Ukraine players ready for World Cup play-off final in Cardiff after Hampden heroics

Ukraine’s players celebrate their 3-1 win over Scotland on Wednesday

Once the dust had settled on a victory that could be heard across the world the reaction from the Ukrainian players was as calm and collected as the performance that had preceded it. The country is now one win away from qualifying for a World Cup amid war and yet on an evening of intense emotions at Hampden the defining characteristics of Ukraine’s display was of cool heads and minds rather than the burning passion of their hearts.

That had been key as well to a remarkable team performance on an extraordinary night. It was impossible not to be moved by the sight of the Ukraine players emerging into the late Glasgow sunshine draped in their flag and for a moment, as a country’s hopes narrowed on the 11 players standing together on the Hampden pitch, the sound of the national anthem brought tears to their eyes.

“This game for our nation was unbelievable,” said Taras Stepanenko, who had not played a competitive fixture since December and yet excelled in midfield to help steer Ukraine to a crucial 3-1 win in the play-off semi-final. The players who collapsed in exhaustion at the full-time whistle returned to the dressing room to find hundreds of messages from family and friends, as well as those in the army currently fighting on the front line.

“I feel so good and so happy that it gives some positive energy for the people in Ukraine who are in the war, soldiers and normal people,” said Ruslan Malinovskyi, another standout performer at Hampden alongside Oleksandr Zinchenko. “We have a lot of contact with a lot of people on the front. They texted before the game saying, ‘Guys we are with you. Do your job on the pitch and we’ll do our job to protect our country.’”

Ukraine left everything on the pitch at Hampden, to the extent that they did not have the energy to celebrate Artem Dovbyk’s late goal in the south west corner of the stadium. Their challenge now is to go again in Cardiff on Sunday, where another ferocious atmosphere awaits for a nation who have not qualified for a World Cup in over 70 years. “It’s difficult to imagine it will be louder than here,” Malinovskyi smiled.

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“I think it will be a similar game,” he added. “We have four days to recover, I think it’s enough, and the important thing is to be ready mentally. They play at home also and it is a final, they will push but we must be ready to play calmly, not force it, and play smartly in this game also.” Stepanenko nodded. “Yes,” he said. “We will be ready.”

They have already given their people so much. Those in Ukraine who were forced to watch underground and in shelters as air-raid sirens wailed across the country had a moment to celebrate. The Ukraine fans bathed in yellow and blue in the corner stayed long after the full-time whistle, soaking up the scene and embracing the pride that only a victory like this could bring.

But deep inside Hampden in the Ukraine dressing room it was an altogether different picture, one that spoke of a job that is only half complete. “We need to be calm and focus on the next game,” Malinovskyi warned. “This win is important but if we don’t win the next game it’s for nothing.”

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