Reminders of war motivate Ukraine to perform ‘miracle’ against England
By Ben Church, CNN
It may be thousands of miles from the frontline, but the Ukrainian soccer team is never far from the horrors of war.
While the squad has assembled in the leafy suburbs of London ahead of its Euro 2024 qualifying match against England, Russian forces continue to bombard Ukraine — with deadly missile strikes seen across the country this week.
It’s why, despite the comfort of their luxury hotel, the minds of the team are very much with their friends and family back home as they prepare for Sunday’s game.
Oleksandr Glyvynskyy, the Ukrainian team’s media representative, says many members of the squad have an application on their phone that alerts them when there is an air-raid siren back home.
Others start every day by scrolling through social media to check whether there were any Russian attacks from the night before.
They do this to ensure their loved ones are safe, but it also serves as a constant reminder of just how perilous the situation is.
“We’re struggling inside because we know people are dying every day,” Glyvynskyy, who has family back in Kyiv, told CNN Sport from the team’s hotel.
“Last night, I woke up two times because I had this air raid program on my phone.
“We understand the situation. It’s not easy, but what can you do? Until the moment we get our victory, we have to live with it.”
Offering ‘hope’ to a country at war
It’s far from the perfect preparation for a match against a team ranked fifth in the world and boasting some of the best players on the planet.
England reached the World Cup quarterfinals last year and beat Ukraine 4-0 on its way to the European Championship final in 2021.
But despite the odds being stacked against them, Ukraine’s players, who narrowly missed out on a place at Qatar 2022, still have hope.
After all, it’s hope that has lifted the country’s spirits since the start of the full scale invasion on February 24, 2022.
Since then, the team has been learning to cope with its difficult conditions and has tried to adapt the way it prepares for games.
Without wanting to put undue pressure on the players, the coaching staff tries to harness the anguish of back home on the pitch.
“This game at Wembley will be first and foremost for our warriors, for our defenders, who actually protect Ukraine fighting the deadly enemy,” Ukraine’s interim coach Ruslan Rotan told reporters on Wednesday.
“A positive result at Wembley will give hope and put smiles on people’s faces and will bring some much needed positive emotions for the people of Ukraine.”
The team arrived in London on Monday to train at Premier League club Brentford’s facilities ahead of its first qualifying game of the Euro 2024 campaign.
Brentford, which played its guests in a warmup game on Thursday, has seen an increased interest since the Ukraine team arrived.
Throughout the week, a handful of Ukrainian fans have been peeking through the fences to catch a glimpse of the team training, while supporters have gathered outside its nearby hotel in West London.
As a member of Brentford’s ground staff told CNN: “This is no normal national team.”
Despite being the away side on Sunday, it promises to be an electric atmosphere inside Wembley, which is expecting over 4,000 Ukrainian fans.
The English Football Association and Wembley Stadium invited more than 1,000 Ukrainian refugees, and the families who’ve sponsored them, as special guests for the match.
“Football has been united in its support for Ukraine and condemnation of the invasion by Russian forces,” Wembley Stadium Director Liam Boylan said in a statement.
“The invitation to Wembley Stadium is a reaffirmation of our solidarity with Ukrainian supporters currently living here in the UK, and a thank you to all those Britons who have opened up their homes to help them.”
It’s a gesture that caretaker coach Rotan has welcomed, but he promises the niceties will end once the referee blows his whistle.
“The atmosphere of the game will be friendly, but it will be a battle of the football pitch,” he added.
For many of the players, it’s been a logistical battle to even get to the training camp in London.
Now that the Ukrainian Premier League has resumed, many of the national players are back playing in the safer Western areas of the country.
However, with no airlines flying directly from Ukraine, it took some players almost 24 hours to arrive in the UK.
Two groups of players traveled by either train or bus to Rzeszow, a Polish city on the Ukrainian border, before flying to London where they were joined by teammates who play elsewhere around Europe.
While the Ukrainian FA has become an expert problem solver over the last year, it’s a tiring process from which everyone involved is ready to move on.
But despite all the obstacles in their way, the players are confident they can pull off a surprise result on Sunday.
“It will be a nice game, a nice test to see what level we are,” Ukraine midfielder Ruslan Malinovskyi told CNN Sport on Friday from the team’s hotel.
“Everybody is motivated and it’s a chance to show who we are. We need to take out the pressure and play our football.”
Despite there being no obvious end to the fighting, everyone CNN spoke to from the Ukrainian squad had hope that the wounds would slowly start to heal overtime and things would one day go back to normal.
Until then, this team is focused on providing its compatriots with 90 minutes of respite amid the bleakness of war.
On Sunday, they have the opportunity to do so in a stadium dubbed the “home of football” — a powerful moment for a country still under attack.
“Now, we’re through winter. With spring, your hope increases,” Glyvynskyy added.
“We are tired of war. We want to live our life in peaceful Ukraine, but the guys will step out at Wembley, in a historical place of dreams.
“Everyone understands England is a very, very strong team. It will not be easy but when you watch football, everyone believes in a miracle.”
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