Friday, December 8, 2023

Ukraine players in journey from Hell: It was a 450-mile road trip for some as air travel is outlawed

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For Ukraine, the road to Wembley started eight days ago when two of the kit men loaded the team’s equipment into a truck in Kyiv and set out on the first leg of the mission, a 450-mile road trip to the Polish city of Rzeszow.

At 7pm last Sunday, four players from Dynamo Kyiv and one from Oleksandriya, coaching staff, the medical team and various other members of FA staff, boarded an overnight train in the Ukrainian capital to carry them west into Poland.

Twelve hours later, across the border in Przemysl, they climbed into a bus and travelled a further 50 miles by road to Rzeszow where they met the kit men and 10 team-mates from Shakhtar Donetsk and Dnipro-1, clubs exiled in western Ukraine, and another from Oleksandriya, who had congregated in Lviv to depart by train at 5am on Monday.

There is no air travel in Ukraine, a consequence of the Russian invasion and ongoing war, and the logistics required if they are to compete for a place at Euro 2024 have become like a military operation. Unfortunately, they are well practised.

UEFA will not allow home games in Ukraine because of security concerns, so the clubs and national team have been hiring stadiums in neighbouring Poland for ‘home’ fixtures.

Ukraine’s trip to England for the Euro 2024 qualifier was complicated by the ongoing war

After Shakhtar’s home leg of their Europa League last-16 tie against Feyenoord in Warsaw, it took them 18 hours to travel from the Polish capital to Chisinau in Moldova. They then went on by bus to the city of Kryvyi Rih in southern Ukraine to play Kryvbas KR in the Ukrainian Premier League on the following Sunday.

Then they were off again, out to Rotterdam, via Chisinau, for the second leg where, unsurprisingly, Feyenoord won 7-1. Back to Lviv they went, where Shakhtar are based this season, for a UPL fixture against Rukh Vynnyky.

Life is complicated and exhausting for Ukraine’s footballers, but they will not complain because they realise those fighting in the east against Russia’s invading troops are the genuine heroes. Their job, most pleasant in comparison, is to strive for normality and behave as they did before the war to keep their football alive.

There are national competitions running in eight leagues, covering men and women, juniors and amateur football, but nothing much is truly normal. There are no crowds because games can be suspended by air raids. Players head for the shelters and there would not be time to evacuate spectators safely.

A match between Rukh and Metalist Kharkiv on Independence Day in August, interrupted three times by sirens, took four and a half hours to complete because Russian military jets were in the sky. Fifteen of the 25 players called up by Ukraine boss Ruslan Rotan are playing their club football in surroundings unlike others in this Euro 2024 qualifying campaign.

There is a financial impact on the sport because the stadiums are empty. Tickets are sold for the games in Poland but crowds are small, consisting mostly of Ukrainian women and children who have fled the fighting. There are few men because most are at work or engaged in the war effort.

Income from sponsors is minimal although there is some financial assistance from UEFA.

Ukraine manager Ruslan Rotan is in interim charge of the national side, as well as UPL duties

Ukraine manager Ruslan Rotan is in interim charge of the national side, as well as UPL duties

Rotan, who won 100 caps during a career spent mostly at Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, is in interim charge. The 41-year-old, who was in midfield when Ukraine were last at Wembley for a 1-1 draw in a World Cup qualifier in 2012, is also in charge of Ukraine’s Under 21s and UPL club Oleksandriya.

Once together in the Polish city of Rzeszow on Monday, they loaded the cargo and this section of the party took a charter flight directly to London. There, they were joined by 10 team-mates playing for clubs outside Ukraine, including Arsenal’s Oleksandr Zinchenko and Chelsea’s Mykhailo Mudryk. They have, since Tuesday, trained at Brentford’s training ground and stayed in a hotel nearby. There was a practice match against Brentford’s B-team on Thursday.

Ukraine’s players hope to boost morale back home with their performance at Wembley at 5pm on Sunday, set to go out live on Ukrainian TV as well as Channel 4 in the UK. Ukraine fans in the UK have bought more than 3,000 tickets, with a thousand more given free by the English FA to refugees and the families in Britain sponsoring them.

‘What happens at Wembley will bring inspiration and positive emotion for the people of Ukraine,’ said Rotan. ‘It is not only a game for the players but for the whole country to express our gratitude to the British people for supporting Ukraine. This game is first and foremost for our warriors and the defenders who protect Ukraine and are fighting a deadly enemy.’

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