Ukraine’s World Cup dream is about much more than football, says Andriy Shevchenko

Ukraine friendly against Empoli
Ukraine have played a series of friendly matches to prepare for the Scotland game, including this one against Empoli on 12 May
Venue: Hampden Park, Glasgow Date: Wednesday, 1 June Time: 19:45 BST
Coverage: Listen to live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live and Sportsound, and follow live text updates on the BBC Sport website & app

Ukraine legend Andriy Shevchenko says Wednesday’s World Cup play-off semi-final against Scotland is “much more than football for us right now”.

Ukraine are bidding to reach a second World Cup since independence in 1991.

Originally set for 24 March, the match was moved by world governing body Fifa following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The Scotland match is the hope of the country,” the former Chelsea striker, who managed the national team at Euro 2020, told BBC Sport.

“Going to the World Cup is very important for Ukraine right now.

“The motivation is incredible. In my opinion, we need to put the result away and just focus on the game.

“We need to play for the fans, for the whole of Ukraine, for those at home, for those defending the country and for those who left the country.”

The winners of the game in Glasgow will face Wales in Cardiff on Sunday for a place at November’s World Cup in Qatar.

“I know the stadium will be full and the Scottish fans, as well as those who will watch the game around the world – Ukrainians or not – will be cheering,” said Shevchenko, who scored 48 goals in 111 appearances for his country.

“I believe we can win and then beat Wales to qualify for the World Cup. The players know what they have to do.”

Ukraine head coach Oleksandr Petrakov, who replaced Shevchenko in August 2021, says his players’ morale “is sky-high”.

“There’s no need to influence them or to say anything,” he added. “They are experienced football players and understand everything perfectly well.”

But preparations have been far from easy. The war has meant Ukraine’s players have had to prepare for the game outside of their country.

Many of those based in Ukraine have been involved in a month-long training camp in Slovenia and have had little or no competitive action since football was halted by war just days before the domestic season was about to resume after a long winter break.

That training camp was only possible after players from Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk were given special dispensation to leave the country and tour Europe for friendlies.

They have played against club sides in Germany, Italy and Croatia, but their fitness is still below the ideal standard for international football.

‘Ukraine’s soldiers speak a lot about football’

Events in Ukraine mean Scotland’s opponents are likely to have plenty of neutral support during the play-offs, but the semi-final will also be followed closely by those on the front line of the war.

Former Shakhtar Donetsk defender Artem Fedetskyi, who was capped 53 times by Ukraine, joined the territorial defence shortly after Russia’s invasion.

“I was in the hot-spots of this war,” Fedetskyi told BBC Sport.

“Soldiers speak a lot about football there. They want our team to qualify for the World Cup – it’s their dream.”

He made sure the message reached West Ham’s Andriy Yarmolenko and Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko, two of the most prominent players in the Ukrainian squad.

Oleksandr Zinchenko lifts the Premier League trophy
Oleksandr Zinchenko celebrated winning the Premier League title with Manchester City by draping himself in a Ukraine flag

“I am constantly talking to both of them,” he added. “They and those in the team understand the importance of this game. But nobody knows what’s inside of each person and you can’t train that.”

Oleksandr Kucher played 57 times for Ukraine and is now manager of second-tier side Metalist Kharkiv.

“It’s not enough to play friendlies, but at least it’s something,” he said.

“This team needs to offer hope in such times. I hope and I believe we’ll go through and then play Wales at the weekend.

“Our players will leave everything they’re made of on the pitch, I have no doubt.”

‘Ukraine will have fighters, just like at home’

Ukraine have a shot in their friendly against HJK Rijeka in Croatia
Ukraine’s warm-up matches for their World Cup play-off semi-final included a game against Croatia’s HJK Rijeka

Even before the war Ukraine faced a daunting task to reach the World Cup, given Scotland’s resurgence and the prospect of facing a Wales side in the final who are a dominant force on home soil.

But Fedetskyi believes manager Petrakov will have the ability to motivate his team despite the difficulties they have faced in the build-up.

“The coach is a good speaker,” said Fedetskyi. “He’ll know what to tell the boys, he’ll find the right words.

“Petrakov will create fighters, just like our heroes are at home. They will beat this cursed aggressor in the war.

“And the national team will have a tough match because Scotland are strong. But I believe in our leaders. They are ready.”

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