GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) — Ukrainian soccer star Oleksandr Zinchenko couldn't hold back the tears as he tried to explain what it means to represent his country's national team at this moment, with a spot at the World Cup within reach.
Ukraine is two games away from qualifying for the World Cup in Qatar, starting with a match against Scotland in Glasgow on Wednesday — which was postponed in March following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The winner at Hampden Park will play against Wales on Sunday in the decisive playoff.
“We want to give incredible emotions to the Ukrainian people because Ukrainians deserve it so much at this very moment,” Zinchenko, the Manchester City defender, said at a news conference. “Our mood, I would describe as a fighting mood, because everyone understands what is going on in Ukraine these days.”
Zinchenko put soccer in perspective, saying the one thing Ukrainians want is “to stop this war” but that those who could follow the game at home would do so.
“I’m pretty sure that all Ukraine who has this opportunity is going to watch us, and we are going to feel this support 100 percent,” he said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave his blessing for Ukraine’s players and coach Oleksandr Petrakov to leave their homeland to prepare for and play what they hope will be two games in Britain this week.
“Clearly it’s a very difficult task to prepare your team for the game when every single player is thinking about mothers, fathers, close relatives, family back home in Ukraine,” Petrakov said. “We use all sorts of methods, even jokes. We motivate people in a light manner. But clearly every player understands how huge the task is.”
While Zinchenko and nine others in the 26-man squad have continued playing for clubs outside Ukraine since the war started in February, the home-based players have not had a competitive game since December. The national league paused for a midwinter break and never resumed because of Russia's invasion.
With officials from Scotland and Wales giving their consent for FIFA to postpone the playoffs, Ukraine got extra months to prepare to field a team.
“Firstly, I would like to extend my gratitude to the Scottish national team — to the coaching staff, players, to the whole Scottish people — who have provided Ukraine with this incredible help,” Zinchenko said.
A mutual respect is clear between the two teams ahead of the game.
“Nothing but good thoughts for them and good wishes for them — except during the game,” Scotland coach Steve Clarke said Tuesday. “Because obviously they want to go to Qatar and represent their country. But I’m desperate to go to Qatar with Scotland.”
The Scots and Welsh have their own historical motivation for denying Ukraine the last of the 13 European places at the World Cup. Scotland last went to the tournament 24 years ago and Wales has waited 64 years. Ukraine went to the 2006 World Cup and was a quarterfinalist.
Ukraine has prepared during a month-long training camp in the safety of Slovenia and players from its top clubs Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv also toured Europe playing games to raise money to help defend Ukraine.
Clarke said Ukraine’s players find themselves in “an incredible situation. They will be ready for the game, no worries.”
He expects Scotland’s fans to respect Ukraine’s national anthem, even applaud it.
Zinchenko appreciated a publicity campaign to help Scottish fans learn the words of the Ukrainian song: “We have to be together, we have to fight Russian aggression, we have to defeat that evil."
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The Associated Press