It would not be a huge surprise if the ball that scored Ukraine’s first official goal was still travelling. They were 3-0 down against Hungary in the western city of Uzhhorod when, with virtually the final action, Ivan Hetsko lined up a free-kick just beyond the edge of the “D” and struck it with such shuddering force that it rebounded straight out of the net. The strike meant nothing and everything: it was 29 April 1992 and Ukraine would take some years to assemble a committed XI in the post-USSR shakedown, but Hetsko’s thunderbolt had given them a form of lift-off.
“It was very difficult for us at first and I think we are in a similar position now,” says Myron Markevych, who was overseeing Volyn Lutsk in the inaugural Ukrainian championship back then and later managed the national team. “Except we had to begin from zero then, and today we are basically starting from minus two.”
When Ukraine face Scotland at Hampden Park it will be less a rebirth than a reminder that, much as Russia might wish to erase the country’s cultural identity, its football heritage remains truly alive. The act of playing for a World Cup place on Wednesday night, and over the next five days if all goes well, is both one of defiance and of expectation that, despite everything, good things can lie ahead. But Markevych is right: Ukraine approach the tie from a standing start at best and it would be a seismic achievement if an undercooked, though highly talented, team can overcome battle-hardened opponents in both Glasgow and Cardiff.
“The team has been training here for a month, and before the war I was at a training camp with Shakhtar, so I have the impression that this is one continuous training camp,” said Andriy Pyatov, the veteran goalkeeper, before Ukraine left the facility in Slovenia where many of the squad had been working since early May. “There is a little fatigue, but everyone understands we have a big goal.”
Ukraine have played friendlies against Borussia Mönchengladbach, Empoli and Rijeka but no fellow national team could offer a warm-up. Before training in Slovenia their Shakhtar and Dynamo Kyiv players had played charity games around Europe but, as the coach Oleksandr Petrakov has pointed out, there has been nothing to rival the edge of competitive football. Players such as Oleksandr Zinchenko, Andriy Yarmolenko, Vitaliy Mykolenko, the Benfica forward Roman Yaremchuk and Atalanta’s gifted Ruslan Malinovskyi will add an injection of match fitness now their domestic seasons are over; it is impossible to predict how sharp the collective will be, though, even if around half of them have had the benefit of extended time together.
But the mind and body can do extraordinary things. “They will have the motivation,” Markevych says. “It will be at the highest level. The players understand the situation, they know how important this is. Whether or not we win, they will try to do everything.” Soldiers serving on the front line have, through frequent communications with the squad, made it clear football does matter in some way even as the horror remains so real in swathes of the country. There is every chance sheer adrenaline and emotion may override rustiness; the key to the outcome will lie in how that is reified.
A few days ago Yaremchuk apologised for posing last summer, alongside Mykolenko, with a Russian rapper who had previously performed in occupied Crimea. Now the national team listen only to Ukrainian music, he explained. “[The national team] has changed in this aspect, they’ve become quite patriotic.”
There has been a concerted effort among the squad to speak Ukrainian rather than Russian, the first language of many from the heavily-populated east and south. In other areas of society an unyielding embrace of national pride and values has brought astonishing feats of resistance, bravery and, relative to an appalling situation, success. The players hope football will be the next reflection of that.
Many of them have memories of winning at Hampden. Eleven months ago Artem Dovbyk, the sought-after Dnipro striker, scored late in extra time against Sweden to give Ukraine a place in the Euro 2020 quarter-finals. That familiarity is something else to harness and so is the fact that, ignoring the context, this team would ordinarily start as slight favourites. “If the players are in good condition we have a chance,” Markevych says. “We have good players, maybe better than Scotland’s in some areas. We believe in them and they must play the best match, hopefully two matches, of their careers.”
Markevych’s spell at the Sbirna helm, in 2010, ended swiftly but he played a significant role in the country’s post-independence ascent to footballing renown. His exciting Metalist Kharkiv team were Europa League mainstays during his nine years in charge and, in 2015, he took Dnipro to a narrow defeat in the final against Sevilla. He speaks nostalgically of the period between then and 1999, when a brilliant Dynamo Kyiv side reached the Champions League semi-finals; in the middle, Ukraine were World Cup quarter-finalists in 2006.
“They were the golden times of Ukrainian football,” he says. “Now we will do everything to bring them back.” Should any of Petrakov’s team manage to channel the sheer power and accuracy Hetsko provided three decades ago, their return may appear closer than anyone could have expected; for Ukraine, though, one form of victory comes in the fact of being here at all.