Sports

More than just a game: World Cup qualifier is ‘like a moment of hope’ for Ukraine

Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Oleksandr Petrakov showed up at a military enlistment office in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, and asked for a weapon.

“I am 64 but I felt it was normal to do this,” Petrakov told a reporter from the Guardian a month later. “I think I could take two or three enemies out.”

The territorial defense force thanked him but declined the offer since Petrakov had no military experience. As manager of Ukraine’s national soccer team, he was needed elsewhere.

Which brings us to Sunday, when, on a well-manicured patch of grass in Cardiff, Wales, Petrakov can deliver a blow as important to Ukrainian sovereignty as anything he could have accomplished on a battlefield back home.

If Petrakov’s team beats Wales, Ukraine will qualify for its first World Cup in 16 years and just its second since it became an independent country in 1991. And, while that won’t keep the bombs from falling or stop the battles from raging, it will provide a burst of pride and an invaluable boost in morale for a nation beginning to wilt after more than 100 days of war.

Andriy Yarmolenko, left, scores Ukraine’s opening goal during a World Cup qualifier against Scotland.

(Scott Heppell / Associated Press)

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

No sport worships national identity like international soccer, whose teams play for their country not their club and wear a flag not a crest over their hearts. It’s why Zinedine Zidane, the child of Algerian immigrants, cried as “La Marseillaise” played following France’s World Cup victory in Paris in 1998. It’s why much of Brazil shuts down whenever la Seleção plays a big game. It’s why the chance to cheer the national team in the 2006 World Cup persuaded the two sides in Ivory Coast’s 3-year-old civil war to put down their weapons and return to the negotiating table.

It’s also why, for Ukraine, Sunday’s World Cup qualifying match is far more than a game. The army, which had fought the invading Russians to a stalemate for three months, has suffered a series of recent setbacks. Things are particularly dire in the east, where the civilian death toll is mounting as the Russians consolidate their gains.

Beating Wales won’t change that, but it will be welcome good news amid the bad.

“Everyone knows the situation back in Ukraine,” midfielder Oleksandr Zinchenko told ESPN. “We need 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: “Every day, we receive messages from our soldiers. A lot of soldiers, a lot of people in Ukraine love football, and they [have] only one demand: ‘Please do everything you can to go to the World Cup.’

“For them, it’s like a moment of hope. 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 Ukraine.”

Ukraine is unbeaten in World Cup qualifying, but because six of its eight games in group play ended in a draw, it finished second to reigning world champion France and did not earn an automatic berth in this fall’s tournament in Qatar. Instead it was placed in a 12-team playoff, where three additional World Cup berths were at stake.

Poland was scheduled to play Russia in group play but, in solidarity with Ukraine, it refused. Sweden and the Czech Republic, the other teams in the group, also refused, choosing to forfeit their chances at a World Cup berth rather than share a field with the Russians.

Four days later FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, suspended Russia and Poland went on to qualify.

For Ukraine, the war postponed its first playoff game 10 weeks to June 1. It then played an inspired 90 minutes to beat Scotland 3-1. However, that will mean nothing if it doesn’t beat Wales on Sunday.

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

— Ukraine midfielder Taras Stepanenko

The odds are long. The game with Scotland was the first competitive match for Ukraine in 6½ months, and now it must come back, four days later, on tired legs against the 18th-ranked team in the world, one which will be well-rested.

Yet if Ukraine is taking inspiration from its soccer team, the players are taking their strength from the people fighting back home.

“There are times when you don’t need a lot of words,” Zelensky wrote. “Just pride.”

The team is getting that from Petrakov, who, like Zelensky, has risen to a challenge many thought would overwhelm him.

Petrakov grew up playing in the Soviet soccer system and had a long if undistinguished playing career that included a short stint with an army team before the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. As a coach, he cycled through a number of amateur and lower-division pro teams before joining the Ukrainian national team program on the 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 match against Scotland on Wednesday in Glasgow.

(Scott Heppell / Associated Press)

His greatest success came in 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, so when Andriy Shevchenko stepped down as the senior national team coach last August, a month after getting routed by England in the European Championships, Petrakov was chosen to replace him.

Ukraine hasn’t lost since.

When the war started, Petrakov showed leadership of another kind. With the Russians approaching the capital, Petrakov’s family urged him to leave Kyiv but he refused. The Germans had occupied his mother’s house in World War II, he said, so he would stay and fight if that’s what it took.

A Russian speaker from childhood, he now uses only Ukrainian in public. As for his feelings about the Moscow government that once employed him, he is uncommonly succinct.

“It’s just hate,” he told reporters.

“For me, there is no longer a country called Russia,” he added. “I no longer have any friends there.”

Although Sunday’s game will be played in a sold-out Cardiff City Stadium, the Ukrainians won’t be lacking for support. The Football Assn. 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 play in a World Cup since 1958, admit they’re torn.

“You’ve obviously got mixed emotions, because it’s the compassion you feel for Ukraine,” former Welsh national team striker Rob Earnshaw told the BBC. “It is very tough when you’re faced with something like this because it’s about humanity in this moment and I think everyone has felt so much for Ukraine. They feel the pain, they feel the pain of a country at war.”

There’s no such dilemma outside of Wales.

“I think we’re all pulling for Ukraine,” said U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, whose team will play Sunday’s winner in its World Cup opener in November. “We’re all behind them, all supporting them.”



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