Ukraine are one match away from the World Cup

The emotion, in anticipation, had been so raw that it was sometimes easy to worry that it might prove overwhelming. Oleksandr Zinchenko...


The emotion, in anticipation, had been so raw that it was sometimes easy to worry that it might prove overwhelming. Oleksandr Zinchenko, Ukrainian midfielder, had spoken of pride, of freedom, of proving to the world that his country “would never give up”. He had filled with tears as he spoke.

His coach, Oleksandr Petrakov, had admitted that many of his players were absorbed in the thoughts of family members trapped at 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 prepare for Wednesday’s European qualifiers game against Scotland, the first of two playoff games that could ultimately take them and their nation to the World Cup, the players Ukrainians faced a major physical challenge.

A handful of players at Petrakov’s disposal compete in Western European leagues; they had been able, in some superficial and professional sense, to carry on as normal for the past three months. Their minds might be elsewhere, of course, but their bodies were training and playing.

For the rest of his team, however, there had been no competitive football for months. These players attached to Ukraine’s two most famous clubs – Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv, both now in exile from their homeland – have taken part in a handful of charity matches in Poland and Croatia, organized to raise money for the million people fleeing the Russian invasion.

Petrakov was able to reunite his squad last month for a training camp in Slovenia, the monotony only interrupted by the occasional tune-up match against the club’s opponents. There had, however, been nothing comparable to the intensity of meaningful action. Whether his team would have the physical ability to match Scotland, the first opponents blocking their way to the World Cup, remained open to question.

Even more pressing, however, was the psychological hurdle. Ukrainian players weren’t shy about what the symbolism of earning a World Cup spot would mean for their country. They haven’t tried to downplay the importance of something as trivial as football, even when it seems really, really trivial.

Several actors are in regular contact with those fighting on the front line; they understood that qualifying for 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, give people these incredible emotions,” Zinchenko said. “Ukrainians deserve it so much right now.”

As the players emerged on a sunny Glasgow evening, each with the country’s flag draped around their shoulders, it was impossible not to wonder if maybe it wouldn’t turn out 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 struggling for its existence, can be suffocating.

And yet, what emerges from Ukraine, almost immediately, is a composure, composure, detachment from the significance of the country’s first competitive game since the invasion. He shone not only in the three goals he scored to beat Scotland, 3-1 – a Andriy Yarmolenko’s delicate loba precise head of Roman Yaremchuk and an emphatic late finish from Artem Dovbyk – or in the jumble of other chances he created.

It was also in dozens of little things. Ukraine passed cleanly, incisively, with a lot of speed but a distinct lack of haste. Zinchenko, so touched by his sense of “mission”, as he puts it, played with complexity, verve and poise. Yarmolenko was tireless. In defense, Ilya Zabarnyi and Taras Stepanenko were imposing, imperturbable.

Rather than being overwhelmed with emotion, Ukraine seemed to be freed from it once the anticipation was over and the moment itself 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 were enjoying it.

It was not pride – a sense of purpose, a desire to make people happy – that carried them through to the final qualifiers, against Wales in Cardiff on Sunday, in a game that will determine whether the history of Ukraine will end with a World Cup appearance. in November. Instead, as soon as the whistle sounded, they were set free, and that had been more than enough.



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Newsrust - US Top News: Ukraine are one match away from the World Cup
Ukraine are one match away from the World Cup
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