Four good days – Ukraine’s World Cup quest is over, but the fight back home continues

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CARDIFF, Wales — The Ukrainian dream of a World Cup look ended on a chilly Sunday evening in an unrelenting rainstorm. Head coach Oleksandr Petrakov stared out by the downpour and did not know what to do. A crimson flare landed on the pitch, and the air smelled like gunpowder. Smoke swirled up into grey sky. The stadium shook with noise. Petrakov turned to stroll off the pitch, then he reversed and stood alone and watched the Wales workforce have a good time. He appeared misplaced. His workforce had come so shut. It had missed so many possibilities in the 1-0 loss, and it was exhausting to even keep in mind the hope and promise that had burned brilliant the previous 4 days. Nobody spoke in the dressing room.

“Dead quiet,” he’d say later.

Petrakov mentioned Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had been to the entrance strains and personally requested the troopers there to write down messages of assist on a flag and that the workforce introduced that flag with it to Wales. The workforce members knew who was supporting them and why, and that harm. His gamers wore their ache on their faces, carried this loss deep in wounds that may by no means heal, and he mentioned the failure was his and never theirs. A nation wanted a win, wanted one good factor as a down fee on a future stuffed with good issues. He tried to search out the proper phrases. He apologized in his information convention to his fellow residents for not scoring. He grimaced and paused, swallowed and paused, and smiled thinly and stared blankly at the wall. It was exhausting to look at. He felt the prospects of the coming six months slip by his fingers. Everyone did. A Ukrainian journalist used his postmatch query to plead with the worldwide reporters listening to not overlook what is occurring of their homeland.

Petrakov appeared out at the assembled group.

“You know what is taking place in Ukraine,” he mentioned. “We have conflict raging throughout the nation. Children and girls dying every day. Our infrastructure being ruined every day by Russian barbarians. The Russians wish to harm 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 as soon as once more into the air. Petrakov awoke in Wales to that information 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 operating by the middle of city. His thought of an ideal day is to stroll by the metropolis and cease in any respect the outdated cathedrals and church buildings. He’ll discover a bench and simply sit and suppose.

When the Russian navy began hitting Kyiv on Feb. 24, he refused to go away. His kids begged. He instructed them he was born in Kyiv and he’d die in Kyiv earlier than he let anybody steal his home. In the first days of the preventing, he went all the way down to attempt to enlist in the military. The recruiter instructed him they did not want 64-yr-outdated troopers and that the approach he may serve their nation was to do what he’d skilled his complete life to do. They instructed him he did not know something about preventing but that he knew about soccer.

“Lead us to Qatar,” he mentioned the military guys instructed him.

Petrakov walked the streets and visited troopers in trenches and bunkers. He talked to them about soccer and handed out cigarettes. When the Russians obtained to the outskirts of the metropolis, he may hear explosions. His spouse begged him to not go away the condo. 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 folks died, he instructed me. Including a household. A mother and a dad. A boy and a lady.

“You are strolling and you do not know the place it is going to hit,” he mentioned. “A lottery. You do not know. One extra fell down roughly 2 kilometers from me. A missile. All the home windows had been trembling. The home was shaking. I stayed in the condo, and my spouse spent the evening in the bunker. She could not bear it, and I do not know, possibly as a result of I’m 64 years outdated, I used to be not afraid. You won’t escape out of your destiny.”

After the Ukrainian’s 3-1 win in opposition to Scotland on Wednesday, the coach pumped his fist and roared into the evening. The look on his face put the misinform any notion that they had been simply enjoying a recreation. Three months of worry and rage — of resistance and protection — poured out of him; and afterward, he appeared and sounded spent, like he’d been given one thing by the victory but additionally had a burden eliminated.

It’s exhausting to elucidate the state of affairs in Ukraine. Mass graves are nonetheless being uncovered. It’s potential to take a stroll in the woods north of Kyiv and, for those who do not step on a land mine, discover an empty gap the place civilians murdered by the Russian military had been rapidly buried by their fellow residents solely to be reburied later with dignity. Bloody garments are nonetheless at the backside of these empty holes. Locals circle burned-out Russian tanks, to see the place the enemy met their dying. The air raid sirens sound usually sufficient that there is now an app for that.

Petrakov’s daughter is nonetheless in the metropolis. So is his spouse. They discuss to him usually, and the solely approach he can assist them is by teaching. His workforce is his solely weapon, the solely approach he can assist his nation, and for the previous 4 days, he believed that workforce 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 troopers who kindly instructed him he was too outdated to select up a rifle and man a put up.

