Ukraine fueled by raw emotion for game like no other as neutral favorites aim for precious World Cup spot
Before tonight’s World Cup play-off semi-final is decided by public vote, it would be a surprise. Taking this month’s Eurovision Song Contest as proof, the continent-wide outpouring of support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion is such that Scotland would be dealt a hammer blow like she didn’t experience one even in the 24-year-old’s darkest moments of the World Cup. the exodus they seek to end.
Luckily for Steve Clarke and his team, goals not phone calls will determine who takes on Wales for a place in Qatar, with Hampden Park not the court of public opinion the stage, although that will miss a touch of its usual pre-match hostility, with home fans ready 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 “enormous sympathy for the Ukrainian people” from the occasion, with the Scottish skipper knowing full well that their opposition will be driven by the ’emotion. everything.
And how could they not be, when they received messages of support from soldiers fighting on the front line? When in the back of their minds is the knowledge that friends, family, compatriots and women will watch at home under the constraints of a wartime curfew? When they know that even then many will fear their viewings will be disrupted by Russian air raids?
British football fans have always drawn their knowledge of European geography from the continent’s teams and leagues. Ask anyone to name a Ukrainian city six months ago and it almost certainly would have been Kyiv, for Dynamo, or Donetsk, for Shakhtar. These days, for gruesome reasons far beyond sports, it’s Mariupol or Bucha that comes to mind the most.
And yet, when it comes to the dark but now inevitable intersection of football and war, it’s almost impossible to rate this game and neither overestimate nor underestimate its importance.
In the grand scheme of things, this pales into insignificance in the face of atrocities, war crimes and lives taken or left in ruins, with qualifying for a football tournament doing nothing to bring back lost loved ones or reunite displaced families. with their homeland. The World Cup doesn’t even start for another five and a half months – who knows what will happen to their country by then.
Yet to dismiss football in this guise as a trivial matter, a silly little game, would be naive when the prize is the powerful declaration of a presence at the most watched sporting event on the planet, which has long been seconded as major political event platform, one which Russia hosted four years ago and which is now banned from even trying to qualify.
Ukraine face the almighty task of doing so on their own, having not played a competitive game since November. Many members of Oleksandr Petrakov’s squad have been starved of action by the downsizing of their domestic league, with minds preoccupied with more pressing concerns such as evacuating families from the warpath of Russian troops.
They have been based, since the beginning of this month, in a training camp in Slovenia, playing warm-ups against Borussia Mönchengladbach, Empoli and Rijeka which were as much aimed at generating funds for war victims as training . Even if they emerge victorious in a match like no other in their history, they will still have the small matter of a trip to Cardiff on Sunday between them and the World Cup.
For Ukraine, just being at the World Cup would bring immense pride to a forcibly beleaguered nation
For Scotland, qualifying for Qatar would mark the culmination of a two-year resurgence that has reinvigorated a desperate fanbase, giving a generation of talented players a second chance to make a major tournament impression, having vowed not to be one-hit wonders after finally disappointing at the Euro last summer.
For Ukraine, just to be there would bring immense pride to a nation beleaguered by force, proof to the world that it is not just fighting valiantly on its own streets, but is also alive. and active on the world stage.