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Ukrainian football mudryk national team malta

Ukraine kicks toward Euro 2024 amid bombs and blackouts 

From joining the front lines to evacuating families to fundraising, footballers juggle competitive matches with the grim realities of Russia’s invasion.
Ukrainian national football team Mudryk during the play-off with Malta on 17 October 2023. Photo: Pavlo Kubanov/Ukrainian Football Federation
Ukraine kicks toward Euro 2024 amid bombs and blackouts 

The full-time whistle had gone. After an initial scare, the Ukrainian senior men’s national team defeated Malta in their EURO 2024 qualification match in October. The result meant that the Ukrainians would sit in second place in their EURO 2024 qualification group, three points ahead of rivals Italy.

Ukraine will now play Italy in their final match in their EURO 2024 qualification group. The game on 20 November will be a winner-take-all scenario. Should the Ukrainians defeat the Italians, the competition’s current title holders, then Ukraine will automatically qualify for next summer’s tournament.

In normal circumstances, this would be an impressive achievement. Many predicted that the Italians and English would comfortably qualify from their group, but the Ukrainians have put up a good fight throughout qualification. Ukraine earned a hard-fought draw against England, and the Ukrainians have put pressure on the Italians.

But this is more than just football. Ukraine’s impressive results have come amidst various other developments, and current events in Ukraine have shown a much more complicated story.

When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, Ukrainian lives dramatically changed. Millions of residents in eastern and southern Ukraine fled, and one-fourth of Ukraine’s total population became displaced. Thousands of Ukrainian citizens have perished from Russia’s brutal and ongoing war, and several Ukrainian villages and cities have been destroyed. Unfortunately, the Russian military incursion continues without an apparent end.

Ukrainian football, like all other aspects of Ukrainian life, has also been impacted.

From February to July 2022, Ukrainian football was suspended. Matches at the club level were not played, and several foreign footballers left the country. Some Ukrainian players also moved away to compete in other European leagues and raise money for their families. Finally, due to the financial burdens of the war, as well as Russian advances in eastern and southern Ukraine, some club teams went bankrupt, and they folded.

Despite these circumstances, Ukrainian footballers were determined to help their country.

For example, some Ukrainian footballers and other athletes joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces or volunteer battalions. Many of these brave men and women helped liberate previously occupied Russian territories throughout the war, and others have tragically lost their lives defending Ukraine.

Those who did not join the defense forces contributed to the war effort by other means. They have organized fundraisers and charity events to raise money for defense equipment, medical aid, and humanitarian assistance. Finally, Ukrainians outside of the country have raised money.

For example, when Ukraine captain Andriy Yarmolenko donated nearly one hundred thousand pounds to buy ambulances for Ukraine. Meanwhile, Arsenal’s Oleksandr Zinchenko teamed up with former Chelsea player Andriy Shevchenko to run a charity match, where they raised thousands of pounds.

Yarmolenko ambulance football Chernihiv
Andriy Yarmolenko sent an ambulance with humanitarian aid to his native Chernihiv in the early days of Russia’s invasion, 30 April 2022. Credit: Yarmolenko’s Instagram

The developments of the war in Ukraine were also monitored by FIFA and UEFA, two of football’s largest governing bodies. When Russia’s invasion began, FIFA and UEFA decided that the Ukrainian men’s and women’s national teams and club teams competing in European competitions would have to play their home matches at neutral venues outside of Ukraine. (Russian teams were also banned from all FIFA and UEFA competitions.)

For the remainder of the 2022/2023 football season, Ukrainian clubs competing in European competitions played their home games in Poland (and later Germany). This proved to be challenging as, while the opposition trained at their usual facilities and were also playing competitive football in their domestic leagues each week, the Ukrainians were limited to only these international games. The Ukrainian teams struggled, and ultimately, they were eliminated from the competitions.

Despite these obstacles and challenges, Ukrainian clubs and their players explored other avenues to help their country. For example, with the abrupt end to the 2021/2022 Ukrainian Premier Liha season, Ukrainian clubs Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk organized an international tour where they played a series of charity matches with clubs across Europe. The effort raised millions of euros for humanitarian aid for Ukraine.

Eventually, after much preparation, the Ukrainian Premier Liha finally returned in August 2022. Matches would be played in northern and western Ukraine, areas not occupied by the Russians, but several games would be interrupted. Air raid sirens would inform players when Russian missile strikes were occurring, and players, staff, and match officials would move to the bomb shelters, seeking safety as the games were suspended. Fans and spectators were also prohibited from attending matches due to security concerns.

Despite these complications, Ukraine was able to successfully start and complete the 2022/2023 season, and it has been successfully undergoing the 2023/2024 season. Many security concerns and logistical issues remain, but the players have been able to compete within the country.

Nonetheless, matches have been challenging. Aside from the normal stresses the players face when competing, as well as the safety concerns they have when they play due to the war, these footballers are also worried about their families and friends. Many Ukrainian players have family members and friends in the Russian-occupied regions in eastern and southern Ukraine.

For example, Shakhtar Donetsk captain and Ukraine vice-captain Taras Stepanenko shared in a Paramount Plus documentary that he has several family members in Donetsk oblast, and he is concerned for their safety.

Meanwhile, Dynamo Kyiv player Oleksandr Karavayev recounted the Russian occupation of Kherson in an emotional press conference. While Karavayev was training with the Ukrainian national team and playing football with Dynamo, his family members were in constant danger. Eventually, the city was liberated, and Karavayev expressed his gratitude to the Ukrainian armed forces.

Finally, during the initial stages of the war, Ukraine captain Andriy Yarmolenko spoke with teammate Roman Yaremchuk about the latter’s family in Ukraine, and Yarmolenko helped Yaremchuk evacuate his in-laws from Chernihiv.

These are just a few of dozens of other examples where Ukrainian footballers have worked hard to help their families and friends during the war.

In other words, beyond the everyday stresses their jobs bring when trying to win trophies, impressing their fans, and performing well for their clubs, Ukrainian footballers are constantly worried for their lives, as well as the lives and safety of their families and friends. It is, therefore, all the more meaningful that Ukrainian national teams and clubs are performing well at the highest level and that they continue to earn important results in international matches.

Finally, the successes of these teams have provided Ukrainian citizens with optimism and a reason to cheer in an otherwise difficult period in Ukrainian history. It has offered Ukrainian families and friends a chance to gather in otherwise difficult circumstances, and it has uplifted Ukrainian spirits.

Ukrainian football will not end the war in Ukraine, but it has helped entertain and occupy the minds of Ukrainians, briefly shifting them away from the constant stresses and horrors of war. Time will tell how the Ukrainians will perform against the Italians, but it would be a powerful and moving story if they win and qualify directly for EURO 2024. Ukrainians will be proud to support their team in this historic moment.

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