Ukraine failed to qualify for this year’s FIFA World Cup, football’s most prestigious tournament, after a 1-0 defeat by Wales, but if your country is at war it doesn’t matter. The bloodshed continues, lives are still lost.
But for 90 minutes on a wet night in Wales, this game mattered, for there was hope, an opportunity to dream and celebrate.
As the Ukrainian players gathered in the dressing room to qualify for this year’s World Cup, a national flag sent from the front line hung on one of the walls.
This was a game where war and football were intertwined. It must not be forgotten why the heart of the neutrals lay with Ukraine.
World Cup qualification would have done much more for Ukraine, but a deflected free-kick from Gareth Bale secured Wales’ last European qualifying spot for Qatar in November.
The importance of a match can be gauged by the atmosphere outside the stadium in the hours leading up to kick-off. This was the kind of match where both fans lined up to get in and walked around hours beforehand. The winner would take it all and, in the case of Wales, make history.
Ukrainian fans, almost all dressed in national colors, mingled happily with the home fans and spoke about the warmth shown to them by the Welsh fans.
“It’s human friendship,” said Nelya Sushereba, who traveled from west London. “We feel the support, even from Welsh people.”
The fans of Ukraine had traveled mainly from London, including some football newcomers.
For Essex’s Andriy Grabar and his wife Mariia, earlier this week’s Scotland game was the first they attended.
The couple spoke about wanting to support the team in light of what is happening back home.
“Our people in Ukraine are waiting for a happy feeling,” Andriy said, while Mariia succinctly summed up the feelings before the game: “It [would be] a small victory for a greater cause.”
In an emotionally charged evening, the Ukrainian players took to the pitch with their national flags draped over their shoulders.
Just before the players lined up for the anthems, Welsh folk singer Dafydd Iwan sang “Yma o Hyd”, a song adopted by Welsh fans as their unofficial anthem. The rousing lyrics – the chorus translated into English reads “Despite everything and everyone, we’re still here” – could have resonated with the fans in attendance.
For much of the game, Ukraine had the biggest reason to celebrate, although the 1,000 or so Ukrainians in the stadium could hardly be heard due to the noise the home fans made.
Wales’ first World Cup in 64 years
Wales owe their place in Qatar to the exploits of goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey. In the first half, Roman Yaremchuk and Viktor Tsygankov kept the Welshman on his toes, who later missed the best chance of the half when he went through but missed the goal.
And later, a brilliant save from Hennessey – who tipped substitute Artem Dovbyk’s header out of harm’s way – kept his team ahead.
Alongside Hennessey, as is often the case, Bale was Wales’ other key player and it was his free-kick that captain Andriy Yarmolenko deflected into the net.
Although Bale’s stardom had waned at Real Madrid in recent years, the striker remains Wales’ strongest player, scoring two outstanding goals against Austria earlier this year to propel Wales into this final.
For all the goodwill before the game – Welsh fans even applauded the Ukraine national anthem – it was a game that would allow Wales to wipe out their World Cup demons.
The last time Wales qualified for football’s greatest tournament, Man hadn’t stepped on the moon and a teenaged Pele scored the winning goal that knocked Wales out of the quarter-finals in 1958. It was a long wait, with many qualifying near misses.
This would arguably be the last chance for the country’s ‘golden generation’ – including Bale and Aaron Ramsay – to qualify for the sport’s flagship event.
The home side had to dig deep and at times the men in red rode their luck, but after the final whistle it was the half-time substitute Bale who sprinted onto the pitch to celebrate with his team-mates as the Ukrainian players swooped in on them knees fell in despair.
The guests gave their all and both teams were rightly cheered by the fans after the final whistle.