CARDIFF, Wales — Ukraine’s dream of a World Cup appearance ended on a chilly Sunday night in relentless pouring rain. Head coach Oleksandr Petrakov stared through the downpour and didn’t know what to do. A red rocket landed on the field and the air smelled of gunpowder. Smoke swirled in the gray sky. The stadium was shaking with noise. Petrakov turned to leave the pitch, then he backed up and stood alone and watched the Wales team celebrate. He looked lost. His team had come so close. He had missed so many chances in the 1-0 loss, and it was hard even to remember the hope and promise that had shone in the past four days. No one was talking in the locker room.
“Completely silent,” he would say later.
Petrakov said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy went to the front lines and personally asked soldiers to write messages of support on a flag and the team brought that flag with him to Wales. Team members knew who was supporting them and why, and it hurt. His players wore their pain in their faces, carried that loss deep in wounds that may never heal, and he said the failure was his and not theirs. A nation needed a victory, needed a good thing as a down payment on a future filled with good things. He tried to find the right words. He apologized during his press conference to his fellow citizens for not having scored. He grimaced and stopped, swallowed and stopped, and smiled slightly and stared at the wall. It was hard to watch. He felt the possibilities of the next six months slipping through his fingers. Everyone did. A Ukrainian journalist used his post-match question to implore international journalists listening not to forget what is happening in their home country.
Petrakov looked at the assembled group.
“You know what is happening in Ukraine,” he said. “We have war raging across the country. Children and women are dying daily. Our infrastructure is being destroyed daily by Russian barbarians. The Russians want to hurt us. The Ukrainians are resisting. The Ukrainians are defending themselves.”
IN THE MORNING of Sunday’s game at Cardiff City Stadium, two Russian missiles hit Kyiv and black smoke rose again in the air. Petrakov woke up in Wales to this news from his home town, the first strike there in a month. He comes from Kyiv. As a child, he spent hours fishing on the banks of the river that runs through the city center. His idea of a perfect day is to walk around the city and stop at all the old cathedrals and churches. He’ll find a bench and just sit and think.
When the Russian army began to strike Kyiv on February 24, he refused to leave. Her children were begging. He told them that he was born in Kyiv and would die in Kyiv before he let anyone rob his house. In the early days of the fighting, he went down to try to enlist in the army. The recruiter told him that they didn’t need 64-year-old soldiers and that the way he could serve their country was to do what he had been training for all his life. They told him he didn’t know anything about fighting but he knew football.
“Take us to Qatar,” the army guys told him, referring to the site of this year’s World Cup tournament.
Petrakov walked the streets and visited the soldiers in the trenches and bunkers. He talked to them about football and handed out cigarettes. When the Russians arrived on the outskirts of town, he heard explosions. His wife begged him not to leave the apartment. Once he walked to the market to get some bread and heard a missile whistle in the air above his head. He felt the earth shake when she hit him. Five people died, he told me. Including a family. A mom and a dad. A boy and a girl.
“You walk and you don’t know where it’s going to hit,” he said. “A lottery. You don’t know. Another fell about 2 kilometers from me. A missile. All the windows were shaking. The house was shaking. I stayed in the apartment and my wife spent the night in the bunker. She couldn’t take it, and I don’t know, maybe because I’m 64, I wasn’t afraid You won’t escape your fate.
Following the Ukrainian’s 3-1 win over Scotland on Wednesday, the coach raised his fist and roared into the night. The look on his face belied any idea that they were just playing a game. Three months of fear and rage — of resistance and defense — poured out of him; and afterwards he looked exhausted, as if he had received something from the victory but also a burden lifted.
It is difficult to explain the situation in Ukraine. Mass graves are still being discovered. It’s possible to walk through the woods north of Kyiv and, if you don’t step on a landmine, find an empty hole where civilians murdered by the Russian military were quickly buried by their fellow citizens to be reburied later. late with dignity. Bloody clothes are still at the bottom of these empty holes. Locals surround burned Russian tanks to see where the enemy has died. Air raid sirens sound regularly enough that there is now an app for it.
