Before one of Dynamo Kyiv’s spring charity matches, a journalist asked Oleksandr Karavayev how he felt after reading about the situation in war-torn Ukraine.
“A bow to our soldiers who are defending Ukraine,” the Dynamo and Ukraine defender began to reply. He tried to continue, however, choking on tears could not finish the sentence.
It is a moment that highlights the emotion every player from Ukraine will feel as the fierce fighting continues across the country. Karavayev’s hometown of Kherson has been occupied since the beginning of the invasion, and every day residents hear the sound of explosions.
That’s the city to which Karavayev comes home every year – not only to visit his parents, but also to organize a children’s soccer tournament. Now, the 29-year-old cannot even send medicine to his family because all valuable parcels have been confiscated by the Russian military.
However, football is playing its part to help raise funds for Ukrainians affected by the war. Earlier this year, Dynamo Kyiv played seven charity matches in seven European countries – Poland, Turkey, Romania, Estonia, Switzerland, Croatia and Germany, of which one match in Dortmund raised approx. 400,000 euros.
Despite martial law and banning men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country, Ukrainian authorities made an exception for football players. Their goal is not only to raise money for charity, but the national team also wants to go to the World Cup and create a happy moment for a divided country.
To do that, the players need practice – something that is already very lacking. Even so, defensive midfielder Taras Stepanenko – who has seen his hometown Velyka Novoselytsia village in the Donetsk region bombed and destroyed – hopes to repay those soldiers after revealing the information. Important message from those on the front lines: “Our soldiers regularly write to us and ask for only one thing – to win tickets to the World Cup.”
Only a handful of players regularly compete; Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko, Vitaly Mykolenko from Everton, Belgian league winner Eduard Sobol at Club Brugge, Benfica striker Roman Yaremchuk and Atalanta’s Ruslan Malinovskyi.
Andriy Yarmolenko is another player who should be in the starting line-up no matter how many minutes he plays for West Ham. He’s mentally, emotionally, wonderfully left-footed and has scored 44 goals, just four behind all-time record holder Andriy Shevchenko. Hopefully, this play-off is the time when he can set a new record and bring joy to his homeland Chernihiv and the whole of Ukraine.
Speaking of Shevchenko, it was June 30, 2021 when he raised both hands at Hampden Park as his team beat Sweden in extra time to reach the quarter-finals of the European Championship. Almost a year has passed and our new coach, Oleksandr Petrakov, who replaced Shevchenko, has his own views on the squad and tactics.
I have no doubt that on Wednesday the Ukrainian team will be cautious and disciplined to counter Scotland’s tactics. However, having struggled to arrange a friendly for the past week, it is a mystery to all of us how the match will play out. What we do know, however, is that Ukraine will not be the mentally weak.
If you want to imagine what this match meant for Ukraine, go back to the beginning of the invasion. Our head coach Petrakov wants to join the territorial defense unit, take up a machine gun and defend the country. The 64-year-old went to the registrar’s office and enlisted and was told: “We’ll take it. And you’d better lead the team to the World Cup.”
Football is always on the minds of Ukrainians and hopefully the sounds of celebration will reverberate across the country on Wednesday.