For months after Russia invaded their country in February, members of Ukraine’s national soccer team were unable to train together, let alone play a match.
On Sunday, they will play for a place in the World Cup.
This match, once unthinkable for the Ukrainian team, and by far the least of its worries, will be against Wales at the Cardiff City Stadium, a modest arena some 1,500 miles from Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, and a world away horrors, traumas and worries. of war.
Here’s what you need to know.
How can I watch?
The game is broadcast in the United States by ESPN and streamed on its ESPN Plus service. (Warning: you may see announcements that the game is on ESPN2; that was, until Friday, when the network reassessed interest in the game and moved it to ESPN.)
Broadcast coverage on ESPN begins at 11:30 a.m. EST. The game starts at noon.
What’s at stake?
Sunday’s game is, in the strictest sense, a win-win affair. Sunday’s winner will claim one of the final three World Cup spots in Qatar when it kicks off in November. The loser can try again in four years.
Ukraine have not qualified for the World Cup since 2006, their only previous participation in the tournament.
But Wales have waited even longer: their last – and only – World Cup appearance was in 1958, and the team are eager to end that drought, even if it means ending the dreams of the Ukraine at the same time.
“He’s still missing,” said Wales captain Gareth Bale, who has five Champions League titles to his name but not a single World Cup minute. “We have a game tomorrow to put that to bed and qualify. Everyone wants to play at a World Cup. It’s no different for me.
How did the teams get here?
Sunday’s game is the last game in a four-team playoff series – two semi-finals and a final – that didn’t go as planned. The matches were originally scheduled for March, but Ukraine’s semi-final against Scotland was postponed shortly after Russia invaded, even as Wales played a game against Austria, winning by 2-1.
In April, football’s world governing body and World Cup host FIFA announced that the Ukraine-Scotland match had been postponed until June 1, with the final – already scheduled for Wales – taking place. holding a few days later.
Learn more about the World Cup
On Wednesday, Ukraine beat Scotland, 3-1, in an emotional match at Hampden Park in Glasgow. It was the Ukrainians’ first official game since November.
Was Ukraine supposed to be there?
Until the match against Scotland, it was difficult to know what to expect from Ukraine. Rescheduling his World Cup qualifiers was one thing. Preparing for the match was another matter.
Like most European national teams, Ukraine has players scattered across the continent: Oleksandr Zinchenko has just won a Premier League title with Manchester City, and Andriy Yarmolenko (West Ham), Ruslan Malinovskyi (Atalanta) and Roman Yaremchuk (Benfica) all play for big European clubs. This meant that the core of the team received regular practices and matches, although their minds were constantly distracted by the war at home.
But the Ukrainian league closed as soon as Russia invaded, leaving the bulk of Ukrainian players without a place to play. Top clubs Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv have managed to get their players out of the country and set up overseas camps and a series of exhibition matches for their players to train.
At the same time, Ukraine coach Oleksandr Petrakov organized a training camp in Slovenia for his team and brought in team members as they became available. All the while, messages were pouring in from Ukraine: from soldiers, family members, friends fighting to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty against Russian troops.
“They’re just making one request,” veteran midfielder Taras Stepanenko told The Guardian of the messages he and his teammates are receiving. “‘Please do everything you can to get to the World Cup.'”
What do they say?
Ukrainian coach Oleksandr Petrakov: “We have a very difficult situation in the country. Not everyone watches football. We have grief, people are dying…”
“We don’t think about it. We are thinking about how to make our fans happy, armed and focused on the game.”
Wales captain Gareth Bale: “We will be the most popular team in the stadium, that’s the main thing. We understand the horrible things happening in Ukraine. Our thoughts are with children, families and Ukrainians. We all felt bad during this time and we couldn’t do too much. But come tomorrow, it’s a football match. We want to win.
Ukrainian defender Oleksandr Karavayev: “We understand that the most important match of our lives is ahead of us.”
What’s next for the winner?
Given that the World Cup draw took place in the window between the initial qualifier dates in March and Sunday’s final qualifier, the winner of the game in Cardiff will know their World Cup journey immediately.
He will land in a group with England, Iran and the United States and will open the World Cup on its first day, November 21, against the Americans.