Ukraine failed to qualify for this year’s FIFA World Cup, its most famous football tournament, after a 1-0 defeat to Wales, but when your country is at war it doesn’t really matter. The bloodshed continues, and lives are still lost.
However, for 90 minutes on a rain-soaked evening in Wales, this match was important, because there was hope and opportunity to dream and cheer.
As Ukraine’s players gathered in the changing room ahead of the qualifying final in which the winner took it all to qualify for this year’s World Cup, they did so with a national flag sent from the frontline hanging on one of the walls.
This was a match where war and football are intertwined. There was no forgetting why the neutral heart was with Ukraine.
A World Cup qualification could have given the Ukrainians so much more, but a skewed free kick from Gareth Bale ensured Wales reached last place in the European qualifiers for Qatar in November.
The importance of the game can be gauged by the atmosphere off the field in the hours before kick-off. This was the kind of match where both sets of fans were queuing to get in and grind about hours before. The winner will take it all and, in Wells’s case, make history.
The Ukrainian fans, all in national costume, mingled amicably with the fans of the homeland and talked about the warmth he gave them from the Wales fans.
“It’s a human friendship,” said Nelia Sochiriba, who traveled from west London. “We feel support, even from the Welsh people.”
Fans of Ukraine came mainly from London, among them there are novice footballers.
For Essex-based Andre Grabar and his wife Maria, the Scotland game earlier this week was the first they attended.
The couple spoke of their desire to support the team given what is happening in their home country.
“Our people in Ukraine are waiting for a happy feeling,” Andrei said, while Maria succinctly summed up the pre-match feelings: “ [would be] A small victory for a greater purpose.”
On an emotionally charged evening, Ukraine players took to the field with their national flags over their shoulders.
Moments before instrumentalists line up for the anthems, Welsh folk singer David Ewan sang “Yma o Hyd” which Welsh fans have adopted as their unofficial anthem. Her evocative lyrics – the chorus, translated into English, “In spite of everyone and everything, we’re still here” – can also resonate with visiting audiences.
For most of the match, Ukraine had the biggest reason to cheer, although the pocket of 1,000 or so Ukrainians inside the stadium was barely audible, like the noise made by the local team’s fans.
First World Cup Final for Wales in 64 years
Wales has championship goalkeeper Wayne Hennessy to thank for her place in Qatar. In the first half, Roman Yaremchuk and Viktor Tsygankov kept the Welshman busy, later missing the best chance of the half when he crossed the goal but failed to hit the goal post.
And of late, Hennessey’s save was brilliant – keeping substitute Artem Dubbeck’s header out of danger – keeping his side ahead.
In addition to Hennessy, the other main player of Wales, as is often the case, was Bale, and his free kick was kicked into the net by captain Andrey Yarmolenko.
Although Bale’s star has waned over the past few years at Real Madrid, the striker remains Wales’ strongest player, scoring two impressive goals earlier this year against Austria to lead Wales to the final.
Despite all the pre-match favor – Wales fans even applauded the Ukrainian national anthem – this was a match that would allow Wales to wipe out the World Cup demons.
The man hadn’t even risen to the moon the last time Wales qualified for football’s biggest tournament, and teenage Pele scored the winning goal that knocked Wales out of the 1958 quarter-final. It was a long wait, with plenty of playoffs that almost went wrong.
Arguably this will be the last chance for the country’s “golden generation” – including Bill and Aaron Ramsey – to qualify for the sport’s great event.
The hosts had to dig deep and, at times, the red men rode their luck, but at the final whistle, it was Bale, who was substituted after the break, who took to the pitch to celebrate with his teammates as Ukraine’s players fell to home . My knees despair.
The visitors gave everything, and rightly, both teams were greeted with cheers from the fans at the final whistle. To their jubilation, the Wales players made time to go to the corner of the pitch where the Ukraine fans had, in the words of team manager Robert Page, “to show their appreciation”.
Asked about the future of the team, Ukraine coach Oleksandr Petrakov told reporters after the match: “I can only say that we have an upcoming match on the eighth of this month and this is our future.”
“We did everything we could, but I really want the people of Ukraine to remember the efforts of our team,” Petrakov added.
“I want to say sorry we didn’t score but this is a sport, that’s how it happens. I just lost words. I don’t know what to say.”