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Scotland vs Ukraine: What does the World Cup play-off mean to Ukrainians?

Ahead of Wednesday's World Cup play-off semi-final, Ukrainian football commentator and journalist Volodymyr Zverov explains what the build-up has been like for his national team and what the match at Hampden Park means to his nation...

Ukraine are due to face Scotland on March 24 at Hampden Park
Image: After being postponed in March, Scotland will play Ukraine at Hampden on Wednesday

Before one of Dynamo Kyiv's spring charity matches, a journalist asked Oleksandr Karavayev how he felt after reading about the situation in war-torn Ukraine.

"A low bow to our soldiers who are defending Ukrainian land," the Dynamo and Ukraine national team defender began to answer. He tried to continue, however, was choked with tears and could not finish his sentence.

It was a moment that highlights the emotion every player from Ukraine will be feeling as fierce fighting continues all across the country. Karavayev's hometown of Kherson has been under occupation since the beginning of the invasion and each day residents hear the sound of explosions.

This video shows the aftermath of a Russian airstrike that hit a maternity hospital in Mariupol
Image: The aftermath of a Russian airstrike that hit a hospital in Ukraine

It was a city Karavayev came home to every year - not only to visit his parents but also to organise a children's football tournament. Now the 29-year-old is not even able to send medicines to his family because all valuable parcels are confiscated by the Russian military.

Football, however, is playing its part to help raise funds for Ukrainians affected by the war. Earlier this year Dynamo Kyiv played seven charity matches in seven European countries - Poland, Turkey, Romania, Estonia, Switzerland, Croatia and Germany where a match in Dortmund raised around €400,000.

Ukraine beat German club Borussia Monchengladbach 2-1 in a charity fundraiser
Image: Ukraine beat German club Borussia Monchengladbach 2-1 in a charity fundraiser

Despite the martial law and ban on men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country, the Ukrainian authorities have made an exception for footballers. Their goal is not just raising charitable funds but the national team also want to reach the World Cup and create a moment of happiness for a country that has been torn apart.

To do that, the players need practice - something that has been in short supply. Despite that, defensive midfielder Taras Stepanenko - who saw his native village of Velyka Novoselytsia in the Donetsk region bombed and destroyed - hopes to repay those soldiers after revealing the key message from those on the front line: "Our soldiers regularly write to us and ask only one thing - to win the World Cup ticket."

Only a handful of players have been in regular competitive action; Oleksandr Zinchenko of Manchester City, Vitaly Mykolenko from Everton, Eduard Sobol who is fresh from winning the Belgian league title at Club Brugge, Benfica striker Roman Yaremchuk and Ruslan Malinovskyi from Atalanta.

Image: Vitaly Mykolenko has been training with the Ukraine squad following the Premier League season

Andriy Yarmolenko is another player who should be in the starting line-up regardless of the number of minutes he's played for West Ham. He is spirited, emotional, has a great left foot and has scored 44 goals, just four behind the all-time record holder Andriy Shevchenko. Hopefully, these play-offs are the moment he can set a new record and give joy to his native Chernihiv and all of Ukraine.

Talking of Shevchenko, it was on June 30, 2021 when he raised both arms at Hampden Park as his team beat Sweden in extra-time to reach the European Championships quarter-finals. Almost a year has passed and our new coach Oleksandr Petrakov, who replaced Shevchenko, has his own views on squad and tactics.

I have no doubt that on Wednesday the Ukrainian team will be cautious and disciplined in a bid to counter Scotland's tactics. However, having struggled to arrange a friendly over the past week, it is a mystery to us all about how the match will go. What we do know, however, is that Ukraine will not be the underdog in spirit.

If you want to imagine what this match means to Ukraine, cast your mind back to the beginning of the invasion. Our head coach Petrakov wanted to join the unit of territorial defense, pick up a machine gun and defend the country. The 64-year-old came to the military registration and enlistment office and was told: "We will cope. And you better lead the team to the World Cup."

Football is always on Ukrainians' minds and hopefully the sounds of celebrations will echo around the country on Wednesday.

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