Ukraine won’t give up Euro 2024 quest: ‘We have the character and belief to succeed’
LEVERKUSEN, Germany — There was no fairy tale for Ukraine on Monday night. Qualification for Euro 2024 now rests on the unpredictability of the playoffs next March, but after overcoming so much to put themselves within touching distance of next summer’s European Championships, Serhiy Rebrov’s team were denied by the oldest sporting frustration of all: a bad call by the officials.
As it stands, the 0-0 draw against Italy means Ukraine must now wait to discover their playoff opponents on Thursday, with an away game against one of Poland, Wales, Israel or Bosnia & Herzegovina awaiting in the spring as 12 teams compete for the final four spots at Euro 2024. But they came so close to the result, and achievement, that would mean so much to Ukrainians, both at home and in every European city that has offered them refuge over the past 18 months.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
Playing international football while war continues unabated in much of its territory is an achievement in itself, but as a consequence of Russia’s invasion in February of 2022, Ukraine has had to play all of its “home” games on neutral territory. Add in the reality of the country’s domestic league being played behind closed doors, with teams forced to make difficult journeys over land to fulfill fixtures, and it’s clear that Ukraine must climb a mountain every time they play.
But while they have found the ability to meet all of those challenges, there is no way back when a referee fails to get a crucial decision right in the final seconds of a must-win qualification game.
Ukraine had to beat Italy in Leverkusen’s BayArena to claim second spot in Group C and qualify as runners-up behind England, at the same time as denying the Italians — the Euro 2020 winners — a place in the finals. UEFA president Aleksandar Ceferin had said last month it would be a “disaster” if Italy failed to qualify, adding that the reigning champions are “too important” a football nation to miss out on Euro 2024. Ceferin’s comments prompted Ukraine coach Rebrov to say they had merely made his own players “angry” and more motivated.
But when Ukraine forward Mykhailo Mudryk fell to the ground in the penalty area after receiving Oleksandr Zubkov’s pass in the 92nd minute, it seemed inevitable that referee Jesus Gil Manzano would award a spot-kick after what appeared a clear foul by Italy’s Bryan Cristante. This was the moment Ukraine had been striving for — a chance to score the goal that would take them to the finals and spark celebrations back home.
Yet Manzano waved play on, and there was no indication of review by VAR official Juan Martinez Munuera. Mudryk was furious and his teammates incredulous, but the game continued. Manzano shrugged his shoulders and signalled that there was no decision to make.
ESPN FC crew react to VAR controversy in Ukraine vs. Italy
The “ESPN FC” crew can’t fathom why the referee didn’t utilize VAR after Mykhailo Mudryk went over in the penalty box.
Even had it been awarded, a penalty would have been no guarantee of a goal — Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma was after all the hero of the Euro 2020 final against England with two saves in the penalty shootout — but Ukraine’s sense of injustice was understandable.
“I think they checked the VAR, but they decided it wasn’t a penalty,” Rebrov said. “From my point of view it was a penalty, it was a foul by Cristante, but I can’t give my point of view because of my emotions.”
Ukraine had given so much and created so many chances. Italy were holding on by the end, but the fairytale ending? Not this time.
There is a “new normal” in Ukraine these days. The war with Russia continues to rage in the south and east of the country, with heavy fighting around the southern city of Kherson marking Day 635 of the conflict on Monday, but life goes on in the west of Ukraine despite the constant threat of Russian missile attacks in cities such as Lviv, close to the Polish border. Bus journeys from the capital Kyiv and western towns and cities take Ukrainians to Poland, Slovakia and Romania, where they can seek refuge or a new life away from the trauma of a warzone, but many are now making the opposite journey and heading back to Ukraine, either for family visits or medical attention.
In October, Clive Lewis, a member of parliament for the Norwich South constituency in the United Kingdom, said that some Ukrainians are even making the journey home to see their dentist. “I have Ukrainian refugees that come to my constituency who are travelling back to war-torn Ukraine to have their teeth seen to because there is a better dental service in Ukraine than there is in Norwich,” Lewis said.
While Lewis may have been making a political point for domestic purposes when it comes to the timeliness of such care in the UK, such stories are not isolated incidents. “From the perspective of going to the dentist or something, it’s pretty easy,” Andrew Todos, who runs the Zorya Londonsk blog on Ukrainian football, told ESPN. “You just have to make the long, hard slog of getting to Ukraine, but most people are having the operation, doing whatever they need, and then just come home [to the UK].”
It seems like a kind of suspended reality, with people attempting to get on with life at the same time as their country is fighting for its survival, with so many of its young, male population on the frontlines in the south and east. But while life is hard, there is an acceptance that the winter will bring even tougher times for all of those who remain in Ukraine.
“I would say that people are getting on as best as they can,” Todos said. “For example, Kyiv, because of how good the air defence is there, it’s probably one of the safest cities in the world from that respect in terms of getting hit by a missile or something. But the threat is still there. You will be getting air raids at 11 o’clock at night, and you might hear some explosions.
“Similarly, the threat in the east is still a problem, but places in the west have been hit and now they’re coming up to winter. What [Russia] are going to start doing is something they did last year: start hitting electric stations and power stations all over the country and try to basically freeze you to death. So I think it’s not going to be an easy winter. A lot of people will predict it’s going to be very low, but we’ll see how it goes.”
This is where the focus on a football match, or qualification for Euro 2024, becomes jarring. The reality of a daily battle for survival is a genuine one: how can football matter? For a start, it’s been a crucial element of escapism for the Ukrainian population, and the domestic league has been going throughout. Games are officially played behind closed doors, but increasing numbers of supporters are attending — often invited as “special guests” by those clubs.
