Ukrainian players wept in the rain as they applauded their dejected supporters after missing out on World Cup qualifiers by losing 1-0 to Wales in Europe’s final play-off for the FIFA football showpiece on Sunday.
The painful moment in a tight game came in the 34th minute when Andriy Yarmolenko accidentally headed the ball into his own net as he tried to clear a free kick from Wales captain Gareth Bale.
As Wales heads to its first World Cup in 64 years – opening against the United States in November – this was a game too far for Ukraine’s emotionally charged mission to qualify for Qatar while remaining under invasion from Russia.
“We did everything we could,” said coach Oleksandr Petrakov through a translator. “I really want the people of Ukraine to remember the efforts of our team.”
Petrakov’s priority, once the World Cup dream was extinguished, was to ensure that the suffering at home is not forgotten by the world.
“There is a war raging all over the country,” Petrakov said.
“Children and women are dying every day. Our infrastructure is being ruined by Russian barbarians. The Russians want to hurt us, but the Ukrainians are resisting and defending their country. We just want your support. Understand what is happening at home.”
Returning home, on the 102nd day of the war, the Ukrainians took a breather from the pain and suffering by watching the game from Cardiff in bars, including in Kiev.
The war and rocket attacks in the Ukrainian capital earlier on Sunday put a clear damper on the festive mood ahead of the match.
Still, architect Dmytro Leshehenko pulled out his bright yellow national team shirt—bought in happier times when Ukraine co-hosted the 2012 European Championships—and took his brother wearing thongs past two of Kiev’s golden-domed cathedrals to a bar where they watched the game with friends, washed down with two huge three liter pitchers of beer, fried bread, smoked meat and other snacks.
When the giant screens in the bar lost signal in the second half, customers gathered around cell phones to watch the action. Some joked that Russian hackers must have disabled the transmission.
The grief at the loss was tempered by the fact that, in the grand scheme of things, the war is far more important. The match was just a moment of rest.
“We have more problems than this,” Leshehenko said.
“This is a day when we can feel that there is no war. It is a holiday for us.”
In Cardiff, there was also the feeling that the play-off was the least of the struggles Ukraine had to deal with.
“Our main battle is our war,” said Ukrainian fan Anna Stepanova, who followed the team from Mykolaiv, where her home has been damaged.
The specter of war was clearly visible in the Welsh capital with a message of peace in English and Ukrainian on the screens at Cardiff City Stadium.
Of the 1,800 seats allocated for Ukraine, 100 free tickets have been given to refugees who have had to flee Ukraine since the invasion began in February, disqualifying Russia from World Cup qualifiers.
Rivalry was set aside when the Ukrainian national anthem was played and it was cheered by the home fans who later cheered the defeated opposition.
In the end, it was Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey who proved to be an impenetrable barrier. No other team had as many as Ukraine’s nine shots on goal in European qualifiers without scoring.
Hennessey’s right leg held out Viktor Tsyhankov’s shot for 10 minutes into the second half as Ukraine searched in vain for the equalizer. Artem Dovbyk’s header in the 84th minute looked destined for the corner of the net until it was pushed away by Hennessey’s left hand.
“He made some incredible saves,” said Ukrainian midfielder Oleksandr Zinchenko. “We didn’t deserve to lose today, it was so tight. We have to keep going, a lot of work.”
The win means Wales reach their fourth major championship after their only previous appearance at a World Cup in 1958 ended in a quarter-final loss to Brazil.
The team has twice participated in the European Championship finals in 2016 and 2020 – their best result came in 2016 when they reached the semi-finals.