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Amid war and upheaval, Ukraine is on precipice of World Cup

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The westward journey away from war and toward the 2022 World Cup began early on a Saturday morning in Kyiv. It had been two months since the bombs started falling and the sirens started wailing; since windows shattered and some Ukrainian soccer players sheltered on garage floors. They feared the Russian missiles that seemed to strike incessantly. They huddled in basements, under blankets. They pleaded for peace, then fled for safety, their minds as far as could be from the sport that once paced their lives.

But on April 30, a bus departed Ukrainian soccer headquarters around 8 a.m. It snaked across a devastated country, then through a tranquil one. Some 37 hours later, coaches and players arrived in the Slovenian Alps, where the entire Ukraine men’s national team has since gathered.

Their minds often wander from their improbable quest, to the Russian invasion and the heroes repelling it, but every day, they receive messages from frontline fighters who have “only one demand,” midfielder Taras Stepanenko said.

"Please,” soldiers tell players, “do everything you can to go to the World Cup."

They are, after a rousing win over Scotland on Wednesday, 90 minutes away from qualifying. They must beat Wales in a playoff final on Sunday (noon ET, ESPN2) to reach the global sport’s biggest stage. If they do, they’d arrive in Qatar as inspirational ambassadors of a sovereign nation, and emblems of a distinct Ukrainian culture, the very two things that Vladimir Putin wants to erase. With hundreds of millions watching, they’d meet the United States on the tournament’s opening day, and embody Ukrainian resilience.

To prepare, with the Ukrainian Premier League indefinitely shuttered, they trekked to Brdo, Slovenia’s national soccer center just outside Ljubljana. They trained on pristine pitches surrounded by idyllic greenery. Rolling mountains met thick clouds on the horizon. There were no thunderous blasts or wailing sirens there. Only chirping birds and distant church bells broke the serenity.

But when their eyes fluttered open at the Elegans Hotel each morning, players worried. They saw, and still the harrowing images. They hear from relatives, and sense their nation’s pain. So they feel a responsibility — a burden, but likewise an opportunity to give millions of ailing countrymen hope.

“That’s why we have to play not only like a football game,” Stepanenko said. “We have to play with our soul, with our heart.”

“We know why we are going to the national team,” said Oleksandr Karavayev, a Dynamo Kyiv midfielder and native of besieged southern city Kherson. “Just as our soldiers are defending our country, we will give our all on the soccer field. That's the best thing we can do."

Ukraine is playing for so much more this week than a berth in the FIFA men's World Cup. (Photo by INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images)
Ukraine is playing for so much more this week than a berth in the FIFA men's World Cup. (Photo by INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images)

Patriotism surges among Ukrainian soccer players

Explosions jolted Stepanenko awake on the morning of Feb. 24, two days before Shakhtar Donetsk, his longtime club, was supposed to resume its season. The 32-year-old hustled his wife and three sons down to their basement. As Kyiv shook, all across the capital city, dozens of teammates sought similar shelter. Serhiy Sydorchuk, the Dynamo Kyiv captain, ushered his young children underground and into the trunk of a car. His then-pregnant wife slept on the floor.

They spent the early days of Russia’s assault in hiding. Across Europe, their Ukrainian teammates at foreign clubs felt concern, helplessness and rage — but also pride. Benfica’s Roman Yaremchuk and Atalanta’s Ruslan Malinovskyi scored goals that week, and revealed undershirts with patriotic and pacifist messages. Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko stood front and center at an anti-war protest in England. He also posted a photo of Putin on social media with a caption that translated roughly to: “I hope you die the most painful, suffering death.”

“My country belongs to Ukrainians and no one will ever be able to appropriate it,” Zinchenko wrote in his native language. “We will not give up! Glory to Ukraine.”

For years, such fervent messages were rare among top Ukrainian soccer players. They largely steered clear of politics, and “maybe wouldn't have discussed” Russia’s occupation of eastern Ukraine, says Andrew Todos, a British-Ukrainian podcaster and blogger. “They didn't want to make any conflicts.”

