The football game that ‘shows that Ukraine is still alive’ – POLITICO

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GLASGOW — Forget Eurovision. It matters a lot more.

On Wednesday night in Glasgow, Ukraine will play their first competitive football game since the brutal invasion from Russia began in late February. The game, against Scotland, is a World Cup qualifier, with a potential Qatar 2022 spot on the line.

Football has been far from a top priority for Ukrainians in Britain over the past three months, with millions of their compatriots forced to flee their homeland by Russia’s deadly military aggression – but the excitement for this match is at its peak.

“The 11 players on the pitch are not playing for the 3,000 fans Ukraine bring here. It’s for the 44 million Ukrainians in Ukraine,” said Stepan Luczka, a British Ukrainian and chairman of UK Ukrainian Sports. Supporters Club, outside Hampden Park – the home stadium of Scotland’s national team – where he was sorting through dozens of match tickets for fans on the go.

Luczka, dressed head to toe in blue and yellow down to her sneakers, has a fighting relative in the war-torn Donbass region.

Wednesday night will be a real “mixed bag of emotions”, added Luczka, who has traveled across Europe for years in support of Ukraine. “I feel like I shouldn’t sing, celebrate…because at the end of the day, there’s a war going on. People are dying everyday and I’m at a football game. To put it in this context, there are more important things in the world.

Ukrainian fans arrived in Glasgow from across the UK and Western Europe to lend their voices to what is sure to be an emotional wall of noise in Hampden on Wednesday night.

Sisters Olha, left, and Sofia Abramova left Kyiv in the days following the invasion of Russia. They traveled from London to cheer on Ukraine against Scotland | Ali Walker/POLITICS

Sisters Olha and Sofia Abramova fled Kyiv on March 5 for western Ukraine, sheltering from Russian bombardment, and eventually moved to the UK. They came from London for the game, which is a vital source of national pride and dignity, Olha said.

“I’m not a football fan,” she added, after collecting her ticket from a dingy booth outside the stadium, “but when our Ukrainian team plays, I feel like you be part of something big.”

“The game shows that Ukraine is still alive,” Yevgen Chub, treasurer of the Glasgow branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Britain, told POLITICO on a gloomy afternoon in Glasgow.

The football game that 'shows that Ukraine is still alive' - POLITICO
Yevgen Chub of the Glasgow branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain collects his match tickets | Ali Walker/POLITICS

And emotions were running high at a pre-match press conference. Ukraine players ‘in fighting mood’ ahead of game, says in tears Oleksandr Zinchenko, a star player for English champions Manchester City, who broke down while talking about Ukrainian dreams: for the war to end and the country to qualify for the World Cup.

“Ukraine is a country of freedom,” Zinchenko said. “Ukraine will never give up. Many countries may not understand, today it is Ukraine — but tomorrow it could be you. That is why we must stand united to defeat this Russian aggression together .

The game was originally scheduled for the end of March, but FIFA, world football’s governing body, decided to postpone it. Some Ukrainian players in the country’s national league spent time in bomb shelters during the devastating early days of the war.

Surreal for Scotland

Scotland, often cast as international football’s hapless but lovable underdogs, will be in the unusual position on Wednesday of not being neutral favorites – but are still trying to qualify for their first World Cup since 1998.

For James Coggs and Graeme Baxter, two hardened Scottish supporters planning a trip to Qatar in November, Wednesday night’s game will be a “surreal” experience against a “pumped and buzzing” Ukrainian side.

“It’s a strange situation. Ninety-nine times out of 100 neutrals want Scotland to win when we play,” Coggs said. But in this case, “the world will cheer on Ukraine – like Eurovision,” Baxter added.

The main difference between a flamboyant singing contest and a tense football eliminator, of course, is that no one will give Ukraine victory. They will have to actively seize it. And it’s a situation that Scottish players are preparing for.

“For 90 minutes or 120 minutes we have to separate our thoughts,” Scotland captain Andy Robertson said of Ukraine. “We want to get to the World Cup, we have to be ready for the challenge and the emotion that Ukraine will provide.”

Supporter Baxter was more blunt: “There’s a lot of sympathy for them…of course we’ll respect them and their anthem and then we’ll come out and try to beat them.” And Ukrainians wouldn’t want it any other way, Luczka said with a smile.

The football game that 'shows that Ukraine is still alive' - POLITICO
Stepan Luczka runs the UK Ukrainian Sports Supporters Club. He spent Tuesday afternoon coordinating dozens of match tickets for the Ukrainians in Glasgow | Ali Walker/POLITICS

The winner of Wednesday night’s clash will face Wales in Cardiff on Sunday, in a play-off final for Europe’s final World Cup spot – and will be placed in a group containing England, the United States and Iran.

“I’m a little indifferent to Eurovision, but Ukraine won,” Luczka said. “I think it raised the morale of the troops who, well, listen, Ukraine is fighting in every way possible.”

And Wednesday night in Glasgow, it will start again.

“If victory in football helps people not to forget Ukraine, I think it’s also like an army in a way,” said Olha Abramova.

The football game that 'shows that Ukraine is still alive' - POLITICO
Luczka presented a display of flags outside Hampden Park on Tuesday afternoon | Stepan Luczka for POLITICO


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