A year ago, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky presented himself with the jersey of the national team. And it was clearly not only his love of football that drove him to do so, but also the political motive. At that time there was a new national team shirt to match EM, and Selenskij also wore it, the number 95 shirt, due to the production company Kwartal 95, where the comedy series “Servants of the People” was created, which made it popular throughout the country and eventually reached presidency.
But more important than the number were other design elements on the shirt. The emblems “Slava Okrajini” (Glory to Ukraine) and “Hirogam Slava” (Glory to the Heroes) were embroidered, and there was a silhouette of the country’s borders – including the Russian-annexed Crimea. Russian politicians were outraged at that time, UEFA demanded that the hero’s punishment be abolished, and Silinsky also spoke. “There are some important symbols that unite Ukrainians from Luhansk to Uzhgorod and from Chernihiv to Sevastopol. Our country is united and indivisible,” he said.
Even then, the message was that the Ukrainian national team should be a symbol of the country’s unity. This is even more true now, in the midst of the Russian invasion. In the next few days, national coach Oleksandr Petrakov’s team can qualify for the World Cup: on Wednesday they will play Scotland in Glasgow, and on Sunday the winner will face Wales in the final for a World Cup ticket. And when you see the statements made by the participants before the match, it becomes quite clear what special and political importance they attach to the qualifiers – as if the whole country was playing.
In the meantime there were discussions about goodbye. The Ukrainians themselves did not want that
“Ukraine is still alive. Ukraine will fight to the end. This is our mentality. We never give up,” said defender Oleksandr Zinchenko, the star of the team that recently won the Premier League title with Manchester City. This is one of the most important games of his life and he can promise all Ukrainians that everyone will do everything “to give them a smile for a few seconds”. And the national coach, Oleksandr Petrakov, expressed his position in the same direction. “It’s a big responsibility,” said the 64-year-old, who wanted to volunteer after the attack on Russia, but was then rebuffed: the advice was to do his service to the country elsewhere.
After the start of the war, this description was not expected to be so emotionally charged. At that time, even coach Petrakov said that given the situation, he could understand if no one was interested in football. The playoff matches, which were already scheduled for March, have been postponed for the time being. And sometimes there were discussions about whether there should be no World Cup finals. The Ukrainians themselves refused. “We have hands, legs and a football field. We have to solve everything there,” said Andriy Yarmolenko, who played for Borussia Dortmund for one season in 2017/18 and has been under contract with West Ham United since then.
Only a few Ukrainian professionals who signed abroad have played regularly lately
But the military situation has changed and with it the way you look at football. Club officials are already debating whether a new round of the league could start again in August after the tournament was canceled in February. President Zielinskij allegedly supports this as well, they are scattering. But first, the national team must create a special moment.
Rarely has there been an international qualifier where a team has been able to feel so much sympathy. But it won’t be easy. Only a few professionals contracted abroad, such as Zinchenko, Yarmolenko or striker Roman Garmchuk (Benfica Lisbon) have played regularly lately. Most of the team with players from Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk has had to stop since February. Just last month, Petrakov gathered his players for a training camp and some test kicks, including against Borussia Mönchengladbach, which gave him only limited insights. It’s also a stressful situation for many players to gamble for a World Cup ticket while family and friends are in need at home and the heavy bombardment continues in eastern Ukraine.
“But in this case there are no excuses,” says Captain Zinchenko. “Scotland? After the rockets and the bombs, we are no longer afraid of anything,” says coach Petrakov.