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Against the odds, football delivers moment of joy for Ukraine

After an emotion-charged evening at Hampden Park, the Ukrainian national team are on the brink of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup finals.

Ukraine celebrate during the FIFA World Cup Qualifier against Scotland
Ukraine celebrate during the FIFA World Cup Qualifier against Scotland Getty Images

When Ukraine midfielder Oleksandr Zinchenko learnt his country had been invaded back in February, he didn’t believe his nation’s World Cup play-off fixture away to Scotland would take place. Even when the match was rescheduled for June, the odds were firmly stacked against a Ukrainian victory.

Zinchenko: 'This is for the Ukrainian fans'

Instead, on an emotional night in Glasgow, Zinchenko and his team overcame partisan support, a lack of match practice and above all, fears for the safety of relatives living and fighting on the frontlines back home to deliver much-needed joy to their compatriots.

"Thank God the game happened," Zinchenko told UEFA.com on Wednesday. "We tried to show our best performance, to send some great emotions and good feelings to all the Ukrainian fans who have been watching.

"I know that there is not a lot of opportunity for all Ukrainians to come here and support our team but the fans who came today, I would like to say massive thanks to them for coming and to all the others who have been watching us. We felt their support."

Not alone

Ukraine fans celebrate in the Hampden Park stands
Ukraine fans celebrate in the Hampden Park standsGetty Images

Before kick-off, the visiting players had emerged from the tunnel each draped in blue and yellow flags, mirroring the scenes in the away section where as many as 3,000 Ukrainian fans had gathered to support their heroes, among them orphans and refugees displaced by the war. They were not alone.

To Scottish football’s immense credit, home supporters transformed the Hampden roar into a crescendo of solidarity. Using phonetic song sheets, local fans sang along with the Ukrainian national anthem – 'Shche ne vmerla Ukrayina' ('Ukraine has not yet perished').

Huge task

Yet it was still impossible to know how the emotion of the occasion would impact the performance of a team whose domestic-based players last played a competitive match in December. Coach Oleksandr Petrakov had conceded that a month-long training camp in Slovenia and three friendlies against Borussia Mönchengladbach, Empoli and Rijeka were scant preparation for a World Cup qualifier.

 Oleksandr Petrakov at Hampden Park
Oleksandr Petrakov at Hampden ParkGetty Images

"It’s a very difficult task when every single player is thinking about their fathers, mothers, close relatives back in Ukraine," said Petrakov on Tuesday. "Clearly every player understands how huge the task is … but still we’re trying to achieve our best, achieve the result, and our team is fully prepared to fight."


Far from being overawed by the occasion, Ukraine’s performance took inspiration from the plight of their besieged nation: from the moment captain Andriy Yarmolenko, leading by example, put his side ahead until Artem Dovbyk’s late goal secured a win that will live long in the memory.

European football community

The mere fact that Ukraine’s play-off with Scotland went ahead on Wednesday owned much to the support of the wider European football community.

In a rapid response to Russia’s invasion, national associations have helped the Football Association of Ukraine (UAF) to evacuate players and their families, agreed to postpone matches against Ukraine in order to allow them to compete in the best possible conditions and hosted training camps for Ukrainian teams.

Speaking at UEFA’s Annual Congress in Vienna last month, President Aleksander Čeferin paid tribute to European football’s united response to the tragedy in Ukraine. "Your solidarity means the world to us," said Mr Čeferin.

One more final

For Zinchenko and his team-mates, there is another chance to unite the football community when they play Wales on Sunday for a place in Qatar.

"Every game is like a final," said Zinchenko. "We have dreamed as a team to reach the World Cup and we have one more final - we need to win it otherwise this means nothing - we all need to put in the performance of our lives and then let's see what happens."