mean anything.”
2022 WORLD CUP SCHEDULE: Groups, matches, fixture start times
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Sports often seem trivial in times of war, large-scale violence or natural disasters.
What does a game matter when entire cities are being destroyed, people are being killed and loved ones are being forced to flee their homes? Most Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 aren’t even allowed to leave the country, so badly is everyone needed in the war effort.
Yet the Ukrainian team’s resolve is a reflection of that country’s pride and resilience, and it is heartening to see the players play on when Putin seemingly wants nothing more than to see everything associated with Ukraine destroyed.
Originally scheduled for March 24, the playoff against Scotland was postponed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While a handful of Ukraine’s players were able to keep playing with their clubs in England, Italy, Portugal and Belgium, many fled to Slovenia, where they have spent the last three months training and organizing charity matches.
But their goal, and their country, was never far from their minds.
When Ukraine’s starters took the field Wednesday, they each had a blue and yellow flag draped around their shoulders. They stood arm in arm to proudly sing the Ukrainian anthem, joined by fans who held up signs saying, “Stop War” and “Stronger Together.”
From the opening whistle, Ukraine was the better team. Andriy Yarmolenko scored first, bringing down a long pass with his left foot and then chipping it over Scotland goalkeeper Scott Gordon’s head in the 33rd minute.
Roman Yaremchuk added the game-winner in the 49th, heading a cross between two Scotland defenders and past the flat-footed Gordon. Scotland pulled one back in the 79th, but they couldn’t find the equalizer and Zinchenko fed Artem Dovbyk for a tap-in goal in stoppage time.
When the final whistle sounded, coach Oleksandr Petrakov thrust his hands into the air while the players ran to salute the Ukrainian fans.
“We scored three goals, we could have scored even more,” Zinchenko said. “So let’s go for another game.”
Zinchenko and his teammates know they can’t affect the outcome of the war. But by bringing hope and joy to their fellow Ukrainians, even if only for a few hours, they are providing a respite from the ravages of a war now in its fourth month.
That blessed sense of normalcy, no matter how brief, will renew the spirit of every Ukrainian, steeling them to continue their fight.
“There are times when you don’t need a lot of words! Just pride! Just thank you guys! Two hours of happiness, something we have become unaccustomed to,” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said after the game on his official Telegram channel.
“Joy to our military, to our whole country. We are all fighting, each on his own front, for this,” he said. “We fight, we fight, we endure, we win. Because Ukrainians!”
Because sometimes a game is more than just a game.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.