Ukrainian football in wartime: World Cup still on the horizon | Sports | German football and major international sports news | DW

Oleksandr Petrakov is a man of few words. The Ukraine men’s national football team coach looks tough and uptight in an interview with DW.

“I feel a great responsibility. For our fans at home, for our armed forces, for ordinary people who are at home in Ukraine right now,” he says laconically. “It’s a big responsibility for me and for the boys.”

What was once purely sporting has become a major national distraction. “Football is not the most important thing right now,” says Ukrainian historian Kateryna Chernii. “But the national team matches are an opportunity for the Ukrainian people and the refugees to experience something together. Like Ukraine’s recent Eurovision triumph, there is a desire for good news.”

If Ukraine beat Scotland in the qualifying playoffs, the first leg of which is on June 1, they could clinch a second World Cup appearance five days later in another qualifier against Wales. in Cardiff.

Obstacles to overcome

“This is an opportunity for us to draw attention to the situation in our country,” midfielder Serhiy Sydorchuk told DW. But it’s an even more difficult task than normal for two reasons: firstly, a lack of match practice.

Oleksandr Petrakov knows his team carries a heavy burden

As recently as November, Sydortschuk played in the Champions League for Dynamo Kyiv against Bayern Munich. But since the start of the winter break, there have been no more competitive matches for Ukrainian clubs or the national team.

To prepare for Scotland, Petrakov gathered his team abroad near Ljubljana, Slovenia. Friendly matches were organized to try to get the team in shape. This led to many trips: to Tuscany, Croatia and Germany, where the Ukrainians played against Bundesliga club Borussia Mönchengladbach.

The second reason is perhaps obvious, players are directly affected by the war.

“We all have the same things in our souls, in our heads, in conversations,” says Sydortschuk. His coach agrees: “I called my wife and daughter earlier. They say it’s quiet today, everything is fine. All the boys are calling, everyone is worried about their relatives. Of course, you have doubts,” says Petrakov. It’s easy to imagine how difficult it is to focus on football.

Familiar Fears

Some players, like goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov, have been here before. In 2014, he had to flee with his family when pro-Russian separatists declared the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Since then, his club Shakhtar Donetsk has been playing in the capital kyiv. There, he and his family once again had to endure bombings and war.

The Russian invasion remains incomprehensible to Ukrainians. As in many other areas, the two countries were closely linked in football. In Soviet times, the common eleven celebrated its greatest successes under Ukrainian coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi, when it finished second in the 1988 European Championship. In the same year, under the management of his compatriot Anatoliy Byshovets, USSR wins Olympic gold against Brazil. For a long time, Ukrainian players formed the backbone of the Soviet XI, with names like Oleksiy Mykhaylychenko or Oleg Blokhin familiar across Europe.

Ukrainian national team trains in Slovenia

Ukraine national team trained in Slovenia

It took a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Empire for Ukraine to become a truly competitive team. “But it was precisely during this period that the national team played an extremely important role on the road to independence. It was an identity anchor for the Ukrainian people,” explains historian Chernii.

A heavy burden

There are now several of these anchors, but the pull of football is still great, especially during important tournaments. It was really noticeable for the first time during the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Under coach Blokhin, the team caused a stir: they only lost to eventual world champions Italy in the quarter-finals. Since Euro 2012 in their home country, the team in yellow and blue have participated in all Euros.

“We know the burden on our shoulders,” Sydortschuk said of the game against Scotland. But, at the same time, he does not want to complain. The team, he says, is privileged over the people at war. “Back home, young men are fighting and dying in the trenches,” adds Petrakov.

The 64-year-old coach volunteered for territorial defense in Kyiv after the outbreak of war, but was turned down due to a lack of military experience and his upcoming assignment. Attract attention, make positive headlines; this is now its mission. The players are determined to give their best in Glasgow, stresses Sydorchuk: “We all live for this game and hope that we will achieve everything.”

This article has been translated from German.

Edited by: Jonathan Harding

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