Inside Ukraine Soccer Team’s Bid to Reach 2022 World Cup

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“There isn’t a anger, solely hate,” says Oleksandr Petrakov, the top coach for Ukraine’s males’s nationwide soccer staff, of his emotions towards the Russians who have laid waste to his homeland. We’re sitting in Petrakov’s bed room cum workplace at a luxurious resort perched beneath the Slovenian Alps. The espresso desk is strewn with stopwatches and tactical notebooks. It’s right here that the steely-eyed 64-year-old has ensconced his younger fees at a coaching camp to organize for battle.

They received’t be choosing up weapons, after all, though that was Petrakov’s first intuition when the rockets began falling round his dwelling in Kyiv on Feb. 24. He marched straight to enlist with Ukraine’s Territorial Protection Pressure, intent on heading off the invaders, however was turned away. “It will be flawed if I ran from my metropolis the place I used to be born,” he says, shrugging. “However they mentioned ‘You might be too outdated and don’t have any navy abilities. As a substitute, you higher deliver us to the World Cup.’”

Oleksandr Petrakov, the top coach for Ukraine’s males’s nationwide soccer staff in his resort room in Brdo, Slovenia.

Ciril Jazbec for TIME

It’s a mission that Petrakov accepted with a grave fervor. As a whole lot of 1000’s of Ukrainians have taken up arms to fight the invading forces of Vladimir Putin, his gamers have been assigned a solemn responsibility: to lift their nation’s morale, earn money for the Ukrainian navy by way of charity matches abroad, and, most vital of all, reassert the nation’s disputed sovereignty by reserving an unlikely place at November’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar. To attain that, they should defeat Scotland in a playoff sport in Glasgow on June 1 after which Wales in Cardiff 4 days later.

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“It’s a really large duty,” Petrakov says. “I really feel it extra because the [Scotland] sport approaches. Lots of our followers are troopers within the Ukrainian military.”

The burden of expectations hangs heavy over the group. Skilled soccer gamers are often infamous for his or her pampered life, for his or her customized boot offers, and fawning followers. However not one of the 21 gamers at the moment in Slovenia is unaffected by Russia’s invasion—and a singularity of goal permeates all facets of life right here. Every day conversations revolve not round celeb girlfriends and nights out however how finest to ship dwelling medical provides and heartfelt messages from troops on the frontline.


Members of the staff practice within the gymnasium on the Nationwide Soccer Heart in Brdo, Slovenia.

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Petrakov took over as head coach final August, changing former AC Milan striker Andriy Shevchenko, a prolific scorer thought to be Ukraine’s best participant ever. Though Petrakov lacks top-level membership expertise, he spent a lot of his teaching profession coaching Ukrainian youth groups, profitable the under-20 World Cup in 2019.

It was that success that attracted the eye of some Main League Soccer groups, though Petrakov says he turned them down fearing his English wasn’t as much as the duty. And whereas he could lack the star billing of his predecessor, Petrakov has the benefit of getting labored with the present Ukraine squad for a few years by way of the youth ranks. Whilst adults of their 20s and 30s, they present him respect like that of a revered faculty grasp. “They are going to do no matter he asks of them,” says one assistant coach, standing on the sidelines of the coaching pitch in Slovenia.

Lots of the 21 Ukrainian gamers right here thought of becoming a member of the military, however finally determined they had been of extra assist to the struggle effort on the pitch. And the scene right here in Slovenia—the place the luxurious coaching pitch is flanked by wildflower meadows and decorative lakes, with faraway church bells and horses neighing within the distance—couldn’t be farther from the devastation in Ukraine in the present day. That dissonance might be painful to grapple with.


Midfielder Taras Stepanenko

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When the struggle broke out, midfielder Taras Stepanenko rushed his spouse and three sons—ages 4, 6, and eight—all the way down to his home’s basement in Kyiv and stayed there for 3 days, ears educated on the shells raining close by. The 32-year-old was initially reluctant to go away dwelling, believing {that a} negotiated settlement may arrive at any second.

However because the battle escalated, he determined to comply with his neighbors to the relative security of the southwestern metropolis of Chernivtsi—just for a Russian rocket to obliterate a constructing on their route simply 20 minutes after they drove previous. The considered it nonetheless makes him shudder. “There have been missiles daily,” he says. “I simply needed to inform my sons to not fear, it’s some far off place, every thing will likely be OK.”

