Ukraine soccer team fulfilling its duty in World Cup mission

By Graham Dunbar

GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) – Ukraine’s soccer players feel a duty to represent their nation’s identity on a global stage and give pride to people back home during Russia’s war on their homeland.

Mission fulfilled so far.

With Ukraine now just one win away from a morale-boosting spot in the World Cup finals, its players have been encouraged by messages from Ukrainians fighting the war back home.

The messages – from people facing daily risks to defend Ukraine – lifted the team before and after an inspirational first win in the World Cup qualifying playoffs on Wednesday.

“They text before the game,” Ukraine midfielder Ruslan Malinovskyi said in the afterglow of Ukraine beating Scotland 3-1 in Glasgow. “Guys, we are with you, do your job on the pitch, we do our job to protect our country.”’

The hugely impressive Ukraine team moved on Thursday to Wales where victory would secure its place at the World Cup finals in Qatar starting in November.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy posted thanks to the team on social media for “two hours of happiness.”

The team’s performance and unity with people at home came “from our soul, from our heart,” said midfielder Taras Stepanenko, who has spent the past eight years playing for a Shakhtar Donetsk club exiled from its home city by Russian-backed conflict.

“I have maybe 100 messages from my friends, from my family, from our army who serve now in a very difficult situation,” Stepanenko said after the game.

Stepanenko acknowledged he “wanted to cry” during the Ukraine anthem played minutes before kickoff.

He laughed while explaining one post-match message sent by a friend. A soldier stationed on the border joked that Scotland’s goal which barely crossed the goal-line had not really breached Ukraine’s territory.

“My very good friend, now he’s in a very difficult point of fighting every day. He said this ball didn’t cross,” Stepanenko said.

The story seemed to confirm the players’ confident predictions that anyone who could follow the soccer game at home would try to do so. Bars in Kyiv stayed open behind locked doors through a curfew and during air-raid alerts.

“We did everything for the people we played for,” coach Oleksandr Petrakov said at the stadium, “for the armed forces in the trenches and in the hospitals, who give their last drop of blood, (for) those in Ukraine who suffer every day.”

“They will thank us and we will give them our gratitude,” said Petrakov.

“Women and children (are) being killed by the Russians on a daily basis,” said the coach, whose team has put Ukraine, and its famous blue-and-yellow colors, on a globally broadcast stage.

Petrakov’s purpose chimed with those who came to Glasgow to share the moment among 3,000 Ukraine fans in a near-50,000 crowd at Hampden Park.

“The more Ukraine you see on TV and news everywhere it’s better for us,” said Yaroslav Grygorenko, who lives in Amsterdam with his wife and their three children. “It’s more important than usual to be there (at the World Cup).”

Ukraine’s quest to qualify for the finals tournament – where its first game would be against the United States on Nov. 21 – continues in Cardiff on Sunday.

Victory over Wales would give Ukraine five months to prepare for a tournament, with Iran and England also in Group B with the U.S.

Malinovskyi acknowledged the value of soccer keeping Ukraine in the news as the horrors of war gradually become normalized to the world.

“It’s already three months and some people are already tired from this. We all understand this,” he said.

At age 29, and years after leaving Shakhtar and Ukraine, Malinovskyi spoke of a future further away from Russian influence for the country where his parents and brother still live.

“I live in Europe for six years, we need to go for this mentality. I live in Belgium 3 1/2 years and Italy now for three years,” the Atalanta player said. “We need to go for this because the level of life is higher.”

First, the Ukraine team is doing its duty this week to raise the level of morale at home.