When Ukraine’s unusual journey through World Cup qualifying resumes this week, it signifies a rejection of the idea that sport and politics should not mix.
While Russia was excluded from qualifying because of its war in Ukraine, the Ukrainian national team had several extra months to prepare for the European qualifiers. Now, if Ukraine win two games this week, a squad made up of players who mostly haven’t played a competitive game in six months because of the home war will be at the World Cup in Qatar in November. .
Ukraine’s players and coach Oleksandr Petrakov have President Volodymyr Zelensky’s blessing to leave their homeland for the game against Scotland on Wednesday, when they will represent Ukraine’s yellow and blue colors and anthem in a flashy display national identity on the international scene.
The match was postponed by FIFA in March because Ukraine could not field a team a month after the Russian military invasion began.
The winner in Glasgow will face Wales on Sunday in Cardiff to decide which team will qualify for the World Cup and join a group with England, USA and Iran.
Midfielder Taras Stepanenko spoke this month about playing with heart and soul to please soldiers who sent messages urging the team to qualify for their first World Cup since 2006.
“Player morale is high,” Petrakov said on Monday. “There is no need to influence them, to say anything. They are experienced footballers and they understand everything perfectly.
Goodwill towards Ukrainian football led FIFA to praise Scottish and Welsh officials for their “strong spirit of solidarity and cooperation” after agreeing to postpone the qualifiers and help give their opponent a chance. All other European places at the World Cup have already been decided.
Facing Ukraine under these circumstances has left one of Scotland’s greatest ever players feeling conflicted – even though Graeme Souness has captained his country to two World Cups and has waited 24 years since last qualifying. tartan army.
“I don’t just want Ukraine to qualify, I want them to go there (to Qatar) and win,” Souness told Britain’s The Times on Monday. “My emotions when I think about it deeply are that it’s more important than football to send a message that Russia’s behavior is unacceptable.”
FIFA has already sent a message by suspending Russian teams from its competitions a few days after the start of the war, effectively banning Russia from the World Cup.
Russia was due to play European qualifiers in March against Poland, then Sweden or the Czech Republic. All three nations refused to play against Russia – a political boycott unprecedented in modern football which FIFA approved and the Court of Arbitration for Sport cleared.
The raw anger towards Russia was shown by Ukrainian star Oleksandr Zinchenko in a barbed post on social media when the war started. The Manchester City defender posted a picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin with the caption: “I hope you die the most painful death.”
After Zinchenko helped Man City win the Premier League title on the final day of the season, he tied a Ukrainian flag to the trophy on the pitch.
“I want to die for these people, for all this support,” Zinchenko said of his home country. “Because what people gave to me, what they did for me during this whole time, the hardest time of my life, I’m so grateful and I’ll never forget that.”
That passion comes to Scotland, with a solidarity forged during a month-long training camp in the safety of Slovenia for players from Ukrainian clubs like Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv.
The camp was organized by UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin’s local football association, with warm-up matches staged against clubs from Germany, Italy and Croatia.
Petrakov was with them after his offer to join the Territorial Defense Forces was rejected. Ukraine needed him more to guide their football team to the World Cup.
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