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Wales risk becoming a heartbreaker in World Cup game against Ukraine – Reuters Sports News

When Wales secured a place in the FIFA World Cup play-offs, it was a big moment – an opportunity to qualify for the international tournament for the first time in 64 years.

But the match took on a truly historic significance because of their opponents: Ukraine.

The Ukrainian side have played just one competitive game since Russia invaded their country on February 24: an impressive 3-1 win over Scotland on Wednesday that took them less than 90 minutes to go. going to the World Cup tournament in Qatar this winter.

Ukrainian star player Oleksandr Zinchenko, who also plays for Manchester City in the Premier League, broke down in tears during a press conference ahead of the game against Scotland, saying it was his ‘dream’ to reach the final of the World Cup.

Ukrainian fans at the match in Glasgow were also moved.

“It was great,” said Maria Romanenko, a Ukrainian journalist who fled Kyiv in February and has lived in Manchester with her English partner since March. “I was going there thinking, ‘It’s going to be a great game’, but when I got there, the scale of it…to be amongst the Ukrainian fans felt surreal to me.”

“Right after the game, I saw these Scottish fans waving and blowing kisses with the Ukrainian fans. When I saw that, I just had tears in my eyes. I didn’t expect that” , she said.

Romanenko will be one of hundreds of Ukrainian supporters at the Cardiff City Stadium for Sunday’s match. They will hope to see their country qualify for only the second time after their debut at the tournament in 2006.

Among them, 100 Ukrainian refugees based in Wales received free tickets to the sold-out game from the Welsh Government and the Football Association of Wales.

Petro Konstantynov, 22, is another fan who was at the game against Scotland on Wednesday and will make the trip to Cardiff this weekend. A student at the University of Leeds in the north of England, his family is originally from Dnipro in Ukraine.

“Whether you like football or not, it’s about showing unity and just the team that gives a little bit of happiness to the Ukrainian people because they all deserve it,” he said.

“Qualifying for the World Cup would be huge. But qualifying now, with the political situation, would mean everything,” Konstantynov said. “Since February 24, every Ukrainian thinks of only one thing. To clear his mind, to just be happy for a while, to have fun, would be just amazing for the Ukrainian people,” he said.

Romanenko agreed that the match means more than sport alone.

“There will be people who will say, ‘Oh, there is a war, why is Ukraine playing football?'” she said. “You’ll see people on social media saying, ‘Why are Ukrainians watching the game? At war?’ And things like that.”

“These people have probably never experienced war because what they don’t realize is that culture, humor, all those things, are very important in keeping the nation sane,” he said. she declared.

‘The villains

In such a context, Ukraine will be the favorite of neutral supporters.

It means Sunday’s game in Cardiff put the Welsh in an unusual role: potential heartbreakers.

“Well…let poor Wales become the most hated country in the world”, Scottish author and fan Irvine Welsh put on wednesdayafter his team lost.

It’s an unfamiliar label for a fanbase that loves to be loved and a country of 3 million that often sees itself as the perpetual underdog.

When Wales last played Cardiff in March, home fans waved the Ukrainian flag, said retired Tudur teacher Dylan Jones, 56, who travels to the game in Cardiff from Carmarthen , in West Wales. “The whole gallery held it in solidarity with Ukraine,” he said.

“Even if we play against them, of course, the solidarity with Ukraine remains. However, in 90 minutes of football Wales will give 100 per cent to reach the first World Cup of my life,” Jones said.

“But as far as being the bad guys in the world… so be it! “

Laura McAllister, a former Wales international footballer who is now a professor of public policy at Cardiff University, said many Welsh fans were backing Ukraine against Scotland on Wednesday.

“A lot of it is empathy and sympathy for what’s going on right now,” she said.

Despite the emotional circumstances, she said the Welsh side should have no apprehension about the game.

“I think we have as much team spirit and unity as Ukraine – obviously in hugely different circumstances – but at the end of the day it’s a game of football,” McAllister said. “We can show our utmost respect and support for Ukraine, but during these 90 minutes it’s a unique game to see who qualifies for the World Cup and we want that just as much as they do.

Wales have not featured in the World Cup since 1958, when a 17-year-old Pele scored to knock them out in the quarter-finals. Fans had to wait until 2016 to reach another international tournament, when the Welsh qualified for the European Championships in France.

‘Just one’

But expectations were low after five decades without a football tournament.

“A common refrain as 24,000 of us walked to the ground in Bordeaux for the first game against Slovakia was ‘I just wish we had scored a goal. Just one. I will be happy after we sing the anthem, but I would just like to see a goal,” Welsh comedian and football fan Elis James wrote in the Guardian last year.

Wales surprised everyone – including some of their own players – by reaching the semi-finals in France, being knocked out by eventual winners Portugal.

Wales’ run to the Euros was a turning point for the country, said Russell Todd, host of football podcast Podcast Pêl-droed.

“I think historians will look back 50, 60 years and see 2016 as a milestone. I think it will be seen as that moment when the Welsh identity just kicked it up a notch, in a way that other sports couldn’t,” Todd told POLITICO, adding that the success has paved the way for a wider debate. on the place of the country in the United Kingdom and in the rest of the world.

But reaching the World Cup final would bring even more glory, and that makes Wales fans reluctant to give Ukraine an easy ride on Sunday.

Scottish and Welsh fans were angered by a Telegraph column suggesting the duo could have given way to allow Ukraine a smooth ride to the final.

Romanenko said that would not be a popular idea in Ukraine either.

“I don’t think there should be any concessions for Ukraine when it comes to the tournament itself. It’s football, it has to be fair. And I don’t think the Ukrainian team would like concessions and win. They want to win fairly,” she said.

McAllister said it would have been up to governing body FIFA, not opposing teams, to grant Ukraine a bye.

“Fifa could have given them a route. They didn’t choose to do that. So it’s not our business now. Our business is to make sure we do it for Wales,” McAllister said. .

“That doesn’t mean the players won’t be sympathetic to everything that’s happened,” she said.

“But once they’re on the pitch they’ll want to win and they’ll want to make sure Wales qualify for their first World Cup in 64 years,” she said. “And we have every right to think like that.”

‘Slap in the face’

One man who will be happy regardless of the outcome is Mick Antoniw, a second-generation Ukrainian who represents the South Wales constituency of Pontypridd in the Welsh parliament.

He says a win would have big implications for either country.

“The last time Wales qualified was in 1958. World football is present in almost every country. For Wales to be on this stage is an incredible step in recognition and recognition. identity of Wales,” he said.

Ukrainian fans still remember the last time their team reached the World Cup in 2006, when they qualified for the quarter-finals. But seeing their team in Qatar would have greater political significance.

“Right now it’s integral to the survival of Ukraine as a nation and a culture,” Antoniw said.

“What Russia has said is that deep down they don’t see Ukraine as a separate nation with a separate identity. So every time Ukraine plays on this world stage, it’s a slap in the face of Russian invasion.

Additional reporting by Ali Walker.


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