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Ukrainian national football team

Ukraine gears for EURO with “greatest-ever squad”; soldiers watch via Starlinks from front

With domestic football devastated, coach Rebrov built Ukraine’s “strongest-ever squad” from European leagues for EURO 2024, which commentator Vadym Skichko, himself in the military, will stream from the front via Starlink.
The Ukrainian Men’s National Team just before their friendly match against Moldova in June 2024. Source: Facebook page of Ukrainian Association of Football
Ukraine gears for EURO with “greatest-ever squad”; soldiers watch via Starlinks from front
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This year’s EURO 2024 tournament holds extraordinary significance for the Ukrainian people. Amid Russia’s ongoing invasion, Ukraine’s football players are preparing to compete, bringing a much-needed respite to a nation under siege.

For Ukraine, this tournament represents more than just a sporting event; it symbolizes hope and unity. From Kharkiv Oblast to Zaporizhzhia Oblast, front-line soldiers have told me they plan to gather and watch their national team from their bases, cherishing a few brief moments of normalcy.

Ahead of the EURO 2024 tournament, Ukraine’s Football Association posted a clip where it stated that Ukraine and “Our cities would love to host the EUROs, but they are fighting for freedom!” The association further wrote, “13 players from the Ukraine National Football Team address the world before EUROs. Their hometowns have been affected by Russian aggression — they are either damaged or temporarily occupied. Football, like all sports, is not beyond politics and war. We call on all EURO 2024 countries to help Ukraine.”

Oleksandr Tymchyk, a Dynamo Kyiv player and member of the national team, tragically lost his brother in August 2023, who died while fighting on the frontline in Donetsk Oblast. His fellow national teammate, Vitaliy Mykolenko who plays for Everton in the English Premier League, also revealed that his father is serving in the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Ukraine’s head coach, Serhiy Rebrov, stated, “I try to remind my players what they are fighting for every time they pull on that yellow and blue jersey,” as Ukraine continues to resist Russian aggression.

The importance of EURO 2024 for Ukraine

Vadym Skichko, a Ukrainian football commentator and a serving member of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, commented, “Apart from the celebration of football, under the conditions of full-scale aggression by the Russian Federation, any major sporting event is an opportunity to remind the world about the situation in Ukraine.” He further noted, “Perhaps during the European Championship, during the matches of the Ukrainian national team, the general mood in Ukraine will improve at least for a while.”

“In conditions of almost complete absence of good news, general tension, and daily losses, any positive phenomena are necessary to balance the mood of the population,” he said.

Mark Temnycky, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, highlighted, “The recent successes of the Ukrainian senior men’s national team give Ukraine a sense of pride and optimism in an otherwise difficult period in history.”

“EURO 2024 holds significant meaning for me as a soldier,” said Lexus (callsign) from the special unit “Kondor” of the 1st Presidential Brigade of the National Guard of Ukraine. He is currently a drone pilot fighting in Donbas. “If our country performs well, it can boost our morale on the frontline.” However, he also noted, “If the Ukrainian national team loses without putting up a strong fight, it could dampen our spirits.”

Hryhorii Hoidalo, from the 105th Territorial Defense Brigade, is fighting on the Kharkiv front. He remarked, “For Ukrainians, football is the number one game.” Originally from Ternopil, Hoidalo shared, “I loved playing football as a child. When I was younger, I usually played as a forward.” He fondly recalled the mini-field in his hometown where he and his friends would gather to play football.

Even after Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022, Hoidalo mentioned, “The guys still try to gather and play when we can.” However, he pointed out that it is challenging to find the time and space to play because it’s too dangerous to gather too many soldiers in one area. Only when they are a bit further away from the front do they have any chance of playing football.

“Since Ukraine’s independence, our national team has the strongest squad,” said Hoidalo.

Hoidalo further noted, “The main team now is not at EURO 2024. The main team for Ukraine is the Armed Forces of Ukraine, bravely defending our nation’s independence and territorial integrity.” He continued, “Our national team may not win the main title, but the Armed Forces of Ukraine will definitely win, thanks to the concerned citizens of the entire free world and the international support we receive.”

