Ukraine's emotional stars bidding for the World Cup amid the backdrop of war

A play-off semi-final against Scotland for players still raising awareness of troubles at home

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On the evening before Russian troops escalated the invasion of Ukraine in February, Roman Yaremchuk came off the substitutes' bench in a tightly-poised Champions League knockout tie at the opposite end of Europe.

The Benfica striker had prepared himself for what he would do if this was to be the night he ended his barren spell in front of goal with his club trailing 2-1 against Ajax in Lisbon.

Ten minutes after entering the pitch, Yaremchuk headed in the goal on which the tie would pivot in Benfica’s favour. He peeled off his shirt to reveal the coat of arms of his native Ukraine.

Next morning, the fighting was under way. The Ukraine midfielder, Ruslan Malinovskyi, posted a detailed map of the several areas of conflict and shelling across the country. That evening, Malinovskyi, of Atalanta, struck two superb left-foot drives in his club’s 3-0 Europa League win at Olympiakos. He had not scored a brace of goals from open play in a single match for over six years. He too had something prepared, a T-shirt bearing the message ‘No war in Ukraine’.

High-level sport is most effectively played with a clear, cold-eyed focus on the immediate, events on the pitch. But there are times when carrying into a contest an emotional charge, a sense of broader responsibility, can lift an individual’s performance. Some of the most prominent current Ukrainian footballers very plainly raised their games when attention was on them because it was suddenly on their country.

Others have used their profiles to draw the wider world’s gaze on to the devastating effects of an ongoing war that, some players suspect, may be gradually fading from international headlines. Ten days after Oleksandr Zinchenko, of Manchester City, wrapped a Ukraine flag around the Premier League trophy during the celebrations of City’s title, he, Malinovskyi, Yaremchuk and colleagues will on Wednesday take on the most resonant international fixture of their career knowing it will draw attention well beyond the outcome.

Win their World Cup play-off semi-final against Scotland in Glasgow, and Ukraine will be 90 minutes from qualifying for Qatar 2022. Andriy Yarmolenko, the striker, who is coming to an end of his contract at West Ham United, says he “could hardly wait for the end of the [club] season to be with the national team, face to face, on the same pitch with them”.

Yarmolenko was given compassionate leave by his club when the war escalated. He returned to immediately score a decisive goal, off the bench, against Aston Villa. Four days later, again as a substitute, he struck the extra-time winner in a Europa League tie against Sevilla, and handed his West Ham shirt to a young fan who had come to the London stadium wrapped in a Ukraine flag.

West Ham United's Ukrainian striker Andriy Yarmolenko wears the national flag after his last game. AFP

The challenge for Ukraine’s head coach, Oleksandr Petrakov, is to harness the drive evident in those match-turning moments from Yarmolenko, Malinovskyi and Yaremchuk while carefully managing the pressure of a one-off, high-stakes qualifier in atmospheric Hampden Park.

Petrakov admits to having “had tears in my eyes” on the day last month he oversaw a friendly involving several players from his first-choice line-up against German club Borussia Monchengladbach.

That game, a 2-1 win, was part of a three-match tour that also had his Ukraine XI’s win against Italian club Empoli and a draw against Rijeka of Croatia. The games raised funds for the war effort and gave players much-needed match practice. For those based with Ukrainian clubs, the majority of the squad, there has been no competitive football since February, the league having been suspended because of the conflict.

The country’s leading clubs, Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk have done short tours, playing friendly matches to raise awareness and money, but the readiness and form of the national team is, because of circumstances, hard to gauge.

Fans with Ukraine flags attend the friendly fund-raising match between Borussia Dortmund and Dynamo Kyiv in April. AFP

Besides the rustiness of the home-based players, the most reliable scorers in the squad, at international level, are Yaremchuk and Yarmolenko. Apart from their memorable, powerfully timed contributions in those European fixtures in the spring, neither have been among the goals in the later part of their club seasons.

The national squad have been obliged to be nomads, training over the last week in Slovenia, a long way from the home where their successes and setbacks tonight will be followed from underground bunkers in some Ukrainian cities, and from the frontline of battle.

Victory would propel Ukraine to Saturday’s final, against Wales, for Europe’s last remaining ticket to the November’s World Cup. To be there would be a stunning against-the-odds achievement. To even be competing for a place this evening is its own triumph.

Scotland train for Ukraine play-off

Updated: June 01, 2022, 7:31 AM
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