Petrakov’s daughter is still in town. So is his wife. They talk to him regularly, and the only way he can help them is to coach them. His team is his only weapon, the only way he can help his country, and for the last four days he believed that this team would beat Wales and take the Ukrainian flag and anthem to Qatar for the Cup of the world. That he would fulfill the mission entrusted to him by the soldiers who had kindly told him that he was too old to take a gun and hold a post.
The war is just over 100 days old. In those three plus months, there was reason for hope. The Ukrainian army exposed the Russians, using stockpiles of foreign weapons to win the battle for Kyiv and to push the Russians back across the border in places. But the situation in the east has evolved, with the Russian army hurling artillery shells into helpless positions, the fighting taking place in trenches – all brutal and archaic, more like Antietam than Baghdad. The Russians control about 20% of the country, and this war could go on for a long time. It’s been going on since 2014 already, Ukrainians like to remind foreigners who think it’s all new.
For these reasons, and so many others, these past four days have been good for me. It takes a lot of people to win a war, to create the right mix of challenge and determination – and Oleksandr Petrakov was one of those people. He gave a nation four good days, his own kind of miracle during such terrible times, and he wanted to give them more.
BEFORE SUNDAY’S MATCH, the stadium buzzed with energy as the Ukrainian bus pulled up outside. Petrakov walked alone down a white cinder block hallway. He went to the field and crossed his arms, shouting and pointing. He was a man who had spent his life preparing for a single moment. The rain started to fall, but he didn’t put on a jacket. He just wiped his glasses every once in a while and just stood aside.
The game started and the Welsh crowd rocked the building, the noise echoing around the concrete stands. Home fans sang songs and shouted. Since 1958 Wales had not made a World Cup, and against any other opponent they would have been the sentimental favourites. All of these failures, and the desire to be cleansed of them, lived in every song and cheer. The rain fell harder. Finally, one of the coach’s assistants came out into the mess and put a coat over his shoulders.
In the 34th minute, Gareth Bale lined up a free kick. He threw it low to the right and Ukraine star Andriy Yarmolenko dove to clear it with his head.
Yarmolenko plays for West Ham United, and the day before the war started, he sent his wife and child back to Kyiv for a doctor’s appointment. “Can you imagine how I was when it started the next morning?” he told English reporters in March after their safe return. “I just wanted to run and bang my head against a wall. What a fool I sent my family to Kyiv and I’m sitting in London.”
Yarmolenko made contact with Bale’s shot and, trying to deflect it out of bounds, he accidentally directed it to the left side of his own goal.
The tension was mounting with each passing minute.
Ukraine missed chance after chance. Petrakov had to be parted from one of the Wales players for a stall problem. He roared through the rain to his team. Everyone was soaked. The game turned fierce and the crowd was on edge, with both sides chanting, cheering and complaining about the officials. The Ukrainian section chanted the name of their country in four syllables several times. Both teams wanted this victory. Their desire was palpable for the people in the stands, who seemed to understand that they were witnessing one of the most intense days of football they had ever seen.
The Wales players were cramping and Petrakov shouted at the referee, pointing to his watch, begging for a long time out. With 88:13 over, Ukrainian substitute Serhiy Sydorchuk lined up the ball and fired a shot. He flew high over the goal and Sydorchuk fell to his knees in agony. He seemed to know. Wales fans began to breathe out and sang an old English football song with these lyrics: “Please don’t make me go hooome!”
The game ended and Petrakov didn’t move at first, stunned, lost. The stadium was teeming with noise, smoke and energy. Wales fans jumped onto the pitch and tried to evade security guards.
Finally, Petrakov knew what to do.
It started towards the far right corner of the pitch, towards the curve where Ukrainian fans had been chanting and waving flags during 90 minutes of rain. Bale came over and gave Petrakov a long hug and then the coach cheered on the fans who had been cheering him on. There was not so much difference between them at that time, all citizens of a nation at war, a nation struggling to exist.
He had given them four good days.
Later, in the calm of defeat, Petrakov reflected on how he wanted his team, this band of brothers, to exist in the memory of his compatriots.
“I really want Ukrainians to remember our team,” he said. “I mean sorry we didn’t score, but that’s sport. That’s how it goes, and I just don’t…”
Beneath the stadium, the press room was silent.
“I’m at a loss for words,” Petrakov said. “I do not know what to say.”