The emotion, in anticipation, had been so raw that at times it was easy to worry that it might prove overwhelming. Oleksandr Zinchenko, a Ukraine midfielder, had talked about pride, about freedom, about proving to the world that his country would “never give up.” He had welled up with tears as he spoke.
His coach, Oleksandr Petrakov, had acknowledged that many of his players were consumed by thoughts of family members trapped back home, haunted by air-raid sirens and menaced by war, and still picking up the pieces of lives shattered by a brutal Russian invasion.
Yet as they prepared for Wednesday’s European playoff match at Scotland, the first of two playoff games that could, in the end, deliver them and their nation to the World Cup, Ukraine’s players faced a daunting physical challenge.
A handful of the players at Petrakov’s disposal compete in the leagues of Western Europe; they had been able, in some superficial, professional sense, to continue as normal these last three months. Their minds might have been elsewhere, of course, but their bodies were training and playing.