CARDIFF, Wales — The Ukrainian dream of a World Cup look ended on a chilly Sunday night time in an unrelenting rainstorm. Head coach Oleksandr Petrakov stared out by way of the downpour and did not know what to do. A purple flare landed on the pitch, and the air smelled like gunpowder. Smoke swirled up into grey sky. The stadium shook with noise. Petrakov turned to stroll off the pitch, then he reversed and stood alone and watched the Wales staff have a good time. He appeared misplaced. His staff had come so shut. It had missed so many probabilities within the 1-0 loss, and it was arduous to even bear in mind the hope and promise that had burned brilliant the previous 4 days. Nobody spoke within the dressing room.
“Dead quiet,” he’d say later.
Petrakov mentioned Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had been to the entrance traces and personally requested the troopers there to write down messages of assist on a flag and that the staff introduced that flag with it to Wales. The staff members knew who was supporting them and why, and that harm. His gamers wore their ache on their faces, carried this loss deep in wounds which may by no means heal, and he mentioned the failure was his and never theirs. A nation wanted a win, wanted one good factor as a down fee on a future full of good issues. He tried to search out the suitable phrases. He apologized in his information convention to his fellow residents for not scoring. He grimaced and paused, swallowed and paused, and smiled thinly and stared blankly on the wall. It was arduous to observe. He felt the probabilities of the approaching six months slip by way of his fingers. Everyone did. A Ukrainian journalist used his postmatch query to plead with the worldwide reporters listening to not neglect what is happening of their homeland.
Petrakov appeared out on the assembled group.
“You know what is occurring in Ukraine,” he mentioned. “We have conflict raging everywhere in the nation. Children and girls dying each day. Our infrastructure being ruined each day by Russian barbarians. The Russians need to harm us. Ukrainians are resisting. Ukrainians are defending.”
ON THE MORNING of Sunday’s match, two Russian missiles hit Kyiv, and black smoke rose as soon as once more into the air. Petrakov awoke in Wales to that information about his hometown, the primary strike there in a month. He’s from Kyiv. As a boy, he spent hours fishing down on the banks of the river operating by way of the middle of city. His thought of an ideal day is to stroll by way of town and cease in any respect the previous cathedrals and church buildings. He’ll discover a bench and simply sit and assume.
When the Russian navy began hitting Kyiv on Feb. 24, he refused to go away. His kids begged. He advised them he was born in Kyiv and he’d die in Kyiv earlier than he let anybody steal his residence. In the primary days of the preventing, he went right down to attempt to enlist within the military. The recruiter advised him they did not want 64-year-old troopers and that the way in which he might serve their nation was to do what he’d skilled his complete life to do. They advised him he did not know something about preventing however that he knew about soccer.
“Lead us to Qatar,” he mentioned the military guys advised him, referencing the positioning of this 12 months’s World Cup event.
Petrakov walked the streets and visited troopers in trenches and bunkers. He talked to them about soccer and handed out cigarettes. When the Russians acquired to the outskirts of town, he might hear explosions. His spouse begged him to not go away the house. Once, he walked to the market to get bread and heard a missile whistle within the air over his head. He felt the earth shake when it hit. Five folks died, he advised me. A household. A mother and a dad. A boy and a woman.
“You are strolling and you do not know the place it’s going to hit,” he mentioned. “A lottery. You do not know. One extra fell down roughly 2 kilometers from me. A missile. All the home windows had been trembling. The home was shaking. I stayed within the house, and my spouse spent the night time within the bunker. She could not bear it, and I do not know, perhaps as a result of I’m 64 years previous, I used to be not afraid. You won’t escape out of your destiny.”
After the Ukrainian’s 3-1 win towards Scotland, the coach pumped his fist and roared into the night time. The look on his face put the deceive any notion that they had been simply taking part in a recreation. Three months of worry and rage — of resistance and protection — poured out of him; and afterward, he appeared and sounded spent, like he’d been given one thing by the victory but additionally had a burden eliminated.
It’s arduous to elucidate the state of affairs in Ukraine. Mass graves are nonetheless being uncovered. It’s attainable to take a stroll within the woods north of Kyiv and, in the event you do not step on a landmine, discover an empty gap the place civilians murdered by the Russian military had been rapidly buried by their fellow residents solely to be reburied later with dignity. Bloody garments are nonetheless on the backside of these empty holes. Locals circle burned-out Russian tanks, to see the place the enemy met their dying. The air raid sirens sound repeatedly sufficient that there is now an app for that.
