The heartbreaking end of Ukraine’s World Cup quest and the fight that continues
- Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN and is executive producer of TrueSouth and co-executive producer of Backstory. He is the author of New York Times bestselling The Cost of These Dreams.
CARDIFF, Wales — The Ukrainian dream of a World Cup appearance ended on a cold Sunday night in an unrelenting rainstorm. Head coach Oleksandr Petrakov stared out through the downpour and didn’t know what to do. A red flare landed on the pitch, and the air smelled like gunpowder. Smoke swirled up into gray sky. The stadium shook with noise. Petrakov turned to walk off the pitch, then he reversed and stood alone and watched the Wales team celebrate. He looked lost. His team had come so close. It had missed so many chances in the 1-0 loss, and it was hard to even remember the hope and promise that had burned bright the past four days. Nobody spoke in the dressing room.
“Dead quiet,” he’d say later.
Petrakov said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had been to the front lines and personally asked the soldiers there to write messages of support on a flag and that the team brought that flag with it to Wales. The team members knew who was supporting them and why, and that hurt. His players wore their pain on their faces, carried this loss deep in wounds that might never heal, and he said the failure was his and not theirs. A nation needed a win, needed one good thing as a down payment on a future filled with good things. He tried to find the right words. He apologized in his news conference to his fellow citizens for not scoring. He grimaced and paused, swallowed and paused, and smiled thinly and stared blankly at the wall. It was hard to watch. He felt the possibilities of the coming six months slip through his fingers. Everyone did. A Ukrainian journalist used his postmatch question to plead with the international reporters listening to not forget what is occurring in their homeland.
Petrakov looked out at the assembled group.
“You know what is happening in Ukraine,” he said. “We have war raging all over the country. Children and women dying on a daily basis. Our infrastructure being ruined on a daily basis by Russian barbarians. The Russians want to hurt us. Ukrainians are resisting. Ukrainians are defending.”
ON THE MORNING of Sunday’s match at Cardiff City Stadium, two Russian missiles hit Kyiv, and black smoke rose once again into the air. Petrakov awoke in Wales to that news about his hometown, the first strike there in a month. He’s from Kyiv. As a boy, he spent hours fishing down on the banks of the river running through the center of town. His idea of a perfect day is to walk through the city and stop at all the old cathedrals and churches. He’ll find a bench and just sit and think.
When the Russian military started hitting Kyiv on Feb. 24, he refused to leave. His children begged. He told them he was born in Kyiv and he’d die in Kyiv before he let anyone steal his home. In the first days of the fighting, he went down to try to enlist in the army. The recruiter told him they didn’t need 64-year-old soldiers and that the way he could serve their country was to do what he’d trained his whole life to do. They told him he didn’t know anything about fighting but that he knew about football.
“Lead us to Qatar,” he said the army guys told him, referencing the site of this year’s World Cup tournament.
Petrakov walked the streets and visited soldiers in trenches and bunkers. He talked to them about football and passed out cigarettes. When the Russians got to the outskirts of the city, he could hear explosions. His wife begged him not to leave the apartment. Once, he walked to the market to get bread and heard a missile whistle in the air over his head. He felt the earth shake when it hit. Five people died, he told me. Including a family. A mom and a dad. A boy and a girl.
“You are walking and you don’t know where it is going to hit,” he said. “A lottery. You don’t know. One more fell down approximately 2 kilometers from me. A missile. All the windows were trembling. The house was shaking. I stayed in the apartment, and my wife spent the night in the bunker. She couldn’t bear it, and I don’t know, maybe because I am 64 years old, I was not afraid. You will not escape from your fate.”
After the Ukrainian’s 3-1 win against Scotland on Wednesday, the coach pumped his fist and roared into the night. The look on his face put the lie to any notion that they were just playing a game. Three months of fear and rage — of resistance and defense — poured out of him; and afterward, he looked and sounded spent, like he’d been given something by the victory but also had a burden removed.
It’s hard to explain the situation in Ukraine. Mass graves are still being uncovered. It’s possible to take a walk in the woods north of Kyiv and, if you don’t step on a land mine, find an empty hole where civilians murdered by the Russian army were quickly buried by their fellow citizens only to be reburied later with dignity. Bloody clothes are still at the bottom of those empty holes. Locals circle burned-out Russian tanks, to see where the enemy met their death. The air raid sirens sound regularly enough that there’s now an app for that.
