Ukrainian football during wartime: World Cup still on the horizon
Ukraine at the World Cup? Despite the war at home and months without a competitive match, the team and coach told DW of their determination to make it through the playoffs against Scotland and, potentially, Wales.
Oleksandr Petrakov is a man of few words. The coach of Ukraine's men's national football team seems tough and tense in an interview with DW ahead of Ukraine's World Cup qualification playoff first leg against Scotland on Wednesday night.
"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 tersely. "It's a big responsibility for me and for the boys."
What was once purely a sporting affair has become an important 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. Like the recent Ukrainian Eurovision triumph, there is a yearning for good news."
If Ukraine beat Scotland in the qualifying playoffs, they could clinch a second World Cup qualification appearance five days later in a further playoff against Wales in Cardiff.
Hurdles to overcome
"It's an opportunity for us to draw attention to the situation in our homeland," midfielder Serhiy Sydorchuk tells DW. But it's an even tougher task than normal for two reasons: firstly a lack of match practice.
As recently as November, Sydortschuk played in the Champions League for Dynamo Kyiv against Bayern Munich. But since the beginning of the winter break, there have been no more competitive matches for Ukrainian clubs or the national team.
To prepare for Scotland, Petrakov gathered his squad abroad near Ljubljana, in Slovenia. Friendlies have been arranged to try and get the squad fit. This has meant a lot of traveling: to Tuscany, Croatia and Germany, where the Ukrainians played against Bundesliga club Borussia Mönchengladbach.
The second reason is perhaps obvious, the players are directly affected by the war.
"We all have the same things in our souls, in our heads, in conversations," explains Sydortschuk.
His coach agrees: "I called my wife and daughter just now. They say it's quiet today, everything's fine. All the boys are calling, everyone is worried about their relatives. Of course, you have doubts," says Petrakov. It's easy to imagine how difficult it is to concentrate on football.
Some players, like goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov, have been here before. In 2014, he had to flee with his family when pro-Russian separatists declared independence for the Donetsk People's Republic. Since then, his club Shakhtar Donetsk have played in the capital, Kyiv. There, he and his family again had to endure shelling and war.
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 eleven celebrated its greatest successes under Ukrainian coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi, when they finished runners-up at the 1988 European Championship. In the same year, under the guidance of his compatriot Anatoliy Byshovets, the USSR won Olympic gold against Brazil. For a long time, players from Ukraine formed the spine of the Soviet eleven, with names like Oleksiy Mykhaylychenko or Oleg Blokhin familiar across Europe.
It took a few years after the collapse of the Soviet empire for Ukraine to become a truly competitive team. "But it was precisely during this period that the national team played an enormously important role on the path 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 were a sensation: they only lost to eventual world champions Italy in the quarterfinals. Since Euro 2012 in their home country, the team in yellow and blue have participated in every European Championship.
"We know the burden on our shoulders," says Sydortschuk of the Scotland game. But, at the same time, he doesn't want to complain. The team, he says, is privileged compared to the people at war. "Back home, young men are fighting and dying in the trenches," adds Petrakov.
The 64-year-old coach volunteered for territorial defense in Kyiv after the war broke out, but was turned down citing a lack of military experience and his upcoming assignment. Attracting attention, making positive headlines; that is now his mission. The players are determined to give their best in Glasgow, Sydorchuk stresses: "We all live for this game and hope we succeed in everything."
From Deutsche Welle Newsfeed
(The Deutsche Welle article was published before the match against Scotland. Ukraine have defeated Scotland 3-1 to lock horns with Wales in qualifying play-off finals)