Oleksandr Zinchenko on Ukraine's drive for World Cup play-off win over Wales: 'think how people are surviving, suffering, starving'

It can feel as if everything that could be said of the Ukrainian team’s fortitude in striving for a place in the World Cup has been said.

That, however, is a parochial assessment. One wrapped around the end point in the Qatar quest they administered to Scotland at Hampden on Wednesday. Frankly, though, that 3-1 play-off semi-final success was merely the prologue for Oleksandr Petrakov’s band of brothers. A squad bonded by the pursuit of a sporting triumph that requires overcoming crushing adversity. Rarely has a group of footballers faced such psychoanalysis as this side. How on earth are they able to go on to a pitch and set aside the ravaging of their countryfolk, and their country, by Russia’s war of choice? How aren’t their minds mushed by the harrowing tales family and friends are feeding back to them of how their way of life has been destroyed.

These are questions for Wales now. They now assume the mantle from Steve Clarke’s men as a team all across the globe wish only failure upon when they stand between Ukraine and a berth in World Cup in the sides’ play-off final in the Cardiff City Stadium on Sunday evening. Scotland know the answers. Know, to their cost, that Ukraine, even with everything going on in the outside world, even with a handful of starters whose only competitive game this year came in Glasgow’s south side in midweek, are an adept football team only being sustained by an all-consuming cause. Of course, Wales have a mighty one of their own - just as did Scotland. But the desperation of the Welsh to end a 64-year wait to compete in a World Cup finals, in common with Scotland’s bid to bring to a close a 24-year such exile, is emotional kindling against the bonfire of motivations underpinning Ukraine’s determination to bring a scintilla of - fleeting - delight to their battered and beleaguered people.

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Their Manchester City midfielder Oleksandr Zinchenko - as he has consistently in becoming the unofficial spokesperson for his team across these play-offs - sums up best the mindset of his team in having climbed an onerous peak, only to have to surmount a higher mountain a matter of four days later. “Everyone was happy that we won at Hampden, but everyone understood we have another game - a final - and that we need to win it,” said the thoughtful 25-year-old. “We need to fight for our dream, and our dream is to be in the World Cup. This game is the final of our lives.

“We knew Wednesday was going to be a tough game, because it is not easy to play against Scotland. They are such a great team with such unbelievable players and the way they play is not easy to play against, especially with their fans. However, our fans were incredible at Hampden. Every one of us knows there was maybe not a lot of opportunity for every Ukrainian to come to the game - especially in the toughest period of our lives. They were brilliant, though. We could hear them during the whole 90 minutes and I am so, so grateful and thankful for that.”

The communion of the Ukraine players and their 3,500 faithful at Hampden - who appeared to turn their arms into poles in permanently holding up their, now hugely symbolic, yellow-and-blue-striped national flag - made the eastern European nation’s progress to the Cardiff decider seem irresistible. They lifted their team with one voice in an affecting, and deafening, pre-match rendition of their national anthem. “An incredible feeling inside; so difficult to describe,” said Zinchenko of that moment. And were rewarded when those on the pitch and in the stands became enmeshed after the Ukrainian players raced to the visiting area behind the goal after they had essentially made sure of their win in going two-nil up just after the interval. At the full-time whistle came a similar scene, their expression of human defiance in a football setting then recreated.

“That’s what we always do, you know? We are one,” he said. “We are one team. Maybe we don’t have superstars in our team, but I would say we have a team spirit and that includes our fans as well, for sure. But the key was controlling our emotions. In the toughest period in our lives, there have been too many emotions. Everyone was pushing each other, but, at the same time, you need to control those emotions and you need to think about the game and what you need to do on the pitch in each position. I think, during the 90 minutes, we did well. In the middle of the second half, we were maybe a bit tired. We dropped a bit deeper than usual and that is why Scotland created a lot of chances. We knew Scotland needed to score the goal and almost everyone was in our box. We have had bad experiences in this instance because we have conceded a lot of goals in the last seconds - against Kazakhstan and against Finland.

“I’d say we still have a young team. They have a lot of experience, but we still need to learn how to play that way. In the dressing room, we were pushing each other as a team and we said: ‘Guys, there will be some tough minutes in the game, but you need to think about what is happening right now in Ukraine - how people are surviving, how they are suffering, starving. You need to think about this and you cannot tire. You need to fight until the end.’ That is what we did.” And will have to now do against Wales if the “dream” is to become reality. It seems an oppressive task. But Ukraine’s football team, like their nation, are not people to submit to oppression.

Ukraine's Oleksandr Zinchenko insists his team are facing "the final of our lives" as they take on Wales for a place in the World Cup. (Photo by Ewan Bootman / SNS Group)

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