But in February, as Russian troops amassed and then attacked, patriotism surged. Players called for resistance and sanctions, including a ban on all Russian athletes from international sport. They posted impassioned rallying cries and reasoned pleas to fellow players for support. When Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, a legendary former Ukraine captain, refused to speak up, former teammates shunned him and the Ukrainian Association of Football wiped him from its record books.

Amid this nationalistic surge, Todos says, the national team has “taken on a completely new meaning.” And players have embraced it.

Ukrainian midfielder Ruslan Malinovskyi, who plays for Atalanta in Serie A, made a statement during a goal celebration earlier this season. (Photo by PANAYOTIS TZAMAROS/In Time Sports/AFP via Getty Images)
Ukrainian midfielder Ruslan Malinovskyi, who plays for Atalanta in Serie A, made a statement during a goal celebration earlier this season. (Photo by PANAYOTIS TZAMAROS/In Time Sports/AFP via Getty Images)

With Ukraine’s west and neighboring countries offering safety, and with the World Cup qualifying playoff postponed from March to June, they resumed club or individual training by April. The government granted exemptions to its martial law, which requires most able-bodied men aged 18-60 to remain in the country. Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar, Ukraine’s two most powerful clubs, embarked on “peace tours” across Europe, funneling funds from charity matches to humanitarian aid and the Ukrainian military.

The national team, meanwhile, worked with Aleksander Ceferin, European soccer’s top official, to arrange the training camp in Ceferin’s native Slovenia. And long before players arrived in early May, they understood the significance of their mission.

"It's very difficult to smile now,” goalkeeper Heorhiy Bushchan said in April. “But the guys and I will do everything to see a smile on the faces of millions of Ukrainians.”

'We will try not to let them down'

The bus rumbled past gas stations overflowing with cars, through towns physically unharmed but emotionally shaken. It scooped up players in Lviv and Uzhhorod, then crossed the border into Hungary, and that’s when Oleksandr Petrakov, Ukraine’s 64-year-old head coach, felt a calm reminiscent of pre-war life.

His life throughout May, however, was anything but normal. He has had to concoct and sharpen a team that hadn’t convened since November. Sixteen of his 26 players haven’t played in an official game since the Ukrainian league paused for its annual winter break on Dec. 12. “The players,” Petrakov said last month, “are completely deprived of match practice.”

But they were far better than Scotland on Wednesday. On paper, Todos believes, they are better than Wales, too. The squad comprises members of the under-20 team that won its 2019 World Cup, and the senior team that reached the quarterfinals of Euro 2020 last summer. The team represents Dynamo and Shakhtar, but also top clubs in England, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Left back Vitaliy Mykolenko recently starred for Everton in a Premier League relegation scrap. Shakhtar’s Mykhaylo Mudryk, dubbed the “Ukrainian Neymar,” is the 21-year-old Next Big Thing.

Of course, there are intangibles, circumstances that overwhelmed Zinchenko after he helped propel Man City to an English title. He draped a Ukrainian flag over the trophy, and felt his eyes fill with tears.

“I was thinking about those people who, unfortunately, have already died,” he said. “And those who are currently surviving in incredibly difficult conditions.”

The entire team is thinking about them. In between workouts, leading into the playoff semifinal, players endured agonizing waits for news from home. Karavayev, the Kherson native, has relatives living under Russian occupation. Yaremchuk, the starting striker, has “many friends who are now at the forefront,” and parents he speaks to “for almost half an hour” whenever he can. They all followed the Battle of Azovstal, and watched in horror as Russian forces seized Mariupol. Some have coordinated medical supply shipments, and lent support to soldiers embroiled in battle.

But they also get support in return. They know their duty is to fight a different type of battle on Sunday in Cardiff, just as they did Wednesday in Glasgow.

“All the Ukrainian people are waiting for the victory of the national team,” midfielder Mykola Shaparenko said last month. “So we will try not to let them down.”

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