When Wales secured a play-off place for football’s World Cup, it was a big moment — an opportunity to qualify for the international tournament for the first time in 64 years.
But the match has taken on truly historic significance due to their opponents: Ukraine.
The Ukrainian team has only played one competitive match since Russia’s invasion of their country on February 24: an impressive 3-1 victory over Scotland on Wednesday that brought them within 90 minutes of going to the World Cup tournament in Qatar this winter.
Star Ukrainian player Oleksandr Zinchenko, who also plays for Manchester City in the Premier League, broke down in tears in a press conference ahead of the Scotland match, saying it was his “dream” to reach the World Cup finals.
Ukrainian supporters at the match in Glasgow also were emotional.
“It was great,” said Maria Romanenko, a Ukrainian journalist who fled Kyiv in February and who has been living in Manchester with her English partner since March. “I was going into it thinking, ‘it’s going to be a nice game,’ but when I arrived there, the scale of it … being among the Ukraine fans felt surreal.”
“Right after the game, I saw these Scottish fans, who were waving and blowing kisses with the Ukraine fans. When I saw that, I just had tears in my eyes. I was not expecting that,” she said.
Romanenko will be one of hundreds of Ukrainian supporters in the Cardiff City Stadium for Sunday’s contest. They are hoping to see their country qualify for only the second time after their debut at the tournament in 2006.
Among the number will be 100 Wales-based Ukrainian refugees who were given free tickets to the sold-out match by the Welsh government and Football Association of Wales.
Petro Konstantynov, 22, is another fan who was at the Scotland game on Wednesday and who will make the journey to Cardiff this weekend. A student at Leeds University in the north of England, his family hails from Dnipro in Ukraine.
“Whether you like football or not, it’s about showing unity and just the team giving a bit of happiness for the Ukrainian people because they deserve it, all of them,” he said.
“To qualify for the World Cup would be enormous. But to qualify now, with the political situation, would mean everything,” Konstantynov said. “Ever since February 24, every Ukrainian has just been thinking mostly about one thing. To put your mind off that, to just be happy for a certain amount of time, to distract yourself, would just be amazing for the Ukrainian people,” he said.
Romanenko agreed that the match means more than sport alone.
“There will be people who say: ‘Oh, there’s a war, why is Ukraine playing football?’” she said. “You’ll see on social media people saying, ‘Why are Ukrainians attending the game? Why are the players not at war?’ And things like that.”
“These people have probably never experienced war because what they don’t realize is that culture, humor, all of these things, are very important to keep the nation sane,” she said.
‘The bad guys‘
Against such a backdrop, Ukraine will be the neutral fan’s favorite.
It means Sunday’s game in Cardiff has cast the Welshmen in an unusual role: potential heartbreakers.
“Ah well … let poor Wales become the most hated country in the world,” Scottish author and fan Irvine Welsh put it on Wednesday, after his team’s defeat.
It’s an unfamiliar tag for a fanbase that likes to be liked, and a country of 3 million people that often sees itself as the perpetual underdog.
When Wales last played in Cardiff, in March, home fans displayed the Ukrainian flag, said retired teacher Tudur Dylan Jones, 56, who is traveling to the match in Cardiff from Carmarthen in west Wales. “The whole stand held it up in solidarity with Ukraine,” he said.
“Even though we’re playing against them, of course the solidarity with Ukraine remains. However, in 90 minutes of football, Wales will give 100 percent to reach the first World Cup in my lifetime,” Jones said.
“But as far as being the bad guys of the world … so be it! “
Laura McAllister, a former Wales international footballer who now is a professor of public policy at Cardiff University, said many Welsh fans were supporting Ukraine against Scotland on Wednesday.
“A lot of that is empathy and sympathy for what’s going on at the moment,” she said.
Despite the emotional circumstances, she said the Welsh team shouldn’t be apprehensive about the game.
“I think we’ve got just as much team spirit and unity as Ukraine has — obviously in massively different circumstances — but at the end of the day it’s a game of football,” McAllister said. “We can display our greatest respect and support for Ukraine, but for those 90 minutes, this is a one-off match to see who qualifies for the World Cup and we want it every bit as much as they do.”
Wales hasn’t appeared at the World Cup since 1958, when a 17-year-old Pele scored to knock them out in the quarter-finals. Fans had to wait until 2016 to reach another international tournament, when the Welshmen qualified for the European Championships in France.
But expectations were low after five decades without tournament football.
“A common refrain as 24,000 of us walked to the ground in Bordeaux for the first game against Slovakia was ‘I’d just like to see us score a goal. Just one. I’ll be happy after we’ve sung the anthem, but I’d just love to see a goal’,” the Welsh comedian and football fan Elis James wrote in the Guardian last year.
Wales surprised everyone — including some of their own players — by reaching the semi-finals in France, getting eliminated by eventual winners Portugal.
Wales’ run at the Euros was a turning point for the country, says Russell Todd, host of the Podcast Pêl-droed football podcast.
“I think historians will look back in 50, 60 years’ time and see 2016 as a milestone. I think it will be seen as that moment when Welsh identity just kind of went up a notch, in a way that other sports haven’t been able to do,” Todd told POLITICO, adding that the success paved the way for a broader debate about the country’s place in the U.K. and the wider world.
But to reach the finals of the World Cup would bring even greater glory, and that makes Wales fans unwilling to give Ukraine an easy ride on Sunday.
Scotland and Wales fans were angered by a Telegraph column that suggested the pair could have ceded their places to allow Ukraine a smooth route to the finals.
Romanenko said that wouldn’t be a popular idea in Ukraine, either.
“I don’t think there should be any concessions for Ukraine in terms of the tournament itself. It’s football, it needs to be fair. And I don’t think the Ukraine team would want concessions and be given the victory. They want to win fairly,” she said.
McAllister said that it would have been up to governing body FIFA, not the opposing teams, to allow Ukraine a pass.
“FIFA could have given them a route. They didn’t choose to do that. So it’s none of our business now. Our business is to make sure we do it for Wales,” McAllister said.
“That doesn’t mean the players won’t be sympathetic to everything that’s gone on,” she said.
“But once they go out onto the pitch, they will want to win, and they’ll want to make sure that Wales qualifies for its first World Cup in 64 years,”she said. “And we’ve got every right to think like that.”
‘Slap in the face’
One man who will be happy whatever the result is Mick Antoniw, a second-generation Ukrainian who represents the South Wales constituency of Pontypridd in the Welsh parliament.
He says a victory would have big implications for either country.
“The last time Wales qualified was in 1958. World football goes into just about every country. For Wales to be on that stage is an incredible step in the recognition and identity of Wales,” he said.
Ukrainian fans still remember the last time their team reached the World Cup in 2006, when they got to the quarter-finals. But to see their side in Qatar would have bigger political significance.
“At this moment in time, this is part and parcel of the survival of Ukraine as a nation and a culture,” said Antoniw.
“What Russia has said is that basically it doesn’t see Ukraine as a separate nation with a separate identity. So every time Ukraine plays on this world stage, it’s a slap in the face to the Russian invasion.”
Additional reporting by Ali Walker.