The emotion, in anticipation, had been so raw that, at times, it was easy to worry that it might prove overwhelming. Oleksandr Zinchenko, a Ukrainian midfielder, had about pride, about freedom, about proving to the world that his country would “never give up.” He had welled up with tears as he spoke.
His coach, Oleksandr Petrakov, admitted that many of his players were consumed by thoughts of family members trapped back home, haunted by the air-raid sirens and menaced by the fighting, and still picking up the pieces of lives shattered by a brutal, senseless invasion.
Ukraine’s players faced a daunting physical challenge.
A handful of the players at Petrakov’s disposal compete in the leagues of Western Europe; they have been able, in some superficial, professional sense, to continue as normal these last three months. Their minds might have been elsewhere, of course, but their bodies were training and playing.
However, there has been no competitive soccer for months. Those players attached to Ukraine’s two most famous clubs – Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv, both now in exile from their homeland – have featured in raising millions for fleeing Russia’s invasion.
The monotony was broken only by the occasional tuneup match against a club opposition. There had, though, been nothing comparable to the intensity of meaningful action; The World Cup remains open to question.
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More pressing still, though, was the psychological hurdle. Ukraine’s players have not shied away from what winning a place at the World Cup would mean to the country. They have not tried to downplay how important something is as trivial as soccer can be, even when it seems to be very trivial indeed.
Several players are in regular contact with those fighting on the front line; they have a significant effect on the national morale. “We want to go to the World Cup, to give these incredible emotions to the people,” Zinchenko said. “Ukrainians deserve it so much at this moment.”
As the players emerged into the sunlit Glasgow evening, each with the country’s flag draped around his shoulders, he could not prove too much. The pressure of playing to reach a World Cup can be inhibiting; the pressure of playing to the World Cup
And yet, what stood out about Ukraine, almost immediately, was a coolness, a composure, a detachment from the significance of the country’s first competitive game since the invasion. It shone through not simply in the three goals it scored to beat Scotland, 3-1 – a delicate lob from Andriy Yarmolenkoa precision header from Roman Yaremchuk and the emphatic finish late from Artem Dovbyk – or in the welter of other chances it created.
It was also in dozens of little things. Ukraine passed neatly, incisively, with a child of speed but a distinct absence of haste. Zinchenko, so affected by his sense of “mission,” as he put it, played with intricacy, verve and assurance. Yarmolenko was indefatigable. In defense, Ilya Zabarnyi and Taras Stepanenko were imposing, unruffled.
Rather than being overwhelmed by emotion, Ukraine appeared to be unshackled from it, once the anticipation had ended and the moment itself had arrived. For the first time in a long time, the players were doing what they had always done, and they reveled in it.
It was not pride – a sense of purpose, a desire to make the people happy – that in November. Instead, as soon as the whistle blew, they have found freedom, and that has been more than enough.