Ukraine is one game away from the World Cup

The emotion had been so raw in anticipation that it was sometimes easy to fear that it might be overwhelming. Ukraine’s midfielder Oleksandr Zinchenko had spoken of pride, freedom, proving to the world that his country would never give up. He was running in tears.

His coach, Oleksandr Petrakov, had admitted that many of his players were affected by the thoughts of family members who have returned home, are haunted by anti-aircraft sirens and are threatened by battles, and who are still picking up brutally shattered lives. pointless invasion.

As they prepared for the first of two play-offs that could eventually lead them and their nation to the World Cup, Ukrainian players faced a daunting physical challenge.

A handful of Petrakov’s players compete in Western European leagues; they had, in some superficial and professional terms, been able to continue normally for the past three months. Their minds may have been elsewhere, of course, but their bodies were training and playing.

For the rest, however, they had not competed in football for several months. The players, linked to Ukraine’s two most famous clubs – Donetsk Shakhtar and the Kiev Dynamo, both currently in exile – have taken part in charity games in Poland and Croatia to raise money for millions fleeing the Russian invasion.

Petrakov was able to call his team to a training camp in Slovenia last month. The loneliness was only broken by the occasional club opposition game. However, there was nothing comparable to the intensity of meaningful activity; it was questionable whether his team would continue to be physically fit with the first opponent to block his way to the World Cup.

But even more urgent was the psychological hurdle. Ukrainian players have not set aside what it would mean for the country to win the World Cup. They have not tried to underestimate how important something as trivial as football can be, even if it seems very insignificant.

Several players regularly interact with frontline fighters; they had realized that gaining a second World Cup in the country’s history would have a significant impact on national morality. “We want to go to the World Cup to give people those incredible emotions,” Zinchenko said. “Ukrainians deserve it now.”

When players arrived on a sunny Glasgow night, each with the national flag on their shoulders, it was impossible not to think if it might be too big. The pressure to reach the World Championships can be daunting; the pressure to play for the world championships on behalf of a country at war, a country fighting for its very existence, can be suffocating.

And yet, in the case of Ukraine, the coolness, the calmness, the detachment from the importance of the country’s first match after the invasion stood out almost immediately. It was not only through the three gates that were scored 3: 1 to defeat Scotland delicate lob Andriy Yarmolenkolta exact header from Roman Yaremchuk and an accentuated finish from Artem Dovby – or full of other possibilities.

It was also in dozens of details. Ukraine passed properly, sharply, at high speed, but clearly without haste. Zinchenko, so impressed by his “sense of mission,” played with complexity, vigor, and confidence. Jarmolenko was tireless. Ilya Zabarnõi and Taras Stepanenko were imposing and insecure in their defense.

When the anxiety of expectations had ended and the moment had come, Ukraine seemed overwhelmed with emotion. For the first time in a long time, players did and enjoyed what they had always done, what they were trained to do.

Not pride – a sense of purpose, a desire to make people happy – did not lead them to the final playoffs in Cardiff, Wales on Sunday, which will determine whether Ukraine’s story ends with a World Cup performance. in November. Instead, they found freedom as soon as the whistle sounded, and it was more than enough.

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