Ukraine and Wales Face Off Today in Playoff Finals; the Winner Goes to the World Cup

Ukraine players form a circle during a training session at the Cardiff City Stadium, Cardiff, Wales Saturday June 4, 2022, the day before the team play Wales in a World Cup play-off soccer match. (Mike Egerton/PA via AP)

CARDIFF, Wales — Far from battlefields and Russian invaders, the Ukrainian footballers exempted from military service are trying to complete the mission to lead their country to the World Cup.

When they prepare to face Wales on Sunday in a playoff final, they will have a little extra inspiration in their Cardiff locker room from a yellow and blue flag sent by soldiers on the frontlines in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, signed with messages.

It was there inside Hampden Park, Glasgow, on Wednesday when Scotland was beaten in the playoff semifinals. Since then, the players have continued to exchange messages with friends who have been defending their homeland in a war that has passed 100 days.

Ukraine fans made their feelings known in Wednesday’s play-off semi-final win in Scotland

“We all hope that very soon Ukraine will be liberated and will return to being an independent country,” Ukraine midfielder Oleksandr Karavayev said through a translator in the Welsh capital.

Ukraine beat Scotland 3-1 on Wednesday to set-up Sunday’s World Cup play-off final with Wales, and their star player Oleksandr Zinchenko has said it will be a “massive game” for everyone in his country.

Welsh Secretary Simon Hart has also wished an “extraordinarily talented Wales team” well, saying qualifying for a first World Cup in 64 years “would be a truly historic moment for Welsh sport.

But he added: “As much as I want a Wales win, my heart also goes out to the Ukrainian team over the ongoing situation in their country. Wales manager Robert Page said “most of the world want Ukraine to get through”, in solidarity after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that has killed thousands. Ukrainian refugees in the UK have been offered tickets to the game in Cardiff.

“If we could click our fingers and take away the pain the Ukraine are going through, we’d do it in a heartbeat. But when it comes to football and the whistle goes, we’ll want to win that game. Business is business.

Wales hope to put 64 years of World Cup hurt behind them as they bid to qualify for their first finals since 1958.

Football’s first world superstar Pele was the player to break Welsh hearts in Wales’ only previous World Cup appearance in 1958.

Brazil superstar Pele scored his first international goal in their 1958 World Cup game with Wales

“Sport is sport and we don’t expect presents or an unfair win,” Karavayev said. “We know how hard it is and this is the most important game in our lives. But we wish to win and we will do everything possible to do that.”

There is much sympathy for Ukraine from Wales captain Gareth Bales, but also a ruthless sporting determination to qualify.

“While there can be only one winner on the pitch, the Welsh nation will continue to stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine.”

People in Wales have so far raised millions of pounds for the Ukraine humanitarian fund and, of the 14 million Ukraine people displaced by the conflict, Wales has housed almost 2,000 refugees – with more than 3,300 visas approved.

Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey will lead Wales’ World Cup charge in Sunday’s play-off
Mr Drakeford went on to say: “It would be fantastic for the squad and the Welsh supporters to have our team competing in the World Cup in November.”

Source: BBC ABC