Ukrainian football during the war: World Cup still in sight | Sports | German football and important international sports news | DW

Oleksandr Petrakov is a man of few words. The coach of the Ukrainian men’s national soccer team looks tough and tense in the DW interview.

“I feel a great responsibility. For our fans at home, for our armed forces, for the ordinary people who are at home in Ukraine right now,” he says succinctly. “It’s a big responsibility for me and for the boys.”

What was once a purely sporting affair has become a major national distraction. “Football is not the most important thing at the moment,” says Ukrainian historian Kateryna Chernii. “But the national team games are an opportunity for the people of Ukraine and the refugees to experience something together.

If Ukraine beat Scotland in the qualifying play-offs, the first leg of which takes place on June 1, they could clinch a second World Cup appearance five days later in another play-off against Wales in Cardiff.

to overcome hurdles

“It’s an opportunity for us to draw attention to the situation in our homeland,” midfielder Serhiy Sydorchuk told DW. But it’s an even more difficult task than normal for two reasons: First, there’s a lack of match practice.

Oleksandr Petrakov

Oleksandr Petrakov knows his team carries a heavy burden

In November, Sydorfschuk played for Dynamo Kyiv against FC Bayern Munich in the Champions League. But since the beginning of the winter break, there have been no more competitive games for Ukrainian clubs or the national team.

In preparation for Scotland, Petrakov has gathered his side abroad near Ljubljana in Slovenia. Friendlies have been arranged to try to get the squad fit. That meant a lot of travel: to Tuscany, Croatia and Germany, where the Ukrainians played Bundesliga club Borussia Mönchengladbach.

The second reason is perhaps obvious, the players are directly affected by the war.

“We all have the same thing in our soul, in our heads, in conversations,” explains Sydorfschuk.

His coach agrees: “I just called my wife and daughter. They say it’s quiet today, everything is fine. All the guys are calling, everyone is worried about their loved ones. Of course you have doubts,” says Petrakov . You can imagine how difficult it is to concentrate on football.

Known Fears

Some players, like goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov, have been here before. In 2014 he had to flee with his family when pro-Russian separatists declared the Donetsk People’s Republic independent. Since then, his club Shakhtar Donetsk has played in the capital Kyiv. There he and his family had to endure shelling and war again.

The Russian invasion remains incomprehensible to Ukrainians. As in many other areas, the two countries were closely intertwined in football. In Soviet times, the joint team celebrated their greatest success under the Ukrainian coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi with the runners-up European title in 1988. In the same year, the USSR, led by his compatriot Anatoliy Byshovets, won Olympic gold against Brazil. Players from Ukraine formed the backbone of the Soviet team for a long time, names like Oleksiy Mykhaylychenko and Oleg Blokhin were known throughout Europe.

National team training of Ukraine in Slovenia

The national team of Ukraine trained in Slovenia

After the collapse of the Soviet empire, it took a few years for Ukraine to become a truly competitive team. “But it was precisely at this time that the national team played an enormously important role on the way to becoming an independent nation. It was an anchor of identity for the people of Ukraine,” explains historian Chernii.

A heavy burden

There are now several of these anchors, but the pull of football is still great, especially at important tournaments. This was really noticeable for the first time at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Under coach Blokhin, the team was a sensation: they only lost in the quarter-finals against eventual world champions Italy. Since Euro 2012 in their home country, the team in yellow and blue has participated in every European championship.

“We know the burden on our shoulders,” says Sydorfschuk about the Scotland game. At the same time, he doesn’t want to complain. The team, he says, is privileged compared to the people at war. “At home, young men fight and die in the trenches,” adds Petrakov.

The 64-year-old trainer volunteered for the territorial defense in Kyiv after the outbreak of war, but was turned down due to lack of military experience and his upcoming assignment. Attract attention, make positive headlines; that is his mission now. Sydorchuk emphasizes that the players are determined to give their best in Glasgow: “We all live for this game and hope that everything will work out for us.”

This article was translated from German.

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