Ukraine failed to qualify for this year’s FIFA World Cup, football’s most prestigious tournament, after a 1-0 loss to Wales, but when your country is at war, it doesn’t really matter. The bloodshed continues, lives are still being lost.
Yet for 90 minutes on a rainy evening in Wales, this game mattered, because there was hope, an opportunity to dream and rejoice.
As the Ukrainian players gathered in the locker room ahead of their knockout final to qualify for this year’s World Cup, they did so with a national flag sent from the front line hanging from one of the walls.
It was a match where war and football intertwined. We did not forget why the heart of the neutral was with Ukraine.
Qualifying for the World Cup would have given the Ukrainian people so much more than that, but a deflected free-kick from Gareth Bale saw Wales take the final European qualifying spot for Qatar in November.
The importance of a match is measured by the atmosphere outside the stadium in the hours before kick-off. It was the kind of game where both sets of fans lined up to get in and crowded hours in advance. The winner would take it all and, in the case of Wales, go down in history.
The Ukrainian supporters, almost all dressed in the national colours, mingled friendly with the home fans and spoke of the warmth shown to them by the Welsh supporters.
“It’s human friendship,” said Nelya Sushereba, who had traveled from west London. “We feel the support, even from the Welsh people.”
The Ukrainian fans came mainly from London, and among them were football beginners.
For Essex-based Andriy Grabar and his wife, Mariia, the match against Scotland earlier this week was the first they had attended.
The couple spoke of a desire to support the team, given what is happening in their home country.
“Our people in Ukraine are waiting for a happy emotion,” Andriy said, while Mariia succinctly summed up the pre-game feelings: “It’s [would be] a small victory for a bigger goal.”
On an emotionally charged evening, the Ukrainian players entered the pitch with their national flags draped over their shoulders.
Moments before the players lined up for the anthems, Welsh folksinger Dafydd Iwan sang “Yma o Hyd”, a song adopted by fans in Wales as their unofficial anthem. Its moving lyrics — the chorus, translated into English, is “despite everything and everyone, we’re still here” — might also have resonated with visiting fans.
For much of the game, Ukraine had the most reason to cheer, although the pocket of around 1,000 Ukrainians inside the stadium could barely be heard, such was the din created by the fans. local.
Wales’ first World Cup in 64 years
Wales have goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey’s heroics to thank for their place in Qatar. In the first half, Roman Yaremchuk and Viktor Tsygankov both kept the Welshman busy, with the latter wasting the best chance of the half when he scored on goal but failed to hit the target.
And later, a brilliant save from Hennessey – knocking substitute Artem Dovbyk’s head out of harm’s way – kept his side ahead.
As well as Hennessey, the other key player for Wales, as is often the case, was Bale, and it was his free-kick that was headed into the net by captain Andriy Yarmolenko.
Although Bale’s star has waned in recent years at Real Madrid, the striker continues to be Wales’ most potent player, scoring two outstanding goals earlier this year against Austria to propel Wales in this final.
For all the pre-match benevolence – Wales fans even cheered on the Ukrainian national anthem – it was a game that would allow Wales to erase their World Cup demons.
The man hadn’t walked on the moon the last time Wales qualified for football’s biggest tournament, and a teenage Pele scored the winning goal that knocked Wales out of the quarter-finals. 1958 final. The wait was long, with plenty of qualifying near misses.
It would arguably be the last chance for the country’s ‘Golden Generation’ – including Bale and Aaron Ramsay – to qualify for the sport’s premier event.
The home side had to dig deep and at times the men in red took advantage of their chance, but at the final whistle it was Bale, substituted after the break, who sprinted onto the pitch to celebrate with his teammates as the Ukrainian players fell to their knees in despair.
The visitors had given their all and, deservedly, both teams were cheered on by the fans at the final whistle.
cnn Sport Gt