Ukraine driven by raw emotion for game like no other as neutrals’ favourites aim for valuable World Cup berth

·4-min read
Ukraine driven by raw emotion for game like no other as neutrals’ favourites aim for valuable World Cup berth

Were tonight’s World Cup play-off semi-final decided by public vote, it would be a walkover. Taking this month’s Eurovision Song Contest as evidence, the groundswell of continent-wide support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion is such that Scotland would be handed a hammering the like of which they have not experienced even in the bleakest moments of the 24-year World Cup exodus they are seeking to end.

Fortunately for Steve Clarke and his side, goals not phone calls will determine who goes on to face Wales for a place in Qatar, with Hampden Park, not the court of public opinion, the stage, though even that will be lacking a touch of its usual pre-match hostility, with home fans set to join in the singing of the Ukrainian national anthem in a show of unity.

The unenviable challenge for the home side, as Andy Robertson put it this week, is to separate their “huge sympathy for the people of Ukraine” from the occasion, the Scotland skipper knowing full well that their opposition will be driven by the emotion of it all.

And how could they not be, when they have been receiving messages of support from soldiers fighting on the front line? When at the back of their minds is the knowledge that friends, family, countrymen and women will be watching at home under the constraints of a wartime curfew? When they know that even then, many will fear their viewings being disrupted by Russian air raids?

British football fans have forever drawn their European geographical knowledge from the continent’s teams and leagues. Ask one to name a Ukrainian city six months ago and it would almost certainly have been Kyiv, for Dynamo, or Donetsk, for Shakhtar. These days, for horrific reasons way beyond sport, it is Mariupol or Bucha that spring more readily to mind.

And yet, as far as the grim but now unavoidable intersection of football and war is concerned, it is almost impossible to assess this fixture and neither overstate nor understate its importance.

In the grand scheme of things, it pales into insignificance in the face of atrocities, war crimes and lives taken or left in ruins, qualification for a football tournament doing nothing to bring back lost loved ones or reunite displaced families with their homeland. The World Cup does not even begin for another five-and-a-half months - who knows what the fate of their country will be by then.

Yet to dismiss football in this guise as a trivial affair, a silly little game, would be naive when the prize is the powerful statement of a presence at the planet’s most-watched sporting event, one which has long since been seconded as a major political platform, one which Russia hosted four years ago and is now barred from even trying to qualify for.

Oleksandr Zinchenko broke down on the eve of Ukraine’s World Cup play-off against Scotland (Getty Images)
Oleksandr Zinchenko broke down on the eve of Ukraine’s World Cup play-off against Scotland (Getty Images)

Ukraine face an almighty task to do so themselves, having not played a competitive fixture since November. Many of Oleksandr Petrakov’s squad have been deprived of any action at all by the curtailment of their domestic league, with minds preoccupied by more pressing concerns such as evacuating families from the warpath of Russian troops.

They have been based, since the start of this month, at a training camp in Slovenia, playing warm-ups against Borussia Mönchengladbach, Empoli and Rijeka that were as much about generating funds for war victims as match practice. Even if they emerge victorious from a game like no other in their history, they will still have the small matter of a trip to Cardiff on Sunday standing between them and the World Cup.

For Ukraine, simply being at the World Cup would bring immense pride to a forcibly embattled nation

For Scotland, qualifying for Qatar would mark the culmination of a two-year resurgence that has reinvigorated a despairing fanbase, offering a talented generation of players a second chance to make a major tournament impression, having vowed not to be one-hit wonders after ultimately disappointing at last summer’s Euros.

For Ukraine, simply being there at all would bring immense pride to a forcibly embattled nation, proof to the world that they are not merely fighting on valiantly in their own streets, but alive and kicking on the global stage, too.

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