Ukraine qualifies for Euro 2024: “The world will watch and see that we never give up”

More than 40 members of the Ukrainian national team party were spread around the center circle of Wroclaw’s Tarczynski Arena.

Players, coaches and backroom staff gazed upon the 30,000 spectators wearing blue and yellow as they ignited their version of the Viking Thunder. Iceland, the architects of that celebration during the 2016 European Championship, could only listen in despair after losing the Euro 2024 play-off final to a late goal from Chelsea striker Mykhailo Mudryk.

The strangers hugged each other. Families posed for photographs draped in Ukrainian flags. Others made a video call, perhaps in war-torn Ukraine, sharing the moment with others who were unable to experience this release of emotions firsthand some 600 miles (1,000 km) away in the southwest of Poland.

Ukraine had done it.


Ukraine players address the crowd (Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite enduring more than two years of Russian invasion and indiscriminate bombing with millions of citizens displaced, a weakened national championship and a home advantage for now diluted matches, Serhiy Rebrov’s team overcame two tense play-off matches to qualify for this year’s European Championships. summer — a mountain they failed to climb two years ago when chasing a World Cup place, losing to Wales in this final round.

As Oleksandr Zinchenko, the captain, led his team onto the pitch to celebrate their second comeback win in five days, the 2-1 win over Iceland after a similar late success by the same score away to Bosnia and Herzegovina , a guttural song sounded around the sand.

ZSU! ZSU! ZSU!

The acronym stands for “Zbronyi Syly Ukrainy” – the Armed Forces of Ukraine. These Ukrainian fans – almost all of them draped in the nation’s blue and yellow flag – were reminding the world why this victory was not just a footballing triumph.

This wasn’t so much a lap of honor as a vignette of how conflicted it is to be Ukrainian today; jubilant at their second qualification to the finals via play-offs after seven attempts, but keenly aware of how small sport can seem in the shadow of war. United in a foreign city, but separated from loved ones across the border; grateful for international support, but fear their fight is fading from public consciousness.

“I’m all excited – it’s one of the biggest, if not THE most importantly, to win for Ukraine in its history,” says Anglo-Ukrainian journalist Andrew Todos, founder of the Ukrainian football website Zorya Londonsk.

“It is the context in which we have to organize the tournament to give the country a huge and important platform. “People will see the country and hear about the war going on during the build-up and the weeks they will be in the tournament.”


English-born drummer Andriy Buniak (bottom) of the Ukrainian folk group Cov Kozaks with Andrew Todos (third right) and Myron Huzan (right) (Jordan Campbell/The Athletic)

The Ukrainian FA, drawn as hosts, chose Wroclaw for this play-off final because they knew it would be their best chance to get close to home advantage. The 1-1 group stage draw against England in September attracted 39,000 spectators and Wroclaw has been one of the main cities Ukrainians have fled to over the past two years.

Since the invasion, more than 17.2 million Ukrainians were recorded crossing their country’s border with Polandwhich extends for more than 530 kilometers.

In 2018, it was already assumed that one in 10 residents of Wroclaw was Ukrainian. The city’s university status means that family reunions have brought this number to around a third of the population. On Tuesday the value would have been slightly higher again, with the city transformed into a “Little Kiev”.

Drummers dressed in traditional clothes beat the rhythm for cheerful songs and moving demonstrations in the market square. Every act of joy on the part of the Ukrainian contingent was immediately perceived as an expression of defiance.

The constant was the sense of unity, captured by the charity match played earlier in the day between a team of former players and the “potato soldiers”, a nickname coined by organizer Mykola Vasylkov for the amount of food his team had delivered to the front line thanks to the fundraising contribution of the national team players.

“‘There is no European Championship without Ukraine’ was our message: now we have done it,” says Vasylkov, who was part of Andriy Shevchenko’s team during his five years as Ukraine coach.


Vasylkov helped then-coach Shevchenko in Ukraine’s preparations (Jordan Campbell/The Athletic)

Most of the Ukrainians present at last night’s play-off had been living elsewhere in Europe for some years before the conflict. Unless they receive special dispensation, males between the ages of 18 and 60 are prohibited from leaving the country.

Unable to fight for the cause in the conventional sense, that was the day the diaspora did its part. Viktor markers Tsygankov and Mudryk, who play for the SPain, England and an eclectic fan base have combined to put their country on the map at this summer’s tournament in Germany.

“There were incredible emotions and atmosphere in the dressing room – these days, wearing the Ukrainian coat of arms on your chest is something special,” says Zinchenko. “The feelings inside are difficult to describe because today every Ukrainian was watching our match.

“All the video messages we received before the match from Ukrainians, at home and abroad, from the military who are on the front line in the fight for our independence and freedom… they all supported us. “It was an extra motivation for us.”