Yet games are often impacted by air raid sirens. Earlier this month, the game between league leaders Dnipro-1 and FC Olexandriya took four hours and 36 minutes to complete due to play being suspended by three separate air raid sirens. “A VAR review was taking place when the second siren went off, so I think they had the longest-ever wait for a VAR decision in the game.” Todos said. “It took 62 minutes for the decision to be announced.”
It was snowing in Gdansk last week. Serhiy Rebrov’s squad were based in the port city on Poland’s Baltic coast for a training camp in preparation for the game against Italy, and the weather brought joy and harsh reality for the players.
“We all rejoiced at the first snow this year,” Ukraine defender Valeriy Bondar said. “We were literally like children, because the New Year is almost here. But of course, on the other hand, we think of how cold our guys are at the front right now, and we want to help them. And we can help precisely with positive emotions, which we really want to provide on Monday [against Italy].
“We will do everything to please our soldiers. We are also a little cold, our feet are freezing, but we are getting used to it. It’s a difficult game for us, of course, but we know what we have to do.”
Throughout the conflict with Russia, Ukraine’s footballers have been torn by how best to serve their country when men of the same age are fighting on the front line. Arsenal defender Oleksandr Zinchenko has said “maybe I should be holding the gun, but I knew I would be more useful to Ukraine by telling my audience on Instagram or whatever what is happening right now.”
For Everton defender Vitaliy Mykolenko, the determination to support the troops and boost the morale of the country by succeeding on the football pitch is his source of motivation.
“For me personally, it is very important to provide support for our fighters and hope for my country, so it will be very important if we qualify. I read a lot about our fighters in the field and a lot of outcomes are determined by the mentality and the fighting spirit of our guys. And it is my dream to qualify for Euros for them.”
Throughout the Ukrainian squad, the message is the same.
“It is very difficult for us,” Rebrov told ESPN. “All of the players are playing for our people. We are missing emotions after one-and-a-half years of war, but football and sport gives us emotions, the chance to be excited and passionate about our country, and we are all playing for them and for our army.
“We are playing to support our freedom and I am sure our players know why we are playing and who we are playing for. The players need no more motivation to play. When they see the flag before the game, it is very important for us.”
The Ukraine football team has become a focal point for the huge number of displaced Ukrainians throughout Europe. Over 5 million fled the country at the outbreak of war in February of 2022, with the largest contingent (1.5m) heading to Poland. Recent estimates suggest that around 1.1m Ukrainians are now in Germany and because Ukraine are unable to play home games in their own country, the Euro 2024 qualification campaign has seen Rebrov’s team play “home” fixtures in Poland, Slovakia, Czechia and Germany.
Former Ukraine forward and head coach, Andriy Shevchenko, has attended each game and he said it is the duty of the team to play for those fighting for the nation’s freedom.
“I am very close to the players and the coach: Serhiy Rebrov is my good friend,” Shevchenko told ESPN. “They all know how important they are to Ukraine and to our soldiers. That’s why we can never complain about our situation of so much travelling and not being able to play games in our homeland. Our soldiers and our people have it so much worse, and it is the duty of the players to give them something positive.
Qualifying for Euro 2024 is what they can give to the country, but also to remind the people of the world what is happening in Ukraine. Attention has started to shift away, because there are other wars now, especially with Israel and Gaza, but we really need football to help keep the rest of the world close to us.”
The BayArena was a wall of colour and noise. As many as 8,000 Italians played their part on Monday night, but there were so many Ukraine flags that it could have been Kyiv or Kharkiv and Luciano Spalletti and his Italy players acknowledged their hosts by applauding as the Ukrainian national anthem was played in the stadium.
Being there was important for Ukrainians able to attend. Nataliya, a student in Cologne, attended with her 17-year-old brother Dmitro, who fled Lviv at the outbreak of the war. “I have been in Germany since 2018, but Dmitro came with me to be safe,” Nataliya told ESPN. “We wanted to be here because it is important for us to show our support for our country and our team.
“When we hear the players say that they are playing for us, it means a lot and it makes us very proud and emotional.”
Yuri, Dana, Bogdan and Andrew are all 18. Their parents remain in Lviv, western Ukraine, but the teenagers have been in Gelsenkirchen, an hour north of Leverkusen, since February last year. They travelled to together to Germany and did so again to watch Rebrov’s team.
“The football team represents us and our country,” Andrew told ESPN. “Every time Ukraine plays, people remember what is happening in our country. That’s why qualifying for the Euros is so important. But we also love football, so it is big for that too. And also to help motivate our soldiers.
“It’s difficult for us being here without parents still in Ukraine, but watching the team makes us feel closer to home.” Despite the incredible support in the stadium, though, Ukraine could not find a way to secure their first-ever win against Italy at the 10th attempt.
They had their chances. Georgiy Sudakov forced an early save from Donnarumma, who also denied Mudryk in the second half. Winger Viktor Tsygankov chose to stay on his feet when fouled in the penalty area on 66 minutes, but then came the Mudryk moment, when the Chelsea forward’s left leg was caught by Cristante, sending him to the ground.
No penalty, no win, no place in the finals.
Ukraine still have one more roll of the dice. A playoff semifinal and final stand in their way, but Rebrov has seen enough to believe his players can still make it to Germany. “The players showed the character of Ukraine,” Rebrov said. “You all know that the war continues — the players are always checking their phones and watching the news, like me, and it is hard to work in this atmosphere.
“But we are still alive, we now have the playoffs, and I know the players have the character and belief to succeed.”
Nobody will want to face Ukraine in the playoffs. They have an unbreakable spirit, and not even the failings of the match officials can dampen their optimism.