Sport helps engage the diaspora

EURO 2024 not only has the potential to draw renewed attention to Ukraine but also to re-engage the Ukrainian diaspora in supporting their homeland. Natalka Lindstrom, a member of the Ukrainian-Canadian diaspora living in Edmonton, Canada, shared her perspective.

“I know that at our Ukrainian Youth Complex here in Edmonton, there will be watch parties hosted by the Ukraine Athletic Sports Club,” said Lindstrom. “Entrance is by donation to the CYM humanitarian aid fund for all 7am and 10am games. I believe that whenever Ukrainian athletes, artists, scholars, and others are showcased on an international stage at big events, it helps reignite discussions about the ongoing war in Ukraine. These conversations not only occur within our communities but also resurface on news channels and across social media platforms.”

Lindstrom continued, “Rallies in cities across Canada seem to be starting up once again. In the beginning, when Russia first invaded Ukraine, it was always in the news, and there were rallies and marches every month or couple of weeks, shedding light on different aspects of the war.” She noted that rallies in support of Ukraine have become rarer, and any marches that do take place are more widely spread out. “Having Ukraine compete at EURO 2024 gives the Ukrainian diaspora yet another reason to come together in their communities and cheer on the national team while also fundraising for Ukraine,” she said.

Eddie Priymak, a Ukrainian-American from Washington state, highlighted that engagement from the Ukrainian-American community has dropped in recent times in supporting Ukraine and raising awareness. “I think organizations and activists have been organizing the same amount of protests and events since the start of the war to show support for Ukraine, but the number of individuals attending these events has decreased. I think this is due to both the longevity of the war and the worries of life taking precedence over a war that is thousands of miles away from the diaspora,” he said.

“I’ll be watching EURO 2024 because Ukraine is in it,” said Priymak. “I think many other people are doing the same because of Ukraine’s participation. This is a method of showing national pride and solidarity with a country to which we are connected. International sporting events tend to bring out national pride, even from individuals who are the least nationalistic.”

The journey to EURO 2024

Leading Ukraine’s road to EURO 2024 has been the former Tottenham Hotspur striker Serhiy Rebrov, a highly decorated figure in Ukraine’s footballing history. However, these have been anything but ordinary times for Rebrov and his men. As Russian bombs destroy entire Ukrainian towns, Ukraine has had to play its international games abroad, competing in countries such as the Czech Republic, Germany, and Poland. Ukraine’s domestic football league has also been utterly devastated by the war.

Yet, despite facing such insurmountable circumstances, the national team rose above the odds and qualified for EURO 2024.

Ukraine EURO soccer football destroyed stadium
The destroyed stadium grounds of Ukrainian Football Club Desna Chernihiv. (Source: Vyacheslav Chaus /

Ukraine, placed in a group with European heavyweights such as England and Italy, finished third in their qualifying group. They narrowly missed automatic qualification for the group stages, losing out to Italy on goal differential, as Italy had a higher goal tally.

This led to Ukraine needing to attempt qualification through play-offs. However, due to their high ranking in another UEFA competition, the Nations League, Ukraine was given a lifeline through a play-off route. In March of this year, Ukraine faced a challenging path to secure its spot in EURO 2024. They first overcame Bosnia, staging a remarkable comeback to win 2-1. Following this victory, they faced Iceland and once again demonstrated their resilience by coming from behind to clinch another 2-1 win.

Ukraine soccer iceland euro 2024
Ukraine’s players clap with fans following their 2-1 victory over Iceland to qualify for EURO 2024 in March. (Source: YouTube screenshot from Optus Sport)

Following the comeback victory over Iceland, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked the national team for “proving once again that when it is difficult for Ukrainians, but they do not give up and continue to fight, then Ukrainians will certainly win.”

Ukraine’s greatest ever team?

The current squad under Rebrov has the potential to be Ukraine’s greatest ever. This potential stems from the abundance of talent within the team, with many players gaining valuable experience and honing their craft in top leagues abroad. The team is also one of the youngest at the tournament.

Skichko noted, “In terms of potential, this EURO 2024 team can be considered the strongest since Ukraine’s independence because of the presence of the top scorer in La Liga, and players from the English, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese championships.” Temnycky also noted that the Ukrainian squad that will compete at EURO 2024 will be one of Ukraine’s best in its history.

