1 June, 2022 – Sports Illustrated
Ukraine wasn’t just a team boosted by inspiration. It was flat-out better than Scotland in every aspect, pulling to within one win of a remarkable World Cup berth.
GLASGOW, Scotland — When Russia invaded Ukraine, and his hometown of Kyiv came under attack, Oleksandr Petrakov went to volunteer for the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Force. At 64 years old and with no military experience, Petrakov once said of his decision: “I could take two or three enemies out.” Although he was turned away, he left with a mission: Bring glory to Ukraine, qualify for the World Cup.
On Wednesday in Glasgow, nearly 2,000 miles away from Kyiv, Petrakov fulfilled at least part of the task. Ukraine was basking in glory, and it is now one game away from an improbable trip to Qatar after a 3–1 win over Scotland in the World Cup qualifying playoff semifinal.
“We did everything for the people,” Petrakov said. “They played for Ukrainians, and they played for those who fight in trenches, [those] who fight with the last drop of blood. We played for Ukrainians, for people back at home, who suffer every day.”
When the teams walked onto the field to start the match, Ukraine players shimmered with bicolor flags neatly draped across their shoulders. It was a moment months in the making, a moment that transcended sport.
The logistical challenges of the team were plenty. The original match against Scotland had been delayed since March. The Ukrainian Premier League had been suspended. Players either stayed with the club teams abroad, joined the military or toured Europe in a series of friendlies designed to raise money for the war effort and build fitness ahead of Wednesday’s match.
But when the anthems played, there was only pure emotion. Joining the Ukrainians in their heart-rendering rendition was much of the Scottish-partisan sellout crowd. The language-learning app Duolingo worked in conjunction with the Scottish Football Supporters Association to create a phonetic sing-along of the anthem, so fans around the stadium could join in with heavy accents and the occasional bagpipe squawk.
But after the emotions faded, the 90 minutes of action on the pitch was not how Hollywood would’ve written an inspirational victory. Once the match started, the reality of the moment reeled itself in. Despite everything that was going on in the world, there were still 90 minutes to be played, and only one potential place at the World Cup on the line.
Rather than a rollicking start powered by emotion and adrenaline, it seemed that the Ukrainian team knew the first, and possibly most difficult, task at hand. It had to harness its emotion from the national anthem and whatever motivational words were shared prior in the dressing room—it had to play a normal game during an abnormal time.
And for the first half, Ukraine succeeded at taming the match’s biggest variable. It was restrained and methodical, as if trying to settle into the pace of the full squad’s first game together since November. The team was miraculously clear-headed even though players and staff have spent the last few months organizing medical supplies for their families and keeping all the attention they could spare on news from back home.
“[Staying calm] was the key today because it has been the toughest period of our lives,” Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko said after the match. “There was too much emotions, everyone pushing each other. But at the same time you need to be you need to control your emotions. You need to think about what you used to do on the pitch in each position.”
Then, in the 33rd minute of a scoreless match still trying to find itself, Ukraine captain Andriy Yarmolenko latched onto a deep pass with a clear chance on goal. The West Ham midfielder took one touch to settle it and then lofted the ball into the air in an arch that seemed like it would never end. As the ball floated over goalkeeper Craig Gordon and reached its apex, the drums in the Ukrainian fan section skipped a beat and Hampden Park fell silent. When it landed, the small corner of the stadium draped in sky blue and yellow erupted, and one sensed that much of the world followed suit.
Not long after the start of the second half, Roman Yaremchuk doubled Ukraine’s lead. Back in February, after scoring a goal for Benfica in the Champions League, he removed his jersey to reveal the Ukrainian coat of arms. This time, he wore the badge over his heart, and darted straight to the Ukrainian fan section where he reached out to his countrymen who never once sat down while the match was being played.
After Ukraine’s third and final goal in the last minute of stoppage time, Artem Dovbyk did the same. Except this time, none of his teammates followed. Most collapsed onto the pitch, out of exhaustion or emotion, or quite possibly both. Dovbyk kissed the crest and stared into the away support, and they roared back because their party was only beginning.
Even the normally mild-mannered and poised Petrakov, at the end of his press conference, threw up his thumbs and announced, “We’re going to Wales!” On Sunday, Ukraine will face Wales in Cardiff with a ticket to Qatar—and an opening match against the U.S. at stake. But first, he and Ukraine’s players and fans will have to regroup.
“I have no emotions to be perfectly honest,” Petrakov said. “All my emotions are left on the football pitch. This victory is not for me or our team members, it was for our country. This was a huge win for Ukraine.”
Unlike most match days for away fans, the city center of Glasgow was largely devoid of Ukrainian fans. Rather, the city’s famed George Square served as a watering hole for Scottish ex-pats clad in kilts traditionally worn for weddings, funerals and sport. The World Cup qualifier was a homecoming for Scotland, but it was so much more for Ukraine.
Hours before the match, in the lots and along the hillsides outside of the stadium, droves of Ukrainian fans gathered for hours, sharing picnics and singing songs. The most popular chant was obvious, and it followed the crowd into the stadium where it echoed throughout the match: “Glory to Ukraine, glory to the heroes, Putin is a d—.”
Below the hillside, Ukrainian artist Dana Boikv stood in the shade of the ticket booth with a small canvas in hand. To get to the match, Boikv, 29, took a 10-hour bus from London, where she displays her work in an exhibition called “UK for Ukraine.” On Wednesday, her job was much more straightforward: face-painting with only two familiar colors.
For nearly three hours before the game, Boikv delicately drew the trident coat of arms on anyone who went into her growing queue. Fans would give up whatever change they had, and her clients ranged from 3 years old to 80. As the queue finally quieted down as kickoff approached, her message wasn’t too different from the Ukrainian team’s by the end of a triumphant night.
“We just want to be together,” Boikv said. “We just want to show the world that we are here.”