Ukraine defeat Iceland to qualify for Euros, their first tournament since Russian invasion

Mykhailo Mudryk went down on his knees and prayed after the full-time whistle. Around the Ukraine winger, a sea of yellow and blue exploded in ecstasy.

At ‘home’ in Wroclaw, Poland, the war-torn country defeated Iceland to qualify for the Euro 2024, their first major tournament since Russia invaded the country in 2022. They came very close to qualifying for the World Cup in Qatar two years ago. Back then, Wales crushed their dream at the last minute, leaving the players in tears.

There were tears on Tuesday night as well. This time, of joy.

As the thousands of Ukrainians celebrated the historic win inside the stadium in Poland, millions more at home, who have had very little to cheer about since the invasion, got a rare reason to rejoice amid a war.

Even the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, joined in. “Thank you, guys! Thank you, team! For significant emotions for the entire country,” he wrote on social media platform X, formerly Twitter. “For the important victory and making it to EURO. For proving once again: whenever Ukrainians face difficulties but do not give up and continue to fight, Ukrainians certainly win. In times, when the enemy tries to destroy us, we demonstrate every day that Ukrainians are and will be. Ukraine is, and will be! Thank you for the victory! Glory to Ukraine!”

Indeed, the players from Ukraine have been defiant in the face of adversity. That feeling culminated on the football turf with the team winning their last two matches from losing positions. Against Iceland and Bosnia and Herzegovina, they were losing by a goal before they mustered a comeback to win both matches 2-1 to punch their tickets to Germany.

Festive offer

According to the Athletic, after the victory against Iceland, the players led by captain Oleksandr Zinchenko led his team around the pitch as the crowd chanted “Z-S-U! Z-S-U! Z-S-U!” which stood for ‘Zbronyi Syly Ukrainy’ — the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

The tribute was for the forces who were seen on social media watching the match through tiny TV screens, cooped up in metal huts as the war rages on outside. The players, and the fans, subtly used the moment to ensure the crisis did not fade from public consciousness.

“It will be so important. All the world is going to watch this competition. It’s an unreal opportunity to show how good we are as a team and how good it is to be Ukrainian,” Zinchenko said as quoted by the Guardian. Ukraine coach Serhiy Rebrov added: “This win is for our people, for the soldiers who are protecting our freedom.”

Midfielder Georgiy Sudakov called for more international support for his country. “Look at what has happened in Ukraine in the last days, the last weeks. The drones, the missiles, the bombs that arrive at different cities. It’s incredible. That’s why we need support,” Sudakov was also quoted by the Guardian.

According to several reports, Ukraine’s vice-captain Taras Stepanenko has several family members in the Donetsk region which is still under Russian control while fullback Oleksandr Karavayev has family in Kherson which was under Russian occupation for several months before being liberated.

To them and a lot of players like them, qualifying for the Euro is not just a mere sporting achievement. For them, it stands as a symbol of Ukraine’s never-die attitude in the face of adversity.

“The missiles are flying every day. Our mission is to show that we’re all alive and fighting against the Russians and that we need Europe’s support,” Rebrov had said before the match. “The players are watching the news about the shelling of Odesa and Kyiv (and made) even more angry and eager to show our potential on the football field.”

When the invasion began in 2022, millions of people had to flee Ukraine. The casualty count has been rising and numerous cities and towns have been destroyed with still no end in sight.

The Ukrainian league was cancelled with all footballing activities suspended from February to July 2022. Most players in the Ukrainian clubs were forced to move abroad.

Even though domestic football in the country was allowed to continue from August 2022, the frequent air raid sirens disrupted the matches while the coaches and players had to hide in bomb shelters as the war continues to this day.

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