Ukrainian football in wartime | Sports | DW

Oleksandr Petrakov is not a big talker. The Ukrainian national coach looks tough and nervous in an interview with DW. “I feel a great responsibility. To our fans back home, to our armed forces, to ordinary people who are at home in Ukraine now,” he says curtly. “It’s a huge responsibility for me and the boys.”

Purely sports competition has become a national task. Ukrainian historian Katerina Cherny asserts that “football is not the most important thing at the moment”, but the national team matches are an opportunity for the people of Ukraine and refugees to experience something together. As with Ukraine’s recent ESC victory is a yearning for good news.” If the Kickers manage to defeat Scotland in qualifying on June 1, the team can secure Ukraine’s second World Cup appearance five days later against Wales in Cardiff.

“It’s an opportunity for us to draw attention to the situation in our homeland,” national team player Serhiy Sidorchuk told DW. But just as longing, the task is difficult for two reasons: On the one hand, there is a lack of matching practice. Midfielder Sidorchuk played for Dynamo Kyiv in the Champions League against Bayern Munich in November. But since the start of the winter break, there are no more competitive matches – neither for clubs, nor for the national team.

“Of course you have doubts,” said the national team coach Oleksandr Petrakov

Petrakov assembled his team abroad, in Slovenia, near Ljubljana, to prepare for Scotland. Test matches should make the team fit. However, it led to a lot of travel, including Tuscany, Croatia and Mönchengladbach, where the Ukrainian team played against local club Borussia in the German Bundesliga.

Concerns for coaches and players

On the other hand, the players and their environment are directly affected by the war. “We have about the same thing in the soul, in the head, in conversations,” Sidorchuk explains. His coach agrees: “I just called my wife and daughter. They said that the situation is calm today, everything is fine. All the boys are calling, everyone is worried about their relatives. Of course you have doubts,” assures Petrakov. It is easy to imagine how difficult it is to focus on football in this case.

Some players, such as goalkeeper Andrei Pyatov, face the threat for the second time. In 2014, he had to flee with his family when pro-Russian separatists declared the Donetsk People’s Republic. His club Shakhtar Donetsk has been playing in the capital, Kyiv since then. There he and his family had to endure bombing and war again.

An important role for Ukraine’s identity

The Russian attack is still incomprehensible to the Ukrainians. As in many other areas, both countries have been closely intertwined in football. In the days of the Soviet Union, the combined team celebrated its greatest success under the leadership of Ukrainian coach Valerij Lobanovsky, and took second place at the 1988 European Championship. In the same year, the Soviet Union won the Olympic gold medal over Brazil under the auspices of his compatriot Anatoly Beshovets . Players from Ukraine formed the backbone of the Soviet national team for a long time, with names such as Oleksiy Mikhailichenko and Oleg Blokhin.

Ukrainian fans in yellow and blue national dress cheer in the stands at Ukraine's match against England.  This was the Euro 2020 quarter-finals.

Selecting point for the national team: Ukrainian fans in the Euro 2020 quarter-final against England

It took a few more years for Ukraine to become a competitive team after the collapse of the Soviet empire. Historian Cherny explains: “But the national team played a very important role on its way to becoming an independent country at this time. It served as an identity anchor for the people of Ukraine.” There are now many of those, but the appeal of football is still huge, especially in the major leagues. This feeling first appeared in 2006 at the World Cup in Germany. Under coach Blochin, the team caused quite a stir: only against eventual world champion Italy had finished in the quarter-finals. Since Euro 2012 in their country, it has been yellow and blue in every European Championship.

Sydorchuk: “Life is for this game”

“We know the burden we have on our shoulders,” Sidorchuk said, looking forward to the match against Scotland and not wanting to complain at the same time. The team has an advantage compared to the people in the war. “Young men are fighting and dying in the trenches in their homes,” says coach Petrakov.

According to his own statement, the 64-year-old volunteered to defend the territory in Kyiv after the outbreak of the war, but was turned down due to his lack of military experience and his upcoming assignment. Attracting attention, creating positive headlines, that’s his job now. Sidorchuk stresses that the players are determined to do their best in Glasgow: “We all live for this match and hopefully we can do everything.”

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