GLASGOW, Scotland — Ukraine are 90 minutes away from the World Cup.
For a country that is fighting for its very existence following Russia’s invasion in February, to even think about the insignificance of qualifying for a football tournament is difficult to comprehend, but Ukraine’s 3-1 win against Scotland in their World Cup play-off semifinal on Wednesday sent a message to the world that theirs is a country of incredible spirit and resolve.
To those suffering the brutal reality of war in the country, the football team’s potential qualification for Qatar 2022 may mean nothing or everything. But however this victory is viewed in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Luhansk, Mariupol and the other towns that have endured — and are still enduring — the horrors of war, the tenacity, pride and flair displayed by Ukraine’s players at Hampden Park will, if nothing else, project Ukraine’s defiance to a global audience and extend the hope of representation at football’s biggest event later this year.
If Ukraine can defeat Wales in Cardiff on Sunday, they will qualify for the World Cup and take their place in Group B, alongside England, the United States and Iran.
“Every game for us now is like a final,” midfielder Oleksandr Zinchenko said. “We have one more and we need to win it — we need to take it or this won’t mean anything.
“Everyone knows the situation back in Ukraine, so it [Sunday] is going to be a massive game for us. We need to show the best performance of our lives.”
From a sporting context, Ukraine should have had no chance in this game. Six of their starting team represent clubs in the Ukrainian Premier League and had not played a competitive fixture since December. Coach Oleksandr Petrakov admitted ahead of the match that he would not know just how fit, or otherwise, those players were until the game kicked off against the Scots.
But Ukraine’s challenge was far more than a sporting one. The reason why those players had not kicked a ball since December was because Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24 halted the resumption of league football following the winter shutdown.
Football stopped, but life itself stopped too as Ukraine fought to resist Russia’s invading forces. The Ukraine-based players went from training at their clubs to sheltering in basements and underground shelters with their families.
Wednesday’s play-off was due to be played on March 24, but there was no prospect of the majority of the squad being able to leave their country or even wanting to. Football wasn’t remotely important.
Yet somehow, Petrakov has been able to assemble a squad, train them and get them fit for the challenge of qualifying for Qatar. A month-long training camp in Slovenia, following a 37-hour bus journey from Kyiv preceded this game which, according to Zinchenko, gave the players the opportunity to give the children and soldiers of Ukraine some hope and joy in such bleak times.
That seemed an unlikely ambition as Zinchenko, the Manchester City player, broke down in tears during the pre-match press conference on Tuesday. Surely the emotional demands of playing this game, Ukraine’s first since the invasion, would drain the physical reserves of players who have had to deal with so much in recent months.
Yet the reality was anything but. Ukraine produced a remarkable performance, not just of energy and desire, but their football was exceptional too.
They had walked out for the national anthem, each player draped with a Ukraine flag, before collectively embracing as they sang “Shche ne vmerla Ukrayina.” When the home fans sang “Flower of Scotland” at a deafening level, Ukraine’s players knew they were in for a test of character, but in truth, it only served to inspire them.
When captain Andriy Yarmolenko received a fifth-minute yellow card for a bad tackle on Scotland’s Billy Gilmour, it hinted at the emotion getting the better of Ukraine’s players, but they settled quickly and Dynamo Kyiv‘s Viktor Tsyganov saw a shot tipped over the crossbar by goalkeeper Craig Gordon three minutes later.
Yarmolenko then had a close-range effort saved before the West Ham forward opened the scoring on 33 minutes with a stunning lob over Gordon after beating the offside trap to latch onto Ruslan Malinovskyi‘s long pass.
Scotland, with their best chance of qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1998, simply froze on the big stage. Many expected Ukraine to be overwhelmed by the occasion, but it was Scotland who couldn’t cope with the pressure and, after being booed off at halftime, they fell further behind when Roman Yaremchuk headed in Ukraine’s second on 49 minutes.
Yaremchuk, the Benfica forward, turned and celebrated in front the 3,000 Ukraine supporters who had travelled from various cities in Europe to back their team. Many were refugees, who had fled the conflict, a small number were orphaned children who had been given tickets for the game by the Scottish Football Association. As Yaremchuk danced in delight, it was a sea of blue and yellow as the fans waved their flags in celebration.
Even though Scotland fought back, with John McGinn heading an easy chance wide on 67 minutes before Callum McGregor made it 2-1 just 11 minutes from fulltime, Ukraine never looked likely to give up their lead.
Ukraine’s ability to keep the ball and run down the clock always gave them the edge, but as the four minutes of stoppage time ticked to a conclusion, substitute Artem Dovbyk, who plays for Ukrainian club Dnipro-1, banished any fears of a late Scotland equaliser by scoring to make it 3-1 and confirm victory.
Ukraine’s players raced to embrace Dovbyk just as referee Danny Makkelie blew his whistle for the end of the game. It was apt that Dovbyk and his teammates joined together in front of the Ukraine supporters.
Nobody had given Ukraine a hope, but they secured an unforgettable victory. One more win, against Wales on Sunday, and they will head to the World Cup and complete one of sport’s greatest fairytales.