The heartbreaking end of Ukraine’s World Cup quest and the fight that continues


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 group have fun. He regarded misplaced. His group had come so shut. It had missed so many possibilities within the 1-0 loss, and it was arduous to even bear in mind the hope and promise that had burned vivid the previous 4 days. No one spoke within the dressing room.

“Lifeless quiet,” he’d say later.

Petrakov mentioned Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had been to the entrance traces and personally requested the troopers there to write down messages of assist on a flag and that the group introduced that flag with it to Wales. The group 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 which 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 cost on a future crammed with good issues. He tried to search out the suitable 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 on the wall. It was arduous to look at. He felt the chances of the approaching six months slip by his fingers. Everybody did. A Ukrainian journalist used his postmatch query to plead with the worldwide reporters listening to not neglect what is going on of their homeland.

Petrakov regarded out on the assembled group.

” what is going on in Ukraine,” he mentioned. “We’ve warfare raging all around the nation. Kids and ladies dying every day. Our infrastructure being ruined every day by Russian barbarians. The Russians need to harm us. Ukrainians are resisting. Ukrainians are defending.”

After the Ukrainian run got here to an finish, Oleksandr Petrakov cheered the followers who cheered on his group. The coach did not know what to say subsequent. Michael Steele/Getty Photos

ON THE MORNING of Sunday’s match, 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 primary strike there in a month. He is from Kyiv. As a boy, he spent hours fishing down on the banks of the river operating by the middle of city. His concept of an ideal day is to stroll by the town and cease in any respect the previous cathedrals and church buildings. He’ll discover a bench and simply sit and suppose.

When the Russian army began hitting Kyiv on Feb. 24, he refused to depart. His kids begged. He advised them he was born in Kyiv and he’d die in Kyiv earlier than he let anybody steal his dwelling. Within the first days of the combating, he went right down to attempt to enlist within the military. The recruiter advised him they did not want 64-year-old troopers and that the way in which he may serve their nation was to do what he’d educated his complete life to do. They advised him he did not know something about combating however that he knew about soccer.

“Lead us to Qatar,” he mentioned the military guys advised him, referencing the positioning of this 12 months’s World Cup event.

Petrakov walked the streets and visited troopers in trenches and bunkers. He talked to them about soccer and handed out cigarettes. When the Russians bought to the outskirts of the town, he may hear explosions. His spouse begged him to not go away the house. As soon as, he walked to the market to get bread and heard a missile whistle within the air over his head. He felt the earth shake when it hit. 5 individuals died, he advised me. A household. A mother and a dad. A boy and a lady.

“You’re strolling and you do not know the place it will hit,” he mentioned. “A lottery. You do not know. Yet another fell down roughly 2 kilometers from me. A missile. All of the home windows had been trembling. The home was shaking. I stayed within the house, and my spouse spent the evening within the bunker. She could not bear it, and I do not know, perhaps as a result of I’m 64 years previous, I used to be not afraid. You’ll not escape out of your destiny.”

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

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

Petrakov’s daughter remains to be within the metropolis. So is his spouse. They discuss to him usually, and the one approach he may also help them is by teaching. His group is his solely weapon, the one approach he may also help his nation, and for the previous 4 days, he believed that group 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 advised him he was too previous to select up a rifle and man a submit.

The warfare is simply over 100 days previous. 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 again throughout the border in locations. However the scenario within the east has devolved, with the Russian military lobbing artillery rounds into helpless positions, the combating taking place in trenches — the entire thing brutal and archaic, extra like Antietam than Baghdad. The Russians management about 20% of the nation, and this warfare may go on for a very long time. It is already been occurring since 2014, Ukrainians prefer to remind foreigners who suppose this complete factor is brand-new.

For these causes, and so many others, the previous 4 days felt good. It takes lots of people to win a warfare, to create the right combination of defiance and dedication — and Oleksandr Petrakov has been a type of individuals. He gave a nation 4 good days, its personal type of miracle throughout such horrible occasions, and he wished to provide it extra.

BEFORE SUNDAY’S GAME, the stadium buzzed with power because 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 getting ready for a single second. The rain began to fall, however he did not placed on a jacket. He merely wiped his glasses once in a while and stood proper on the sideline.

The sport began, and the Wales crowd shook the constructing, the noise echoing across the concrete grandstands. The house followers sang songs and screamed. Not since 1958 had Wales made a World Cup, and towards every other opponent, it might 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 tougher. Lastly, one in every of his Petrakov’s assistants got here out into the mess and put a coat on his shoulders.

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

Yarmolenko performs for West Ham United, and the day earlier than the warfare began, he despatched his spouse and little one again to Kyiv for a physician’s appointment. “Are you able to think about what I used to be like when it began the following morning?” he advised English journalists in March after their secure return. “I simply wished to run and hit my head towards 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, making an attempt to deflect it out of bounds, he by chance headed it into the left aspect of his personal aim.

The strain escalated with every passing minute.

Ukraine missed likelihood after likelihood. Petrakov needed to be separated from one in every of Wales’ gamers over a stalling situation. He roared into the rain at his group. Everybody was soaked. The sport turned fierce, and the gang was on edge, with either side singing and cheering and complaining in regards to the officers. The part of Ukrainians chanted the title of their nation in 4 syllables time and again. Each groups wished this victory. Their want was palpable to the individuals within the stands, who appeared to grasp they had been watching one of the vital intense days of soccer they’d ever see.

Wales gamers had been cramping, and Petrakov screamed on 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 previous English soccer music with the lyrics, “Please do not make me go hooome!”

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

Lastly, 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 a protracted 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 warfare, a nation combating to exist.

He’d given them 4 good days.

Later within the quiet of defeat, Petrakov contemplated how he wished his group, this band of brothers, to exist within the reminiscence of his countrymen.

“I actually need the individuals of Ukraine to recollect our group,” he mentioned. “I need to apologize that we did not rating, however that is sports activities. That is the way it occurs, and I simply do not … “

Beneath the stadium, the pressroom was silent.

“I am puzzled,” Petrakov mentioned. “I do not know what to say.”

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