Andrew Todos, a British-Ukrainian football journalist, said, “From a squad perspective, it’s certainly the most balanced with lots of representation in Europe’s top five leagues. However, to truly be called great, they’ll need to emulate the 2006 side and reach the semi-final of a tournament.”

Todos said the “team is physically ready for the tournament despite it coming on the back of a long club season.” He noted, “The players all look fit, fresh, and motivated. The individual results are less important as they’re friendly, but the spirit seems very high and positive.”

Predicted performance of Ukraine at EURO 2024

For Todos, he noted that Ukraine will face three difficult sides in Romania, Slovakia, and Belgium. “On paper, Ukraine should be strong enough to advance out of the group,” he said.

Temnycky believes that at a bare minimum, Ukraine should make it out of the group stage. “They have the potential to cause some upsets if they play their game. They should be aiming to reach the quarter-finals and possibly even fighting with Belgium for the top spot in their group,” said Temnycky. Skichko, on a similar note, said, “I expect this team to repeat the 2006 achievement and reach the quarterfinals.”

However, Ukraine did also have a miraculous EURO 2020 qualifying campaign that saw them feature in the last tournament (moved to 2021 due to COVID-19). Despite finishing third in their group, Ukraine advanced to the knockout stages as one of the best third-placed teams in EURO 2020. They then dramatically beat Sweden in the Round of 16, with Artem Dovbyk scoring a late goal in extra time to secure the victory.

Their journey ended in the quarterfinals, where they were hammed by England 4-0. Ukraine will be aiming to replicate their success from the previous tournament.

Players to watch

Skichko said, “Illia Zabarnyi is a key player to look out for. At 21 years old, Illia consistently plays in the English Premier League and attracts interest from big clubs. This tournament can once again emphasize his maturity and talent as a central defender.”

In midfield, it would be Heorhii Sudakov for Skichko. “Another young player by age, but not by status. The national team’s play in the midfield critically depends on Sudakov’s form. In my opinion, Heorhiy has long surpassed the level of the Ukrainian Premier League, so a successful performance in the continental championship could bring him closer to a foreign club,” Skichko added.

For Ukraine’s forward, Skichko is very bullish on Dovbyk, commenting, “The Ukrainian national team hasn’t had such a prolific forward since Andriy Shevchenko, and that’s a tremendous boost.” From Todos’ perspective on who to look out for: “Heorhii Sudakov will be Shakhtar’s next big export this summer. As such, this tournament will be a shop window event for the attacking midfielder. His agility, dribbling, and passing will come in handy for Ukraine, making him one of the key players.”

“Similarly, the Girona duo of Tsyhankov and Dovbyk will be looking to replicate their club heroics at the international level. Both players have been hugely influential for Ukraine during the past qualifying campaign. Let’s hope Dovbyk’s goals and Tsyhankov’s creativity will continue in Germany,” he added.

For Todos, he believes that Andriy Lunin is another player who’s had a great season in La Liga and the Champions League with Real Madrid. “He’s expected to win the number one battle against fellow goalkeeper Trubin. He will be counted on to make big, game-defining saves, especially with Ukraine’s defense occasionally lacking consistency,” Todos concluded.

Temnycky also believes “There will be a few standout players who may see moves from their clubs after the competition. During the 2023-2024 season, Ukrainian forward Artem Dovbyk earned the Golden Boot for scoring the most goals in La Liga that season. He plays for Girona, who qualified for its first-ever UEFA Champions League.”

The former Dnipro-1 forward is currently being linked with a potential move to Atlético Madrid, and there are rumors Italian clubs AC Milan and Napoli are pursuing Dovbyk’s signature.

Ukraine EURO soccer football dovbyk
Ukrainian forward Artem Dovbyk. (Source: Facebook page of Українська Асоціація Футболу / Ukrainian Association of Football)

“His teammate Viktor Tsygankov is also being eyed by several European clubs, such as Arsenal and Bayern München. Tsygankov’s ball distribution and control have made him attractive to various clubs,” he added. “Finally, Sudakov of Shakhtar Donetsk is being eyed by Liverpool and Chelsea. The young Ukrainian has performed well at Shakhtar, and he may be eying a move to a club outside of Ukraine as he prepares for the next opportunity and challenge,” said Temnycky.