Zinchenko applauds the fans after Ukraine’s victory (Andrzej Iwanczuk/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Only last summer Zinchenko used Arsenal’s pre-season tour of the United States to call for American F-15 fighter jets to be supplied to Ukrainian forces. He did not want the world to tire and forget the suffering of his fellow countrymen.

“(Euro 2024) will be very important,” he says. “We all understand it. The whole world will watch this competition because it is one of the biggest in the sport. It’s an unreal opportunity to show how good we are as a team and how great it is to be Ukrainian.

“Our people never give up and fight until the end.”

Iceland’s population of 375,000 is small compared to Ukraine’s estimated 34 million and their FIFA ranking of 73rd is well below their opponents’ 24th place, so Zinchenko and his teammates were hardly at a disadvantage last night, but Ukraine’s players still face the mental strain of having family members survive life in a war zone.

When Ukraine missed out on a place at the last World Cup in the play-offs in June 2022, winning 3-1 at Scotland in the semi-final but then being beaten 1-0 in Cardiff by Gareth Bale taking a shot big deviation, their national players had only been able to play among friends against club teams in the previous seven months. This time it wasn’t like that, but four of the eleven starters and 11 of the 23 players in the squad reside in Ukraine.

The domestic league resumed in the summer of 2022, but its quality has declined as most of its top foreign players have left, and only in the last month have small crowds once again been allowed to attend league matches top flight. They are only able to do this with a supply of air-raid sirens and readily available bunkers to shelter in.


Ukrainian fans celebrate qualification (Andrzej Iwanczuk/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

During the play-off final, footage appeared of Ukrainian soldiers in trenches watching the match on their phones. That connection to home was strong in Wroclaw on Tuesday.

“I worked in the army and carried a flag signed by Ukrainian soldiers,” says Artem Genne, a London fan, holding up the message “Keep up the good work for peace and prosperity in Ukraine,” with the signatures of several regiments. . “We went to visit the team the day before the match and took a photo with the flag to send back to the troops to boost morale.

“Some family members live near some military facilities and have witnessed numerous attacks. Many of my friends live in Kiev (the capital) and sent me videos of broken windows from their balconies. “It goes on every day, and even though we’re not there, it still hits you knowing that your friends are in the underground shelters.”


Artem Genne and a friend raise the flag signed by Ukrainian soldiers (Jordan Campbell/The Athletic)

Roman Labunski traveled from Berlin, western Germany, more than 200 miles, with his wife and two children to attend the match.

His eldest son Nathan, 13, has only been to Ukraine twice, but he was on his father’s shoulders during the Maidan revolution of 2014. I witnessed something on the way to the stadium that served as a wake-up call.

“We saw trucks carrying tanks to the border,” Roman says. “He reminded us that we can still do something safe and fun. I sometimes feel guilty for not experiencing it, as my cousins ​​came to stay with us after the invasion but moved back after they thought it was safe. Now they find themselves facing rockets again.

“We didn’t want to win just for football and the team knows it. It’s no longer that they are up here and the fans are down there. We feel together with them now. The European Championships will bring a bit of hope and happiness back to everyone.”


Aron, Natan and Roman Lanunski traveled to Wroclaw from Berlin (Jordan Campbell/The Athletic)

Although most of the participants had moved from Ukraine years earlier, there were those who narrowly avoided life on the front lines.

Serhii was 16 years old and living in a village 5 km from Kiev when a column of Russian tanks began moving towards the capital.

“It was the last city not to be occupied. If this had happened, it would have been a big problem for Kiev,” she says. “Once the war started, I moved west; then to Germany for seven months before returning home.

“I now live in Chelm (just across the border from Ukraine in eastern Poland).”


Fedir (centre) and Serhii (right) in the market square in Wroclaw (Jordan Campbell/The Athletic)

His friend Fedir is from Vinnytsia, a city southwest of Kiev.

“The Polish people were very kind and welcoming to us,” says Fedir. “We appreciate this support from them, but it is less than two years ago. This war is tiring everyone. Ukrainians, Poles. People are starting to forget about it. “We are not.”

Vitaliy is part of the select group of people of fighting age who are allowed to cross the border, due to his work in Denmark dating back to 2010.

“I grew up with stories of my grandparents who couldn’t read Ukrainian books, so it wasn’t a surprise to me when the war came,” he says.


Vitaliy (left) with his family outside the stadium (Jordan Campbell/The Athletic)

“They try to tell us that Western Ukraine is not the same as Eastern Ukraine, whether it’s language, culture, history.

“This is why football is so important. Since we gained independence, we are more capable, as a people, of resisting and seeing things with our own eyes. “We have our own identity and this summer is our chance to show it to the world.”

(Top photo: Sergei Gapon/AFP)