Midfielder Oleksandr Karavayev, a local of the seized southern metropolis of Kherson, lives with the information of shut family members nonetheless underneath Russian occupation. On April 25, his sister-in-law gave beginning to a lady in Kherson, however Russian forces received’t allow them to depart the town. Nor will they let Karavayev or his brother—a seaman who was away when struggle broke out—again into Kherson.


Midfielder Oleksandr Karavayev

Ciril Jazbec for TIME

“We message on a regular basis,” Karavayev says. “At the least I do know they’ve meals and water. I attempted to ship them medication, however we heard that Russians confiscate every thing of worth. They’re close to the ocean and listen to firing daily within the path of Odessa and Mykolaiv.”

Few coaches have ever needed to rally a staff amid such emotional turmoil. The problem for Petrakov is to harness that heartache—the fear and collective hardships—and channel it into success on the pitch. He believes hate, moderately than concern or anger, is a stronger weapon. It clearly motivates him too—he speaks with fiery eyes about Russian troopers killing kids and raping girls in Ukraine. “They hate us and suppose we’re an inferior nation,” he says.


Soccer is by far Ukraine’s favourite sport and the home scene is dominated by two rival golf equipment: Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv. The game can also be a proud marker of identification. “[It] is a nationwide treasure,” says Petrakov.

Ukraine has traditionally punched above its weight in relation to soccer. The Soviet staff, proper up till the union’s breakup in 1991, was dominated by Ukrainian gamers. On the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, nearly three-quarters of the Soviet squad was Ukrainian and half of them performed for the famed Kyiv membership. Following independence, Dynamo parlayed that dominance right into a string of home championships.

However for the reason that flip of the century, Dynamo has confronted a rising problem from Shakhtar, owing to the monetary muscle of billionaire proprietor Rinat Akhmetov, who made his fortune in mining and vitality, now controls an enormous media and actual property empire, and has been accused of corruption. (Akhmetov vehemently denies any wrongdoing). He’s the proprietor of the Azovstal steel works within the metropolis of Mariupol, which till not too long ago housed a whole lot of trapped civilians.

After Akhmetov bought the membership in 1996, Shakhtar adopted the tactic of signing younger, gifted Brazilians after which promoting probably the most profitable gamers—like Douglas Costa or Fernandinho—onto Europe’s largest golf equipment at an enormous revenue. That technique helped elevate Shakhtar’s worldwide profile and that of Ukrainian soccer extra broadly. “The Brazilians grew to become a part of their core identification,” says Adam Pate, co-host of the Ukraine + Football podcast, who lived in Ukraine for 12 years till the struggle.


Element of Oleksandr Karavayev’s soccer cleat

Ciril Jazbec for TIME


Mykola Shaparenko’s “HOPE” tattoo

Ciril Jazbec for TIME

However political turmoil and battle has been a part of the story of Ukrainian soccer for years, too. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and Kremlin-backed rebels started seizing territory in jap Ukraine, together with Donetsk. The Shakhtar staff was pressured to desert its newly constructed Donbass Enviornment and has since wandered between non permanent houses in Lviv, Kharkiv, and most not too long ago Kyiv.

That turbulence pales compared to the chaos wrought in the present day. Essentially the most distinguished membership sufferer is FC Mariupol, whose new stadium and services have been decimated by the bloody combating over the once-flourishing port metropolis. Andriy Sanin, vice-president of FC Mariupol, tells TIME that their workplace home windows have been smashed and concrete rubble covers their gymnasium. Whereas the extent of harm to their important stadium is unknown, because it’s nonetheless forbidden to go there, he’s making ready for the worst.

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Sanin has escaped west however not earlier than making certain the protection of FC Mariupol’s youth academy gamers. Coaches took in these whose dad and mom had been unable to gather them earlier than Russian forces fully besieged the town on March 2. “I’m pleased with my colleagues; they’re actual heroes,” says Sanin. Nonetheless, their destiny stays unsure as many college students stay separated from their households. Negotiations to ship academy gamers abroad are ongoing.

Ukrainianian membership officers who stay have taken up the baton of humanitarian work. Shakhtar has remodeled its adopted 40,000-seat stadium in Lviv right into a dormitory for 3,000 internally displaced individuals. FC Rukh Lviv and NK Veres Rivne have additionally turned their services over to accommodate the homeless and distribute help. “Golf equipment in western Ukraine, particularly, have turn into the principle organizing facilities for humanitarian aid,” says Pate, who himself is at the moment instructing Ukrainian refugee kids in Luxembourg.