Temnycky concluded by highlighting that “Overall, the Ukrainians are a very exciting, young, and talented side. Time will tell how they will perform.” Todos predicts that Ukraine will pull off a dark horse showing and make the semi-finals against all odds.

Ukrainian football ultras

Ukrainian ultras, the hardcore football fans, have played an undeniably important role in civil society and in the ongoing war with Russia. Known for their patriotic outlooks, the terraces of stadiums have become regular venues for acts of protest and organization. Many ultras took active roles in the Euromaidan protests before declaring a nationwide truce among themselves following Russia’s invasion of the Donbas and Crimea. Instead of fighting among themselves at matches, they united against a common enemy. The ultras hung up their football shirts and took up army uniforms and machine guns to defend their country.

Ukraine EURO soccer football stahiv killed
The late Ihor Stahiv, a 55-year-old former footballer, was killed in action in May 2024. More than 400 Ukrainian athletes have died in the war against Russia. (Source: Facebook page of Українська Асоціація Футболу / Ukrainian Association of Football)

Many of the initial volunteer battalions that went to fight against Russia in 2014 consisted of football hooligans. It is estimated that over 80% of Ukraine’s football ultras are now fighting in the war. Many have lost their lives. A survey from the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology revealed nearly 80% of Ukrainians have relatives or friends who were wounded or killed in the war with Russia.

The charity foundation Stands of Heroes supports the families of the hundreds of fallen fans. One of the national team’s most senior players, Taras Stepanenko, speaking of the Ultras said, “The guys gave the most valuable things so that we could live in our country. The fans, who were at odds with each other before, united for our victory.” Those remaining continue to fight for their country, standing shoulder to shoulder with former rivals whom they once considered sworn enemies on the football field.

Raising awareness for Ukraine’s plight

For the Ukrainian national team, the aim is not only to compete but to uplift the morale and spirits of a nation tormented by war. Temnycky also noted that “When Ukraine qualified for the tournament in March via the playoffs, members of the national team stated that qualification was for the supporters, their country, their people, and most importantly, the defenders of their homeland.”

It’s also a chance to shine a spotlight back on Ukraine and the plight of its people, as global coverage of the situation has waned in recent times. Ukrainian football legend Andriy Shevchenko and current president of the Ukrainian Football Association, stated, “Every victory for our country, both on and off the pitch, is crucial for every Ukrainian and especially for those who defend it right now.”

“It is hard to overestimate the importance of reminding the whole world of our existence,” said Vasyl Shyshola, commander of an aerial reconnaissance unit for Ukraine’s 128th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade.

According to Shyshola, until recently, the average “Westerner” saw no difference between Ukrainians and Russians. “Now we have loudly declared our identity. We are not the same! And we need to remind the world of ourselves in politics, sports, arts, and other fields,” said Shyshola.

How soldiers plan to watch

Shyshola commented that, “Whenever possible, we definitely watch the matches of the Ukrainian National Team.” Since Shyshola leads an aerial reconnaissance drone unit on the southern front in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, they have access to Starlink service which gives them access to uninterrupted internet.

Ukraine EURO soccer football soldiers watch match
Soldiers from the 128th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade at work on the frontline while also watching the Ukrainian National Team play. (Source: Vasyl Shyshola)

“Even on the front lines, while conducting reconnaissance work or bombing the enemy from drops, we cannot deny ourselves the pleasure of simultaneously turning on the match on a tablet and cheering in unison with the whole country,” said Shyshola.

“Not all the guys have the opportunity to watch the matches, but they will definitely know the results. Thanks to our Starlink, we can watch the game online,” Hoidalo shared from the Kharkiv front. “We are in one of the hot spots, taking turns on duty. Of course, we will watch the matches when possible, if at rest, but when the situation escalates and help is needed at the front, we will drop everything and assist our comrades in battle.”

The whole country awaits glory

The determination of the national team to overcome wartime adversity has captured the imagination of football fans across Europe and provided Ukrainians with a powerful symbol of their country’s refusal to accept defeat. This tournament is not just about football for Ukraine; it is about standing strong in the face of overwhelming odds and showing the world what it means to be Ukrainian.

Shyshola’s parting words to the national team before they take to the field were: “Fight – and you will overcome!”


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