Shortly before kick-off at Hampden Park on Wednesday, air-raid sirens sounded in the Ukraine capital Kyiv. A warning that, although a distracting event, certain to capture widespread attention, was about to take place and bring collective joy to a nation at war, there could be no pause in the everyday vigilance that has become routine.
The citizens of Kyiv listened and watched their national team’s victory over Scotland in the semi-final of their World Cup play-off under curfew.
Only those who have left the country since the Russian invasion escalated in February could gather safely in large numbers to celebrate a 3-1 victory of exhilarating energy. There was a brief period of suspense in Glasgow, when Scotland reduced the arrears to 2-1 with 11 minutes left, but the night finished perfectly scripted for the away team, Ukraine’s third goal coming on the stroke of the final whistle.
That will be cherished as a sign of momentum going into Sunday’s final against Wales, the showdown for the last remaining European place in the Qatar World Cup.
If Ukraine are to be at football’s greatest festival, the most heartfelt hope would be that they do so as a nation at peace. If that is the case, the players will still be there as ambassadors for a country in need of international help in the post-conflict rebuild.
The win over Scotland was emotionally and physically draining. Ukraine coach Oleksandr Petrakov left undisguised the fact that his players were engaging both with a determined - but outclassed - opponent on the pitch and responsibilities to compatriots at home and in difficult exiles abroad.
“We want to make Ukrainians proud,” said Petrakov. “You have to keep in mind what they are enduring: people are being killed. The players are playing for people back home, for our soldiers in the trenches and people in hospitals.”
Those thoughts will be carried to Cardiff this weekend, but a concern for Petrakov, even after the authoritative performance against the Scots, is fatigue. Apart from the psychological demands on the players, many have played very little competitive football for the past six months.
The Ukrainian league was suspended when the invasion escalated. Ten of the 15 footballers who took part in the semi-final at Hampden are employed by Ukrainian clubs.
Scotland 1 Ukraine 3 - player ratings
Even some of those who aren’t had every reason for feeling rusty. Preparations for Wednesday were improvised at a temporary training base in Slovenia. Warm-up games consisted of friendlies against club sides from Germany, Italy and Croatia.
The higher-profile players joined in only after their domestic leagues finished, some in ordinary form. Andriy Yarmolenko started one Premier League match last season for West Ham United, where his contract expires this month.
Likewise, most of Roman Yaremchuk’s match action over the past six months for Benfica has been coming off the bench, and although he scored twice in the knockout stages of the Champions League, those were his only competitive goals of 2022, at least until his expert header put his country 2-0 up in Glasgow.
The outstanding Yarmolenko had looked like a model of sharpness with the delicate volley for Ukraine’s opener.
Equally reassuring for Petrakov was the impact, off the bench, of Artem Dovbyk, who struck the third goal, having come on to the pitch in the 78th minute, apparently picking up where he left off when his club season effectively finished with the Ukrainian season’s winter break in December.
Dovbyk, 24, had been in potent form for his club, Dnipro, hitting his eighth goal in six league games away at Mariupol, a club whose infrastructures now sit in ruins after sustained shelling.
Wales, for their part, can hardly expect match-fitness to be their special ally, even against Ukrainian players coming off interrupted seasons.
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Their leading lights are approaching the fixture with little obvious momentum. Gareth Bale, whose nine years with Real Madrid have come to an end, was on the pitch for less than seven minutes of Madrid’s triumphant Champions League campaign and started only once since August in La Liga.
Aaron Ramsey made three starts for Glasgow Rangers, who he joined on loan from Juventus in January, across their league and long Europa League runs.
But Bale and Ramsey almost always up their game in the national jersey. This weekend they face a group of players for whom that is an absolute obligation.