For months after Russia invaded their country in February, the members of Ukraine’s national soccer team were unable to carry a lot as a practice together, let alone play a game.
On Sunday, they’ll play for a spot within the World Cup.
That game, once unthinkable for Ukraine’s team, and by far the least of its concerns, will probably be against Wales at Cardiff City Stadium, a modest arena about 1,500 miles from Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and a world away from the horrors and traumas and worries of war.
Here’s what you must know.
How can I watch?
The sport is being broadcast in the US by ESPN and streamed on its ESPN Plus service. (Warning: You might see listings saying the match is on ESPN2; it was, until Friday, when the network reassessed the interest in the sport and moved it to ESPN.)
Broadcast coverage on ESPN begins at 11:30 a.m. Eastern. The sport kicks off at noon.
What’s at stake?
Sunday’s match is, within the strictest sense, a winner-take-all affair. The victor on Sunday will claim certainly one of the ultimate three places within the World Cup in Qatar when it kicks off in November. The loser can try again in 4 years.
Ukraine hasn’t qualified for the World Cup since 2006, its only previous trip to the tournament.
But Wales has waited even longer: Its last — and only — World Cup appearance was in 1958, and the team is desperate to end that drought, even when it means ending Ukraine’s dreams at the identical time.
“It’s still missing,” said the Wales captain, Gareth Bale, who has five Champions League titles on his résumé but not a single minute within the World Cup. “Now we have a game tomorrow to place that to bed and qualify. Everyone desires to play at a World Cup. It’s no different for me.”
How did the teams get here?
Sunday’s game is the ultimate match of a four-team playoff — two semifinals and a final — that didn’t go as anyone expected. The games were originally scheduled for March, but Ukraine’s semifinal against Scotland was postponed soon after Russia’s invasion, whilst Wales went ahead with a game against Austria, winning by 2-1.
In April, FIFA, soccer’s global governing body and the organizer of the World Cup, announced the Ukraine-Scotland match had been rescheduled for June 1, with the ultimate — already set for Wales — to be held a number of days later.
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On Wednesday, Ukraine beat Scotland, 3-1, in a game charged with emotion at Hampden Park in Glasgow. It was the Ukrainians’ first official game since November.
Was Ukraine expected to be here?
Until the Scotland game, it was hard to know what to anticipate from Ukraine. Rescheduling its World Cup playoff was one thing. Preparing for the sport was one other matter.
Like most of Europe’s national teams, Ukraine has players who’re scattered across the continent: Oleksandr Zinchenko just won a Premier League title with Manchester City, and Andriy Yarmolenko (West Ham), Ruslan Malinovskyi (Atalanta) and Roman Yaremchuk (Benfica) all play for giant European clubs. That meant the core of the team was getting regular training and games, even when their minds were always distracted by the war back home.
However the Ukrainian league shut down as soon as Russia invaded, leaving the majority of Ukraine’s players with no place to play. The highest clubs Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv managed to get their players in another country and arrange camps abroad and a series of exhibition matches so their players could train.
At the identical time, Ukraine’s coach, Oleksandr Petrakov, arrange a training camp in Slovenia for his team, and cycled in members of the squad as they became available. All of the while, messages poured in from Ukraine: from soldiers, from members of the family, from friends fighting to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty from Russian troops.
“They make just one demand,” the veteran midfielder Taras Stepanenko told The Guardian of the messages he and his teammates receive. “‘Please do every part you possibly can to go to the World Cup.’”
What are they saying?
Ukraine Coach Oleksandr Petrakov: “Now we have a really difficult situation within the country. Not everyone watches football. Now we have grief, persons are dying …”
“We don’t give it some thought. We’re fascinated by the way to make our fans pleased, our armed forces, and focused on the sport.”
Wales captain Gareth Bale: “We’ll be the preferred team within the stadium, that’s the principal thing. We understand the awful things happening in Ukraine. Our hearts exit to the children, families and folks of Ukraine. We’ve all felt awful during this time and never been in a position to do an excessive amount of. But come tomorrow, it’s a game of football. We would like to win.”
Ukraine defender Oleksandr Karavayev: “We understand that an important game in our lives is ahead.”
What’s next for the winner?
For the reason that World Cup draw took place within the window between the unique dates of the playoff in March and Sunday’s playoff final, the winner of the sport in Cardiff will know its World Cup path immediately.
It would land in a bunch with England, Iran and the US and open the World Cup on its first day, Nov. 21, against the Americans.