For months after Russia invaded their country in February, the members of Ukraine’s national soccer team were unable to hold so much as a practice together, let alone play a game.
On Sunday, they will play for a place in the World Cup.
That game, once unthinkable for Ukraine’s team, and by far the least of its concerns, will be against Wales at Cardiff City Stadium, a modest arena about 1,500 miles from Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and a world away from the horrors and traumas and worries of war.
Here’s what you need to know.
How can I watch?
The game is being broadcast in the United States by ESPN and streamed on its ESPN Plus service. (Warning: You may see listings saying the match is on ESPN2; it was, until Friday, when the network reassessed the interest in the game and moved it to ESPN.)
Broadcast coverage on ESPN begins at 11:30 a.m. Eastern. The game kicks off at noon.
What’s at stake?
Sunday’s match is, in the strictest sense, a winner-take-all affair. The victor on Sunday will claim one of the final three places in the World Cup in Qatar when it kicks off in November. The loser can try again in four years.
Ukraine hasn’t qualified for the World Cup since 2006, its only previous trip to the tournament.
But Wales has waited even longer: Its last — and only — World Cup appearance was in 1958, and the team is eager to end that drought, even if it means ending Ukraine’s dreams at the same time.
“It’s still missing,” said the Wales captain, Gareth Bale, who has five Champions League titles on his résumé but not a single minute in the World Cup. “We have a game tomorrow to put that to bed and qualify. Everyone wants to play at a World Cup. It’s no different for me.”
How did the teams get here?
Sunday’s game is the final match of a four-team playoff — two semifinals and a final — that didn’t go as anyone expected. The games were originally scheduled for March, but Ukraine’s semifinal against Scotland was postponed soon after Russia’s invasion, even as Wales went ahead with a game against Austria, winning by 2-1.
In April, FIFA, soccer’s global governing body and the organizer of the World Cup, announced the Ukraine-Scotland match had been rescheduled for June 1, with the final — already set for Wales — to be held a few days later.
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On Wednesday, Ukraine beat Scotland, 3-1, in a game charged with emotion at Hampden Park in Glasgow. It was the Ukrainians’ first official game since November.
Was Ukraine expected to be here?
Until the Scotland game, it was hard to know what to expect from Ukraine. Rescheduling its World Cup playoff was one thing. Preparing for the game was another matter.
Like most of Europe’s national teams, Ukraine has players who are scattered across the continent: Oleksandr Zinchenko just won a Premier League title with Manchester City, and Andriy Yarmolenko (West Ham), Ruslan Malinovskyi (Atalanta) and Roman Yaremchuk (Benfica) all play for big European clubs. That meant the core of the team was getting regular training and games, even if their minds were constantly distracted by the war back home.
But the Ukrainian league shut down as soon as Russia invaded, leaving the bulk of Ukraine’s players with no place to play. The top clubs Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv managed to get their players out of the country and set up camps abroad and a series of exhibition matches so their players could train.
At the same time, Ukraine’s coach, Oleksandr Petrakov, set up a training camp in Slovenia for his team, and cycled in members of the squad as they became available. All the while, messages poured in from Ukraine: from soldiers, from family members, from friends fighting to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty from Russian troops.
“They make only one demand,” the veteran midfielder Taras Stepanenko told The Guardian of the messages he and his teammates receive. “‘Please do everything you can to go to the World Cup.’”
What are they saying?
Ukraine Coach Oleksandr Petrakov: “We have a very difficult situation in the country. Not everyone watches football. We have grief, people are dying …”
“We don’t think about it. We are thinking about how to make our fans happy, our armed forces, and focused on the game.”
Wales captain Gareth Bale: “We’ll be the most popular team in the stadium, that’s the main thing. We understand the awful things going on in Ukraine. Our hearts go out to the kids, families and people of Ukraine. We’ve all felt awful during this time and not been able to do too much. But come tomorrow, it’s a game of football. We want to win.”
Ukraine defender Oleksandr Karavayev: “We understand that the most important game in our lives is ahead.”
What’s next for the winner?
Since the World Cup draw took place in the window between the original dates of the playoff in March and Sunday’s playoff final, the winner of the game in Cardiff will know its World Cup path immediately.
It will land in a group with England, Iran and the United States and open the World Cup on its first day, Nov. 21, against the Americans.