The conflict is simply over 100 days outdated. In these three-plus months, there was motive for hope. The Ukrainian military uncovered the Russians, utilizing stockpiles of overseas weapons to win the battle of Kyiv and to push the Russians back throughout the border in locations. But the state of affairs in the east has devolved, with the Russian military lobbing artillery rounds into helpless positions, the preventing taking place in trenches — the complete factor brutal and archaic, extra like Antietam than Baghdad. The Russians management about 20% of the nation, and this conflict may go on for a very long time. It’s already been happening since 2014, Ukrainians wish to remind foreigners who suppose this complete factor is model-new.

For these causes, and so many others, the previous 4 days felt good. It takes lots of people to win a conflict, to create the correct mix of defiance and willpower — and Oleksandr Petrakov has been a type of folks. He gave a nation 4 good days, its personal form of miracle throughout such horrible instances, and he needed to present it extra.


BEFORE SUNDAY’S GAME, the stadium buzzed with vitality as the Ukrainian bus pulled up exterior. Petrakov walked alone down a white cinder block hallway. He went onto the pitch and crossed his arms, yelling and pointing. This was a person who’d spent a lifetime making ready for a single second. The rain began to fall, but he did not placed on a jacket. He merely wiped his glasses occasionally and stood proper on the sideline.

The recreation began, and the Wales crowd shook the constructing, the noise echoing round the concrete grandstands. The home followers sang songs and screamed. Not since 1958 had Wales made a World Cup, and in opposition to every other opponent, it will have been the sentimental favourite. All these failures, and the craving to cleanse themselves of them, lived in each chant and cheer. The rain fell more durable. Finally, one in all the coach’s assistants got here out into the mess and put a coat on his shoulders.

In the thirty fourth minute, Gareth Bale lined up a free kick. He boomed it low to the proper, and Ukrainian star Andriy Yarmolenko dove to clear it along with his head.

Yarmolenko performs for West Ham United, and the day earlier than the conflict began, he despatched his spouse and baby back to Kyiv for a physician’s appointment. “Can you think about what I used to be like when it began the subsequent morning?” he instructed English journalists in March after their secure return. “I simply needed to run and hit my head in opposition to a wall. What a idiot I used to be sending my household to Kyiv and I’m sitting in London.”

Yarmolenko made contact with Bale’s shot and, attempting to deflect it out of bounds, he by chance headed it into the left aspect of his personal aim.

The rigidity escalated with every passing minute.

Ukraine missed likelihood after likelihood. Petrakov needed to be separated from one in all Wales’ gamers over a stalling challenge. He roared into the rain at his workforce. Everyone was soaked. The recreation turned fierce, and the crowd was on edge, with each side singing and cheering and complaining about the officers. The part of Ukrainians chanted the identify of their nation in 4 syllables time and again. Both groups needed this victory. Their need was palpable to the folks in the stands, who appeared to grasp they had been watching one in all the most intense days of soccer they’d ever see.

Wales gamers had been cramping, and Petrakov screamed at the ref, pointing at his watch, begging for a long term of stoppage time. With 88:13 gone, Ukrainian substitute Serhiy Sydorchuk fielded the ball and let free a shot. It flew excessive over the aim, and Sydorchuk fell to his knees in agony. He appeared to know. The Wales followers started to exhale and sang an outdated English soccer track with these lyrics: “Please do not make me go hooome!”

The recreation ended, and Petrakov did not transfer at first, surprised, misplaced. The stadium roiled with noise, smoke and vitality. Wales followers jumped onto the pitch and tried to flee the safety guards.

Finally, Petrakov knew what to do.

He began off towards the far proper nook of the pitch, to the curve the place the Ukrainian followers had sang and waved flags by 90 minutes of rain. Bale came to visit and gave Petrakov an extended embrace, after which the coach cheered the followers who’d been cheering him. There wasn’t that a lot distinction between them in that second, all of them residents of a nation at conflict, a nation preventing to exist.

He’d given them 4 good days.

Later in the quiet of defeat, Petrakov contemplated how he needed his workforce, this band of brothers, to exist in the reminiscence of his countrymen.

“I really need the folks of Ukraine to recollect our workforce,” he mentioned. “I wish to apologize that we did not rating, but this is sports activities. This is the way it occurs, and I simply do not … “

Underneath the stadium, the pressroom was silent.

“I’m perplexed,” Petrakov mentioned. “I do not know what to say.”

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