Yukhym Konoplia (heart) throughout coaching

Ciril Jazbec for TIME

Gamers have additionally been doing their half. Regardless of a rule that no males of combating age—outlined as 18 to 60—are allowed to go away Ukraine or play aggressive soccer domestically, Dynamo and Shakhtar had been permitted to play charity video games abroad to lift funds for the Ukrainian navy.

That they had been allowed to go overseas induced murmurings of discontent, particularly as some high gamers and former Ukraine internationals have chosen to remain and take up arms, together with Andriy Bogdanov, 32, and Oleksandr Aliyev, 37. Nonetheless, there may be broad help for these video games. “By holding charity matches, they consistently remind the world of the horrible occasions happening in Ukraine,” says Sanin. “Each Shakhtar and Dynamo are actually on the forefront of the knowledge struggle.”

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The tactic got here with approval from the highest. Petrakov says he has spoken twice with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “He’s a really constructive man, very nice, and an enormous soccer fan,” says Petrakov. “I voted for him. And thank God these 73% [of Ukrainians] who voted for him in elections had been proper.”

In distinction to Ukraine’s bid for the World Cup, Russia was ejected from the tournament following the invasion. Russians have been banned from competing in every thing from the Eurovision Track Contest—which Ukraine received, not so by the way—to the Wimbledon tennis match. It’s a response that has obtained support from many quarters but also criticism. The bans elevate extra questions over why Russia’s function in Syria, Saudi Arabia’s struggle in Yemen and China’s persecution of its Uighur Muslim minority haven’t obtained related censure.

Professor Jules Boykoff, an knowledgeable in sport and politics at Pacific College in Oregon, and who represented the U.S. in soccer, says banning athletes from competitors could open the door to makes an attempt to exclude Individuals and residents of different nations for the bellicose actions of political leaders, for example the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. “All this lays naked the brass-knuckle geopolitics that usually sits quietly beneath sport’s floor,” he says.


Few inside the Ukraine camp complain about Russia’s pariah standing. “If we’ve to combat simply to stay our regular lives, they need to combat for his or her proper to be a part of world society,” says the midfielder Karavayev.

It’s a press release that may lose a lot of its efficiency with no conquer Scotland. Ukraine’s two wins and a tie, in three current charity video games in opposition to membership groups in Germany, Italy, and Croatia, have boosted the nationwide staff’s confidence. However regardless of this spectacular kind, Petrakov says these matches can’t examine with the trials of aggressive motion, which Ukraine hasn’t skilled since November. Scotland’s gamers, against this, are coming to the shut of their home seasons and needs to be in peak situation.

“There will likely be an unbelievable ambiance in [Scotland’s national stadium] Hampden Park,” says Petrakov. “After missiles, rockets, and bombs, we don’t concern something.”


A “Save Mariupol” shirt within the room of midfielder Taras Stepanenko

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Kseniia Nikitina, from the Ukrainian metropolis of Zhytomyr, watches the staff practice, alongside along with her 12-year-old daughter Alisa, and 4-year-old son Martin

Ciril Jazbec for TIME

Definitely, the Ukraine staff could have their nation and most neutrals of their nook. “Ukraine has robust soccer, well-known footballers, and they need to know that we look after them, are pleased with them,” says Kseniia Nikitina, from the Ukrainian metropolis of Zhytomyr, who took her daughter Alisa, 12, and son Martin, 4, to observe coaching in Slovenia. “And now victory is vital on all fronts.”

On the battlefield, Ukrainians are hoping that billions of {dollars} of armaments despatched from Western nations, particularly the U.S., will assist drive the Russians again. Requested whether or not he has a message for Individuals, Petrakov doesn’t hesitate: “A really, very large thanks,” he says. “Rising up and residing within the Soviet Union, I by no means imagined that individuals that I believed had been our brothers, whom I slept and ate with throughout my youthful years, may kill us. And then again, Soviet propaganda taught us that Germans and Individuals had been our enemies. So we’re very, very grateful to your help.”

How grateful, precisely? Have been Ukraine to qualify for the World Cup, it will discover itself in Group B with England, Iran, and the U.S., all vying for spots within the round-of-16 knockout stage. Is there any probability Petrakov may go straightforward on his American opponents if, say, the Ukrainians wanted solely a tie to progress to the following stage? The famously no-nonsense coach sucks his tooth. “In case you come to me, we’ll discover a resolution,” he says with a smile.


Ukraine’s males’s nationwide soccer staff must defeat Scotland in a playoff sport in Glasgow on June 1 to be able to advance to securing a spot in November’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar

Ciril Jazbec for TIME

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Write to Charlie Campbell at charlie.campbell@time.com.



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