Petrakov’s daughter continues to be within the metropolis. So is his spouse. They discuss to him repeatedly, and the one method he will help them is by teaching. His staff is his solely weapon, the one method he will help his nation, and for the previous 4 days, he believed that staff would beat Wales and take the Ukrainian flag and anthem to Qatar for the World Cup. That he would fulfill the mission given to him by the troopers who kindly advised him he was too previous to choose up a rifle and man a publish.
The conflict is simply over 100 days previous. In these three-plus months, there was cause for hope. The Ukrainian military uncovered the Russians, utilizing stockpiles of overseas weapons to win the battle of Kyiv and to push the Russians again throughout the border in locations. But the state of affairs within the east has devolved, with the Russian military lobbing artillery rounds into helpless positions, the preventing taking place in trenches — the entire thing brutal and archaic, extra like Antietam than Baghdad. The Russians management about 20% of the nation, and this conflict might go on for a very long time. It’s already been occurring since 2014, Ukrainians prefer to remind foreigners who assume this complete factor is brand-new.
For these causes, and so many others, the previous 4 days felt good. It takes lots of people to win a conflict, to create the correct mix of defiance and willpower — and Oleksandr Petrakov has been a kind of folks. He gave a nation 4 good days, its personal form of miracle throughout such horrible occasions, and he needed to provide it extra.
BEFORE SUNDAY’S GAME, the stadium buzzed with power because the Ukrainian bus pulled up outdoors. Petrakov walked alone down a white, cinder block hallway. He went onto the pitch and crossed his arms, yelling and pointing. This was a person who’d spent a lifetime getting ready for a single second. The rain began to fall, however he did not placed on a jacket. He merely wiped his glasses now and again and stood proper on the sideline.
The recreation began, and the Wales crowd shook the constructing, the noise echoing across the concrete grandstands. The residence followers sang songs and screamed. Not since 1958 had Wales made a World Cup, and towards another opponent, it will have been the sentimental favourite. All these failures, and the craving to cleanse themselves of them, lived in each chant and cheer. The rain fell more durable. Finally, one in every of his Petrakov’s assistants got here out into the mess and put a coat on his shoulders.
Yarmolenko performs for West Ham United, and the day earlier than the conflict began, he despatched his spouse and youngster again to Kyiv for a physician’s appointment. “Can you think about what I used to be like when it began the subsequent morning?” he advised English journalists in March after their protected return. “I simply needed to run and hit my head towards a wall. What a idiot I used to be sending my household to Kyiv and I’m sitting in London.”
Yarmolenko made contact with Bale’s shot and, attempting to deflect it out of bounds, he by accident headed it into the left aspect of his personal objective.
The stress escalated with every passing minute.
Ukraine missed likelihood after likelihood. Petrakov needed to be separated from one in every of Wales’ gamers over a stalling challenge. He roared into the rain at his staff. Everyone was soaked. The recreation turned fierce, and the group was on edge, with either side singing and cheering and complaining in regards to the officers. The part of Ukrainians chanted the title of their nation in 4 syllables time and again. Both groups needed this victory. Their need was palpable to the folks within the stands, who appeared to grasp they had been watching one of the crucial intense days of soccer they’d ever see.
Wales gamers had been cramping, and Petrakov screamed on the ref, pointing at his watch, begging for a long term of stoppage time. With 88:13 gone, Ukrainian substitute Serhiy Sydorchuk fielded the ball and let free a shot. It flew excessive over the objective, and Sydorchuk fell to his knees in agony. He appeared to know. The Wales followers started to exhale and sang an previous English soccer track with the lyrics, “Please do not make me go hooome!”
The recreation ended, and Petrakov did not transfer at first, surprised, misplaced. The stadium roiled with noise, smoke and power. Wales followers jumped onto the pitch and tried to flee the safety guards.
Finally, Petrakov knew what to do.
He began off towards the far proper nook of the pitch, to the curve the place the Ukrainian followers had sang and waved flags by way of 90 minutes of rain. Bale came to visit and gave Petrakov a protracted embrace, after which the coach cheered the followers who’d been cheering him. There wasn’t that a lot distinction between them in that second, all of them residents of a nation at conflict, a nation preventing to exist.
He’d given them 4 good days.
Later within the quiet of defeat, Petrakov contemplated how he needed his staff, this band of brothers, to exist within the reminiscence of his countrymen.
“I actually need the folks of Ukraine to recollect our staff,” he mentioned. “I need to express regret that we did not rating, however that is sports activities. This is the way it occurs, and I simply do not … “
Underneath the stadium, the pressroom was silent.
“I’m perplexed,” Petrakov mentioned. “I do not know what to say.”