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‘Soldiers watch our games in the trenches’ – the harrowing reality facing Ireland’s opponents

Despite the end of their World Cup bid,  the Ukrainian team hope to lift a war-torn nation

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Serhiy Sydorchuk (right) and manager Oleksandr Petrakov during a Ukraine press conference at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Serhiy Sydorchuk (right) and manager Oleksandr Petrakov during a Ukraine press conference at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Serhiy Sydorchuk (right) and manager Oleksandr Petrakov during a Ukraine press conference at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

A pre-match press conference for an international game is almost always the same, a battle of wits where the away team’s manager tries to be polite about the hosts while giving away as little as possible about his own team.

That’s the norm. But with the Ukrainian national team, and Ukraine as a nation, nothing is normal these days.

As he leaves the press conference to oversee training in Dublin, Ukraine manager Oleksandr Petrakov addresses the Irish media and says: “I wish you peaceful skies overhead”.

It’s a world away from the standard rent-a-quote of ‘you have many good players in the English league and I hope we have a good game’.

One player asked to fulfil media duties speaks not of the honour of winning his 50th cap and the mundanity of Nations League points at Lansdowne Road, but instead opens up, with emotion and impressive clarity, about fleeing his country to find safety for his eight-months pregnant wife. He fears now for his parents who know that Russian tanks are just 50km away.

“I have to say despite this being a difficult situation, I just want to say that I love my country. I want to be back,” says their manager, the 64-year-old Petrakov.

“No matter where I travel, I think the best place in the world is our capital, Kyiv. We don’t know what will happen next or how the situation will pan out, what will happen in our Premier League, what will happen in the new season. I just want to say that I really want to go home and the situation to normalise. That’s basically my major concern.”

Usually, his concerns would be picking up morale after the shattering blow of not qualifying for the World Cup, beaten by a horrid deflection on a rainy night in Cardiff when Ukraine were probably the better team. The Ukrainian squad have injuries and tired bodies and the team which faces Ireland tonight will probably see 11 changes from the side that lost to Wales.

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But while the squad are in the safety of Dublin, the cloud of war hangs over every member of their party. 

“It’s not difficult to get fired up for the game because when you get feedback from Ukraine, when you get to know soldiers watch our games in trenches, people are following us under the bombs, it gives us enormous strength, enormous inspiration,” says midfielder Serhiy Sydorchuk, born into a Ukraine which was then part of the USSR. 

“Basically, we left Kyiv with my family when the military bombardment, the shelling, started.

“My wife was eight months pregnant so our first task was to find a maternity hospital suitable for her to give birth to our child. What we experienced is what the rest of Ukraine is experiencing now.”

His home town is Zaporizhzhia, and it’s is in the thoughts of the classy Dynamo Kyiv player, on the verge of the 50-cap landmark. 

“Zaporizhzhia is not taken by the Russians. They are surrounding the city. They are probably 50, 60 kilometres away,” he says. “My mother, my father, my granny, my wife’s parents are still in Zaporizhzhia. My whole extended family are still there. I am happy to say that it is relatively calm there but I feel very proud that the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag is still above the city. That gives me the strength to carry on.

“When you are a young footballer, when you just start your career at the age of seven or eight, there is only one team for you. You don’t support any clubs or any other teams, it is the national team of Ukraine. Especially now, everybody knows what is happening in our home country, and what our people are going through.

“Our aim, our task now, is not only to go onto the pitch and play but to call for the whole world’s attention to highlight that we are Ukrainians, we are alive and we are fighting.”

Some Ukrainian athletes have parked their careers to join the fight back home, like ex-footballers Oleh Luzhnyi and Ihor Belanov, and boxer Oleksandr Usyk. Was there pressure to forget football and fight?

“I can’t really answer for everyone in the team but the known fact is, a lot of sports personalities in Ukraine took up arms, there are plenty of examples of that,” says Sydorchuk.

“The president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said when the war started that every Ukrainian should be in his or her place, in order to be helpful in the best way possible to bring victory. I think what I am doing on the football pitch is what president Zelenskyy said, in my best capacity to bring glory to Ukraine.”

With the World Cup dream over, a Nations League tussle in Dublin against an Ireland side who have one of the worst records in the competition looks like scant consolation, but Petrakov will try to lift morale off the floor after the heartbreak of Cardiff. 

“Our coach said that men should be men and the Ukrainian team should turn this painful page. Because on Wednesday, a new story is awaiting.

“That’s why all my thoughts are on concentrating on the game,” Sydorchuk says, while his boss tries to be a football boss in a time of war.

“I have to say that there’s an extreme exhaustion when it comes to the players who were taking part in the Wales game,” says the coach.

“I had a series of individual talks to players trying to smile, trying not to show how disastrous the whole thing was. I’m trying my best to support players.

“I can’t be sulking and sad because life goes on. It’s all in the past, the Wales game is in the past. Let’s move on and let’s forget. This is football, this is sport, that’s how it works.”


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