Ukrainians eager for World Cup qualification: "Eliminate against Wales, that's no longer possible"

Today Ukraine is playing for a place in the World Cup.

Ukrainians eager for World Cup qualification: "Eliminate against Wales, that's no longer possible"

Today Ukraine is playing for a place in the World Cup. After the success against Scotland, the game against Wales has enormous symbolic importance for the country under attack from Russia. However, it is unclear how Ukrainian football will continue.

The Ukrainians are particularly looking forward to the early start of the game. The last and decisive game to qualify for the World Cup starts at 7 p.m. local time (6 p.m. CEST). Since the curfew in Kyiv doesn't start until 11 p.m., unlike in the case of winning the ESC a few weeks ago, the capitals can this time follow the game against Wales in the pub, even in the event of an extra time. It is bizarre euphoria to experience football in war. Last night there were rocket attacks in Kyiv for the first time in five weeks, many people were awakened at 6 a.m. by explosions.

Before the game against Scotland, which ended in a comfortable 3-1 victory for Ukraine, the Ukrainian fans were still cautious. You just didn't know what to expect from your own team. More than half of the international team had not played an official game since the Russian invasion began in late February. The Ukrainians, who play in European leagues, couldn't even play a single friendly match with the home team. No one had any idea how well prepared the team is and whether they can physically withstand the stress of the game.

But the team of Oleksandr Petrakov, who led the U20 team to the historic world championship title in 2019 and took over the coaching position from the Ukrainian national hero Andriy Shevchenko last year, convinced with fast switching in midfield. Petrakov volunteered for the territorial defense at the beginning of the Russian incursion but was turned down because of his age - he is 64.

The success against Scotland raised expectations in the country. "The Ukrainian national team has been the best way to unite people from different parts of the country, even in the darkest political times, so it is impossible to put into words how important a win would be for Ukraine," said Kyiv football expert Maxym Kravets, who is responsible for operates a Ukrainian bookmaker. What is special about today's national team: The players come from all regions of Ukraine, almost all administrative districts are represented in the team. Four players grew up in places currently under Russian occupation: Mykola Matviyenko is from the town of Saky in Crimea, Oleksandr Karavayev is from Kherson, Oleksandr Pikhalyonok from Donetsk and Oleksandr Zubkov from the neighboring town of Makiivka. Two other players, Taras Stepanenko and Mykola Shaparenko, are from the village of Velyka Novosilka in Donetsk region, where the front is now located.

"It's really indicative of how accurately and diversely this national team represents the country," said Oleh Shcherbakov, editor-in-chief of sports website Tribuna.com. Of course, these are dark times for Ukrainian football too. The interrupted championship was not played to the end. Places in European competitions are allocated by the provisional table, but this does not make leaders Shakhtar Donetsk the formal champions. Most of the foreign players evacuated jointly by arch-rivals Shakhtar and Dynamo Kyiv early in the war have been or are being sold. Experts assume that at least 15 clubs in the three official Ukrainian leagues will disappear as a result of the war. And it remains completely unclear how the next championship will be held.

"I get serious calls from the Premjer-Liha clubs every day, whether I know more than they do. But before the end of the World Cup qualifiers and the games in the Nations League, there will probably be no clarity," says sports journalist Shcherbakov. Originally there were three variants of the staging: in Turkey, in Poland and in western Ukraine. Turkey was immediately removed as an option. According to Shcherbakov, it would have been a completely inappropriate signal to hold the games in a tourist country. In Volodymyr Zelenskyy's presidential office there is currently a clear political will to stage the season in Ukraine, albeit without spectators in the stadiums.

The aim is to show that football is also going on in the country. Rocket fire and air raids, which are also part of everyday reality in western Ukraine, remain a major problem. While shopping centers or restaurants often ignore the alarms, this is hardly possible for an official sporting event - and you never know how long the alarm will last and whether the next one will start in a few minutes. "There is no ready-made recipe here. As with the Corona crisis, the rules first have to be thought out. And of course that's not easy in this case," says Shcherbakov.

Until Sunday evening, football in Ukraine is all about what is probably symbolically the most important game in the country's history so far. Ukraine may not have an absolute world star like Gareth Bale in this duel, but they are not worse off in terms of squad and have Olexandr Zinchenko (Manchester City), who had to be persuaded by his family, not to return to Ukraine to fight in the army , and Ruslan Malinowskyj (Atalanta Bergamo) have two of their own stars in midfield.

"Wales are a strong team and probably even stronger than Scotland. But I don't think they are better than the Ukrainians," says Shcherbakov. "More important than any analysis, however, is that Ukraine must win this game. The entire country needs this result, the lads know it. Scotland should have been eliminated, but now that's no longer possible."

"I am absolutely convinced that our boys will be able to win against Wales," writes Artem Frankov, editor-in-chief of the Ukrainian magazine Futbol. "Yes, they have Bale, but basically Wales are individually slightly stronger Scotland with a quite vulnerable defense. We can do it." Then the Ukrainians would really celebrate in the pubs, probably for the first time since February 24.

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