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GLASGOW – Forget Eurovision. That matters a lot more.
On Wednesday night, Ukraine play their first competitive game in Glasgow since the brutal Russian invasion began at the end of February. The game against Scotland is a World Cup qualifier with a potential Qatar 2022 spot at stake.
Football has been far from a top priority for Ukrainians in Britain over the past three months as millions of their compatriots have been forced to flee their homes by Russia’s deadly military aggression – but excitement for this game is sky high.
“The 11 players on the pitch are not playing for the 3,000 fans Ukraine is bringing here. It’s for the 44 million Ukrainians in Ukraine,” said Stepan Luczka, a British-Ukrainian and chairman of the UK Ukrainian Sports Supporters Club, outside Hampden Park – the stadium of Scotland’s national team – where he sorted out dozens of tickets for traveling fans.
Luczka, dressed in blue and yellow from head to toe down to his sneakers, has a relative who is fighting in the war-torn Donbass region.
Wednesday night will be a real “mixture of feelings,” added Luczka, who has been touring Europe in support of Ukraine for years. “I feel like I shouldn’t be singing, celebrating… because at the end of the day there’s a war going on. Every day people die and I’m at a football game. To put it in context, there are more important things in the world.”
Ukrainian fans from across the UK and western Europe traveled to Glasgow to lend their voice for an emotional wall of noise in Hampden on Wednesday night.
Sisters Olha and Sofiia Abramova fled Kyiv to western Ukraine on March 5, seeking shelter from Russian shelling and eventually moving to Britain. They traveled from London for the game, which is an important source of national pride and dignity, Olha said.
“I’m not a football fan,” she added after picking up her ticket in a dingy container outside the stadium, “but when our Ukrainian team plays, I feel like you’re part of something big.”
“The game shows that Ukraine is still alive,” Yevgen Chub, treasurer of the Glasgow branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain, told POLITICO on a gloomy Glasgow afternoon.
And at a press conference before the game, emotions ran high. The Ukrainian players are in “fighting mood” before the game, said a tearful Oleksandr Zinchenko, a star player for English champions Manchester City, broke down when he spoke of Ukrainian dreams: that the war would end and that the country would qualify for the World Cup.
“Ukraine is a country of freedom,” said Zinchenko. “Ukraine will never give up. Many countries may not understand, today it’s Ukraine – but tomorrow it could be you. Therefore, we must unite to defeat this Russian aggression together.”
The game was originally scheduled for late March, but world football’s governing body FIFA decided to postpone it. Some Ukrainian domestic league players spent time in bomb shelters in the devastating early days of the war.
Surreal for Scotland
Scotland, who often slip into the shoes of international football’s unfortunate but lovable outsider, will be in the unusual position of not being the neutral’s favorites on Wednesday – but are still trying to qualify for their first World Cup since 1998.
For James Coggs and Graeme Baxter, two long-suffering Scotland fans who are targeting a trip to Qatar in November, Wednesday night’s game against a “pumped and humming” Ukraine side will be a “surreal” experience.
“It’s a strange situation. Ninety-nine out of 100 neutral players want Scotland to win when we play,” said Coggs. But in this case, “the world will be cheering for Ukraine – similar to Eurovision,” Baxter added.
Of course, the key difference between an extravagant singing contest and a tense football eliminator is that no one will hand victory to Ukraine. You have to take it actively. And that’s a situation that Scotland’s players are preparing for.
“For 90 minutes or 120 minutes we have to separate our minds,” said Scotland captain Andy Robertson of Ukraine. “We want to come to the World Cup, we have to be ready for the challenge and the emotions that Ukraine will offer.”
Baxter, the supporter, was blunt: “There’s a lot of sympathy for them… of course we’re going to respect them and their anthem, then we’re going to go out there and try to beat them.” And the Ukrainians wouldn’t have it any other way either, Luczka said with a chuckle.
The winners of Wednesday night’s clash meet Wales in Cardiff on Sunday in a final for the final European qualifier at the World Cup – and are placed in a group with England, the USA and Iran.
“I’m a bit indifferent to Eurovision, but Ukraine won,” said Luczka. “I think that was a big morale boost for the troops who, well, listen, Ukraine is fighting any way they can.”
And it will be the same again on Wednesday night in Glasgow.
“If winning football helps people not to forget Ukraine, then I think that’s also like an army in a way,” said Olha Abramova.