Wednesday’s match, a friendly that benefited the Ukrainian humanitarian cause and was free for all Ukrainian fans to participate, was a bitter sweet return by the country’s national team. As some refugees came close to crying as they watched their squad compete, the match captured the country’s broader hopes in many ways for a quick return to some degree of normalcy and peace, even as Ukraine faced the prospect of a protracted war with Russia. .
The team’s coach, Alexander Petrakov, said it was a “return to life” sign.
“It’s confusing [Ukrainian] People from war, and it confuses players from war, “he told the Washington Post after the match.
Across the stadium, “Stop the War” signs were displayed on screens or placed as posters.
“The Ukrainian team is a symbol of the nation,” said Vitaly Ogorodnik, a 37-year-old Ukrainian refugee who came to the match with his 11-year-old son after fleeing the now Russian-occupied city of Kherson in southern Ukraine.
Standing in the stadium, his son waved a Ukrainian flag that read “Kherson Ukraine.”
“In football, Ukraine must win, and it must win the war,” Ogorodnik said.
German supporters in the stadium agree.
“Today, I celebrate every goal, regardless of the team,” said Stefan Cooper, 46, a longtime Manchengladbach fan. “I am rooting for peace today.”
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As a friendly, Wednesday’s match had no effect on the international rankings, and was largely seen as an opportunity for the Ukrainian team to take on matches and training that they have missed over the past few months.
Coaching his team during the war was a mental challenge for Petrakov. He coached many of these players when they were boys, he said.
“They’re married, they have children now,” he said, but “to me, they’re like my children.”
For Petrakov, it means maintaining a balance between showing empathy as a friend and demanding the best performance from his players.
“They understand,” he said.
Ukraine last played in November, three months before the Russian invasion. The team was scheduled to play in a World Cup qualifier play-off against Scotland in March, but that was postponed and is now set for June 1.
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Ukraine’s upcoming matches abroad – and especially the World Cup play-off in June – carry a weight that goes beyond the sport, says Andrew Todos, a British-Ukrainian writer and podcaster who Closely follow Ukrainian football.
“There is a lot of hope that Ukraine can do this [to the World Cup]The world sees that Ukraine still exists, still fighting, “he said, adding that the players” understand that they have on their shoulders – the hope of the whole nation. “
“The Ukrainian national team has been a unified force across the country for the past few years,” Todos said.
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Ukrainian players have been training in Slovenia for the past few weeks, and some Ukrainian clubs have played charity matches in neighboring countries to keep their fitness in order.
However, some of the team’s key players, including Alexander Jinchenko, are still finishing the season with their club team. They will join the Ukrainian team next week.
“Every day I pray that they are all fit, that everyone is healthy, because we need them,” Petrakov said.
When Manchester City’s Jinchenko appeared on the field during a recent match, Petrakov said to himself: “Thank God he’s fit. He played, ”he recalls.
Often in European football, the story of the Ukrainian national team is deeply rooted in the country’s past.
In the Cold War era, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet bloc, the country’s football players were among the best in the former Eastern bloc. One year before the fall of the Berlin Wall – when the Soviet team reached the UEFA Euro finals in 1988 – it was filled with players from Kiev’s main soccer club.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian football was shaped by protracted rivalries between Ukrainian clubs for many years. However, Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014 and the Russian invasion this year have united Ukrainian football more than ever before, Todos said.
“Many ex [hardcore fans] Who hated each other. . . Now they are fighting shoulder to shoulder, “said Todos. “When it comes to the importance of your race and independence, we put the divisions aside.”
As the players arrived on the field on Wednesday, 29-year-old Ukrainian singer-songwriter Christina Sloviye took to the field to perform the national anthem of Ukraine.
Last year, he performed for the last time at Kiev’s main football stadium – a performance that now feels like a lifetime.
As the Ukrainian players sang alongside him, Solovy hoped that lasting memories of Wednesday’s match would surpass the final score.
For coach Petrakov, it was the most emotional moment of the match – even more so than the win.
Every morning, he and his colleagues listen to the national anthem to observe a moment of silence and pay their respects to those who have died. When it played Wednesday night, Petrakov struggled to hold his emotions.
“I had tears in my eyes,” he said.