Petrakov’s daughter is still in the city. So is his wife. They talk to him regularly, and the only way he can help them is by coaching. His team is his only weapon, the only way he can help his country, and for the past four days, he believed that team would beat Wales and take the Ukrainian flag and anthem to Qatar for the World Cup. That he would fulfill the mission given to him by the soldiers who kindly told him he was too old to pick up a rifle and man a post.
The war is just over 100 days old. In those three-plus months, there has been reason for hope. The Ukrainian army exposed the Russians, using stockpiles of foreign weapons to win the battle of Kyiv and to push the Russians back across the border in places. But the situation in the east has devolved, with the Russian army lobbing artillery rounds into helpless positions, the fighting happening in trenches — the whole thing brutal and archaic, more like Antietam than Baghdad. The Russians control about 20% of the country, and this war could go on for a long time. It’s already been going on since 2014, Ukrainians like to remind foreigners who think this whole thing is brand-new.
For those reasons, and so many others, the past four days felt good. It takes a lot of people to win a war, to create the right mix of defiance and determination — and Oleksandr Petrakov has been one of those people. He gave a nation four good days, its own kind of miracle during such terrible times, and he wanted to give it more.
BEFORE SUNDAY’S GAME, the stadium buzzed with energy as the Ukrainian bus pulled up outside. Petrakov walked alone down a white cinder block hallway. He went onto the pitch and crossed his arms, yelling and pointing. This was a man who’d spent a lifetime preparing for a single moment. The rain started to fall, but he didn’t put on a jacket. He simply wiped his glasses every so often and stood right on the sideline.
The game started, and the Wales crowd shook the building, the noise echoing around the concrete grandstands. The home fans sang songs and screamed. Not since 1958 had Wales made a World Cup, and against any other opponent, it would have been the sentimental favorite. All those failures, and the yearning to cleanse themselves of them, lived in every chant and cheer. The rain fell harder. Finally, one of the coach’s assistants came out into the mess and put a coat on his shoulders.
In the 34th minute, Gareth Bale lined up a free kick. He boomed it low to the right, and Ukrainian star Andriy Yarmolenko dove to clear it with his head.
Yarmolenko plays for West Ham United, and the day before the war started, he sent his wife and child back to Kyiv for a doctor’s appointment. “Can you imagine what I was like when it started the next morning?” he told English journalists in March after their safe return. “I just wanted to run and hit my head against a wall. What a fool I was sending my family to Kyiv and I am sitting in London.”
Yarmolenko made contact with Bale’s shot and, trying to deflect it out of bounds, he accidentally headed it into the left side of his own goal.
The tension escalated with each passing minute.
Ukraine missed chance after chance. Petrakov had to be separated from one of Wales’ players over a stalling issue. He roared into the rain at his team. Everyone was soaked. The game turned fierce, and the crowd was on edge, with both sides singing and cheering and complaining about the officials. The section of Ukrainians chanted the name of their country in four syllables over and over. Both teams wanted this victory. Their desire was palpable to the people in the stands, who seemed to understand they were watching one of the most intense days of football they’d ever see.
Wales players were cramping, and Petrakov screamed at the ref, pointing at his watch, begging for a long run of stoppage time. With 88:13 gone, Ukrainian substitute Serhiy Sydorchuk fielded the ball and let loose a shot. It flew high over the goal, and Sydorchuk fell to his knees in agony. He seemed to know. The Wales fans began to exhale and sang an old English football song with these lyrics: “Please don’t make me go hooome!”
The game ended, and Petrakov didn’t move at first, stunned, lost. The stadium roiled with noise, smoke and energy. Wales fans jumped onto the pitch and tried to escape the security guards.
Finally, Petrakov knew what to do.
He started off toward the far right corner of the pitch, to the curve where the Ukrainian fans had sang and waved flags through 90 minutes of rain. Bale came over and gave Petrakov a long embrace, and then the coach cheered the fans who’d been cheering him. There wasn’t that much difference between them in that moment, all of them citizens of a nation at war, a nation fighting to exist.
He’d given them four good days.
Later in the quiet of defeat, Petrakov contemplated how he wanted his team, this band of brothers, to exist in the memory of his countrymen.
“I really want the people of Ukraine to remember our team,” he said. “I want to say sorry that we didn’t score, but this is sports. This is how it happens, and I just don’t … “
Underneath the stadium, the pressroom was silent.
“I’m at a loss for words,” Petrakov said. “I don’t know what to say.”
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