The emotion, in anticipation, had been so raw that at times it was easy to fret that it would prove overwhelming. Oleksandr Zinchenko, a Ukraine midfielder, had talked about pride, about freedom, about proving to the world that his country would “never surrender.” He had welled up with tears as he spoke.
His coach, Oleksandr Petrakov, had acknowledged that lots of his players were consumed by thoughts of members of the family trapped back home, haunted by air-raid sirens and menaced by war, and still picking up the pieces of lives shattered by a brutal Russian invasion.
Yet as they prepared for Wednesday’s European playoff match at Scotland, the primary of two playoff games that would, in the long run, deliver them and their nation to the World Cup, Ukraine’s players faced a frightening physical challenge.
A handful of the players at Petrakov’s disposal compete within the leagues of Western Europe; they’d been able, in some superficial, skilled sense, to proceed as normal these last three months. Their minds might need been elsewhere, in fact, but their bodies were training and playing.
For the remainder of his team, though, there had been no competitive soccer for months. Those players attached to Ukraine’s two most famous clubs — Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv, each now in exile from their homeland — have featured in a smattering of charity games in Poland and Croatia, staged to lift money for the numerous tens of millions fleeing Russia’s invasion.
Petrakov had been in a position to call his squad together last month for a training camp in Slovenia, the monotony broken only by the occasional tuneup match against club opposition. There had, though, been nothing comparable to the intensity of meaningful motion. Quite whether his team would have the physical capability to match Scotland, the primary opponent blocking its path to the World Cup, remained open to query.
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More pressing still, though, was the psychological hurdle. Ukraine’s players haven’t shied from what the symbolism of winning a spot on the World Cup would mean to their country. They’ve not tried to downplay how vital something as trivial as soccer might be, even when it appears to be very trivial indeed.
Several players are in regular contact with those fighting on the front line; they’d come to grasp that qualifying for just the second World Cup within the country’s history would have a major effect on national morale.
“We would like to go to the World Cup, to present these incredible emotions to the people,” Zinchenko had said. “Ukrainians deserve it a lot at this moment.”
Because the players emerged right into a sunlit Glasgow evening, every one with the country’s flag draped around his shoulders, it was inconceivable to not wonder if perhaps it would all prove an excessive amount of. The pressure of playing to achieve a World Cup might be inhibiting; the pressure of playing to achieve a World Cup on behalf of a rustic at war, a rustic fighting for its existence, could possibly be asphyxiating.
And yet, what stood out about Ukraine, almost immediately, was a coolness, a composure, a detachment from the importance of the country’s first competitive game because the invasion. It shone through not simply within the three goals it scored to beat Scotland, 3-1 — a delicate lob from Andriy Yarmolenko, a precise header from Roman Yaremchuk and an emphatic finish late from Artem Dovbyk — or within the welter of other probabilities it created.
It was also in dozens of little things. Ukraine passed neatly, incisively, with loads of speed but a definite 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.
Fairly than being overwhelmed by emotion, Ukraine gave the impression to be unshackled from it, once the anticipation had ended and the moment itself had arrived. For the primary time in a protracted time, the players were doing what they’d at all times done, what they’d been trained to do, they usually reveled in it.
It was not pride — a way of purpose, a desire to make the people comfortable — that carried them through to a final playoff, against Wales in Cardiff on Sunday, in a game that can determine whether Ukraine’s story will end with a World Cup appearance in November. As a substitute, as soon because the whistle blew, they found freedom, and that had been good enough.