Ukraine can be heroes at Hampden in a way that goes beyond football | Ukraine

A Cold night in late 1993. A group of eight men crouched behind a pile of snow at the airport, waiting, anxious. The sprint lasted only 200 yards. They were professional athletes, physically fit. It should have been easy. On the other side of the airfield you run away through the darkness, lies freedom and its mission. But they knew they were within range of Serbian snipers.

That was Fuad Muzurovic’s great idea. He was the coach of FK Sarajevo and as the siege of his city dragged on, he realized that his players had value beyond taking up arms and fighting on the front lines. He conceived the idea of ​​a world tour, played friendly matches, raised awareness of the plight of civilians and the need for aid. The program was approved by the Bosnian government.

Before the friendly against Borussia Mönchengladbach, Ukraine sings the national anthem in preparation for the World Cup playoffs
Before the friendly against Borussia Mönchengladbach, Ukraine sings the national anthem in preparation for the World Cup playoffs. Photo: Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images

“We trained in the basketball hall,” said defender Mirza Varesanovic. “Every day on the way to and from training we were shot at by snipers and cannons, but our love for the club and for football outweighed the fear for our lives. That was our way of fighting for Bosnia. We were something like Bosnian ambassadors.”

The biggest practical problem was getting out of Sarajevo. The city had been protectively cordoned off by the UN, which controlled the airport. The squad was divided into four groups of seven, each under the command of a member of the Bosnian special forces. They fled for four consecutive nights and agreed to meet in the village of Pazaric, 20 miles to the west.

Muzurovic’s group crossed the middle of the airfield, where they faced the greatest danger from snipers, only to see a UN patrol. “They had a tank with a headlight,” he said, “so when we saw the light we just turned around; We made it look like we were running into town from free territory. We lay down in the snow, the UN forces put us in a van and took us to the free territory. That was the game you had to play.”

They hitchhiked a refrigerated meat truck to Pazaric, from where the force traveled to Zagreb. In the months that followed, they played 54 matches in 17 countries and faced world leaders as diverse as the Pope and Iranian leader Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who told them, “This is your way of fighting. This is the best way to present your young state to the world.”

Maybe that was it. It probably makes sense that if you have a gift that can touch people around the world, inspire sympathy and understanding, and help those back home, you should use it. There’s no point in shooting at talented footballers. But then there’s no point in shooting bus drivers or grocers or postmen either. Many of these players had doubts, wondering if they had lied to themselves, wondering if they should have used their physical abilities to fight more directly.

Football tends to inflate its importance, whether it be fans speaking of a decade without a trophy as suffering, or Fifa President Gianni Infantino claiming a biannual World Cup could ease the migrant crisis (or journalists believing that anyone cares about the very real battles (traveling on Avanti trains). That it’s inextricably intertwined with geopolitics is undeniable, but it’s always embarrassing when football and war intersect.

On the one hand, next week there will be Ukraine’s attempts to slow down the Russian advance in the Donbass, with the big tactical question of whether the troops in Sieverodonetsk will be encircled; On the other hand, Ukraine face a World Cup qualifying playoff against Scotland with the big debate over whether to use Oleksandr Zinchenko at full-back or in midfield.

One is obviously a matter of life and death that could shape the future of Europe; the other is an essentially trivial pastime which has happened to have captured the world’s attention for a century. It’s that last fact that makes Wednesday’s playoff so significant. The result won’t change the world, but that Ukraine can still compete in events like this, that they can still try to qualify for the World Cup while Russia is suspended resonates.

Just as the 1954 World Cup was an important symbol of (West) Germany’s reintegration into world affairs, it is important that Ukraine is still part of the world community – not as much as the cellar full of skeletons in Mariupol, of course, but still something.

For Ukraine on Wednesday it is less important whether they win, whether the game takes place at all. Scotland’s players should certainly not be put off by the situation. Much more important is the reception that Ukraine is receiving. It’s extremely difficult to quantify how much the world cares, but a sea of ​​blue and yellow flags at Hampden would send an irrefutable message and could at least offer some comfort to those fighting on in Ukraine.

Ukraine have not played a competitive game since their World Cup qualifier in Bosnia last November. Their preparation consisted of friendly matches against Borussia Mönchengladbach, Empoli and Rijeka, while plans for a game against DR Congo in Brussels on Friday had to be put on hold as the local mayor was unable to guarantee the necessary police presence.

But the difficulty of setting up is perhaps part of Ukraine’s greatest strength: the feeling that this isn’t a normal game. Slaven Bilic has said that at Euro 96 for Croatia there was “extra motivation when you heard the national anthem and especially when you saw the reaction at home”. That had already subsided at the World Cup two years later. Small complaints fall away before the bigger thing.

At last year’s Euro, the Ukraine shirt controversially featured a map showing Crimea, Donbass and Luhansk as Ukrainian, and although they were allowed to carry the slogan ‘Honour to Ukraine’, the ‘Honour to Heroes’ line was removed because of their historical significance forbidden connotations.

However, any Ukrainian player will know that now is their chance to be heroes – and heroes in a much deeper sense than football usually implies by that term.

Leave a Comment