With World Cup berth in sight, Ukraine returns for postponed playoff

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Six months after its most recent competitive match, the Ukraine men’s soccer team returns to action Wednesday as its circuitous World Cup qualification path winds through Scotland.

Ukraine and Scotland will meet in Glasgow after their initial contest was postponed by FIFA in March because Ukraine could not field a team after Russia invaded weeks before. The winner of Wednesday’s match will face Wales on Sunday for a place in this year’s World Cup in Qatar, where that team will join England, the United States and Iran in Group B.

“Ukraine is still alive,” defender Oleksandr Zinchenko told BBC’s “World Football” podcast. “… I can promise all the Ukrainian people that every one of us is going to give everything to win the game and to make them proud of us, and just maybe for a few seconds we would like to give them this smile.”

Several Ukrainian players reportedly considered joining the country’s army following Russia’s invasion. Oleksandr Petrakov, the team’s 64-year-old coach, was turned away when he tried to enlist. Instead, the team was granted permission to travel beyond Ukrainian borders to prepare for Wednesday’s game and try to secure the country’s first World Cup berth since 2006.

The invasion triggered the postponement of the Scotland match in March and officially shuttered the Ukrainian Premier League in April.

National team players from UPL powers Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv continued to compete through a government-backed tour meant to raise money for Ukraine’s military and help refugees displaced by the war. Those players later convened with the rest of the national team for a month-long training camp in Slovenia. Last month, Ukraine played exhibitions against clubs in Germany, Italy and Croatia for its first games since beating Bosnia and Herzegovina on Nov. 16. During a road win against German club Borussia Mönchengladbach, Gladbach fans erupted in cheers, chanted Ukrainian songs, painted yellow-and-blue flags on their cheeks and sported Ukrainian scarves.

“It distracts the [Ukrainian] people from the war, and it distracts the players from the war,” Petrakov told The Washington Post after the match.

In a first, women are in line to referee at the men’s World Cup

Ukraine’s highest-profile players — including Zinchenko, a Manchester City left back, and West Ham United forward Andriy Yarmolenko — joined the team for its final qualification push.

Immediately in its way is a Scottish team whose football association has voiced support for Ukraine and said it will not play a scheduled UEFA Regions’ Cup game against Russia under “current circumstances.” Scotland and Ukraine also are scheduled to meet in a Women’s World Cup qualifier, rescheduled from April 8 to June 23.

When their men’s teams meet, two wins from a place in the World Cup, the stakes will be clear. But players on the Ukrainian sideline won’t be the only ones thinking about their country.

“Before the game, there will be a lot of emotion around Ukraine, and I’m sure the Tartan Army will applaud their national anthem and then sing their hearts out and get behind the team — and it’s really important for us that they do that,” Scotland Coach Steve Clarke told reporters Tuesday.

“But I’m desperate to go to Qatar with Scotland and my staff are desperate to go and most importantly our players are desperate to go to the World Cup finals, and that’s what we focus on.”

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