It is on occasions such as this that sport’s significance and insignificance are highlighted in equal measure.
Ukraine has failed to qualify for this year’s FIFA World Cup, football’s most prestigious tournament, after a 1-0 defeat to Wales, but when your country is at war it doesn’t really matter. The bloodshed continues, lives are still being lost.
Yet, for 90 minutes on a rain-soaked evening in Wales, this match did matter, because there was hope, an opportunity to dream and to cheer.
As Ukraine’s players gathered in the changing room before their winner-takes-all playoff final to qualify for this year’s World Cup, they did so with a national flag sent from the front line hanging on one of the walls.
This was a match where war and football intertwined. There was no forgetting why the heart of the neutral was with Ukraine.
World Cup qualification would have given the Ukrainian people much more than that, but a deflected Gareth Bale free-kick ensured it was Wales taking Europe’s final qualifying spot for Qatar in November.
A game’s importance can be gauged by the atmosphere outside the stadium in the hours leading up to kickoff. This was the sort of match that had both sets of fans queuing to gain entry and milling around hours beforehand. The winner would take it all and, in Wales’ case, make history.
Ukrainian fans, almost all dressed in national colors, mixed amiably with the home supporters and talked of the warmth bestowed on them from the Wales fans.
“It’s human friendship,” said Nelya Sushereba, who had traveled from West London. “We feel the support, even from Welsh people.”
Ukraine’s fans had mainly come from London, and among them were football novices.
For Essex-based Andriy Grabar and his wife, Mariia, the Scotland match earlier this week was the first they had attended.
The couple talked about a desire to support the team, given what is happening in their homeland.
“Our people in Ukraine are waiting for a happy emotion,” said Andriy, while Mariia summed up the pre-match feelings succinctly: “It [would be] a small victory for a bigger purpose.”
On an emotionally charged evening, Ukraine’s players walked onto the pitch with their national flags draped over their shoulders.
Moments before the players lined up for the anthems, the Welsh folk singer Dafydd Iwan sang “Yma o Hyd,” a song adopted by Wales fans as their unofficial anthem. Its stirring lyrics – the chorus, translated into English, is “despite everyone and everything, we are still here” – could also have resonated with the visiting fans.
For much of the match, Ukraine had the most reason to cheer, though the pocket of 1,000 or so Ukrainians inside the stadium could hardly be heard such was the din created by the home fans.
Wales’ first World Cup in 64 years
Wales has the heroics of goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey to thank for its place in Qatar. In the first half Roman Yaremchuk and Viktor Tsygankov both kept the Welshman occupied, with the later wasting the best chance of the half when he was through on goal but failed to hit the target.
And late on, a brilliant save from Hennessey – tipping substitute Artem Dovbyk’s header from danger – kept his team in front.
As well as Hennessey, Wales’ other key player, as is often the case, was Bale, and it was his free-kick that was directed into the net by captain Andriy Yarmolenko.
Though Bale’s star had waned during these last few years at Real Madrid, the forward continues to be Wales’ most potent player, scoring two outstanding goals earlier this year against Austria to fire Wales into this final.
For all the pre-match benevolence – Wales fans even applauded Ukraine’s national anthem – this was a match that would allow Wales to erase its World Cup demons.
Man had not stepped on the moon the last time Wales qualified for football’s biggest tournament, and a teenage Pele scored the winning goal that knocked Wales out of the 1958 quarterfinals. It has been a long wait, with plenty of qualifying near misses.
Arguably, this would be the last opportunity for the country’s “Golden Generation” – including Bale and Aaron Ramsay – to qualify for the sport’s showpiece event.
The home side had to dig deep and, at times, the men in red rode their luck, but at the final whistle it was Bale, substituted after the break, who sprinted onto the pitch to celebrate with his teammates as Ukraine’s players fell onto their knees in despair.
The visitors had given it everything and, rightfully, both teams were cheered by the fans at the final whistle. Amidst their jubilation, Wales’ players made time to go to the corner of the stadium where Ukraine’s fans were to, in the words of the team’s manager Robert Page, “show their appreciation to them.”
Asked about the future of the team, Ukraine coach Oleksandr Petrakov told reporters after the match: “I can only say we’ve got a game coming on the eighth of this month and this is our future.”
“We did everything that we could, but I really want the people in Ukraine to remember our team efforts,” a crestfallen Petrakov added.
“I want to say sorry we didn’t score but this is sport, this is how it happens. I’m just lost for words. I do not know what to say.”