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The football match that ‘shows Ukraine is still alive’

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GLASGOW — Forget Eurovision. This matters much more.

On Wednesday night in Glasgow, Ukraine will play its first competitive football match since Russia’s brutal invasion began in late February. The game, against Scotland, is a World Cup qualifier, with a potential place at Qatar 2022 on the line.

Football has been far from a top priority for Ukrainians in Britain over the past three months, with millions of their compatriots forced to flee their homeland by Russia’s deadly military aggression — but excitement for this game is sky high.

“The 11 players on the pitch aren’t playing for the 3,000 fans Ukraine are bringing here. It’s for the 44 million Ukrainians in Ukraine,” said Stepan Luczka, a British-Ukrainian and chairman of the U.K. Ukrainian Sports Supporters Club, outside Hampden Park — Scotland’s national team stadium — where he was sorting out dozens of match tickets for traveling fans.

Luczka, clad head to toe in blue and yellow right down to his sneakers, has a relative fighting in the war-torn Donbas region.   

Wednesday night will be a real “mixed bag of emotions,” added Luczka, who has traveled around Europe for years supporting Ukraine. “I feel like I shouldn’t be chanting, celebrating … because at the end of the day there’s a war going on. People are dying every day and I’m at a football match. To put it into that context, there’s more important things in the world.”

Ukrainian fans have arrived in Glasgow from all over the U.K. and Western Europe to lend their voices to what will surely be an emotional wall of noise at Hampden on Wednesday night.

Sisters Olha, left, and Sofiia Abramova left Kyiv in the days after Russia invaded. They have traveled from London to cheer on Ukraine against Scotland | Ali Walker/POLITICO

Sisters Olha and Sofiia Abramova fled Kyiv on March 5 for western Ukraine, sheltering from Russian shelling and eventually moving to the U.K. They traveled up from London for the match, which represents a key source of national pride and dignity, Olha said.

“I’m not a fan of football,” she added, after collecting her ticket from a dingy portacabin outside the stadium, “but when our Ukrainian team plays I feel like you are part of something huge.”

“The game shows Ukraine is still alive,” Yevgen Chub, treasurer of the Glasgow branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain, told POLITICO on a gloomy afternoon in Glasgow.

Yevgen Chub from the Glasgow branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain picks up his match tickets | Ali Walker/POLITICO

And emotions ran high at a pre-match press conference. Ukraine’s players are in “fighting mood” ahead of the game, said a tearful Oleksandr Zinchenko, a star player from English champions Manchester City, who broke down as he spoke of Ukrainian dreams: that the war would end, and that the country would qualify for the World Cup.

“Ukraine is a country of freedom,” Zinchenko said. “Ukraine is never going to give up. A lot of countries maybe don’t understand, today it’s Ukraine — but tomorrow it could be you. That’s why we need to be united to beat this Russian aggression together.”  

The match was initially scheduled for the end of March, but FIFA, world’s football’s governing body, decided to postpone it. Some Ukrainian players from the country’s domestic league spent time bunkered down in bomb shelters during the devastating early days of the war.

Surreal for Scotland

Scotland, often cast in the role of international football’s hapless but lovable underdogs, will be in the unusual position Wednesday of not being the neutral’s favorite — but is still attempting to qualify for its first World Cup since 1998.

For James Coggs and Graeme Baxter, two long-suffering Scotland supporters who are eyeing a trip to Qatar in November, Wednesday’s night match will be a “surreal” experience against a “pumped and buzzing” Ukrainian team.

“It’s a strange situation. Ninety-nine times out of 100 neutrals want Scotland to win when we play,” said Coggs. But in this case, “the world will be cheering on Ukraine — similar to Eurovision,” added Baxter.

The key difference between a flamboyant singing contest and a tense football eliminator, of course, is that no one is going to hand Ukraine victory. They’ll need to actively grab it. And that’s a situation Scotland’s players are bracing for.

“For 90 minutes or 120 minutes, we need to separate our thoughts,” said Scotland captain Andy Robertson about Ukraine. “We want to get to the World Cup, we have to be ready for the challenge and emotion Ukraine will provide.”

Baxter, the supporter, was blunter: “There’s a lot of sympathy for them … of course we’ll respect them and their anthem, then we’ll go out and try to batter them.” And Ukrainians wouldn’t have it any other way, Luczka said with a smile.

Stepan Luczka runs the U.K. Ukrainian Sports Supporters Club. He spent Tuesday afternoon co-ordinating dozens of match tickets for Ukrainians in Glasgow | Ali Walker/POLITICO

The winner of Wednesday night’s clash will face Wales in Cardiff on Sunday, in a final playoff for the last European qualifying spot at the World Cup — and be slotted into a group containing England, the U.S. and Iran.

“I’m a bit indifferent to Eurovision, but Ukraine won,” Luczka said. “I think that was a big morale boost for the troops that, well, listen, Ukraine’s fighting in any way it can.”

And on Wednesday night in Glasgow, it’ll do so again.

“If victory in football helps people not to forget about Ukraine, I think it’s also like an army in some way,” said Olha Abramova.

Luczka laid out a montage of flags outside Hampden Park on Tuesday afternoon | Stepan Luczka for POLITICO

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