MONCHENGLADBACH: Ukraine are back on the football pitch.
Ukraine’s men’s national team returned to action on Wednesday for the first time since the Russian invasion, beating German club Borussia Mönchengladbach 2-1 in a charity fundraiser.
The friendly game was a chance for the Ukrainians to get back into shape ahead of a World Cup qualifier against Scotland next month, but also just to show that their side are carrying on regardless.
“We thank you all for your great help,” said former world heavyweight boxing champion Wladimir Klitschko, whose brother Vitali is mayor of Kyiv, in a video message to the German club and fans. It felt like “both (teams) were playing for us,” he added.
The squad for the unusual club-vs-country friendly was made up of Ukrainian clubs whose league seasons were frozen on February 24 the morning of the invasion of Russian troops.
Ukraine banned males of fighting age from leaving the country during the war, so players needed special permission to travel. Some have been traveling around Europe for weeks, first with clubs Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk in fundraising matches, then at a national team training camp in Slovenia.
Coach Oleksandr Petrakov said when the Ukrainian anthem was sung before the match: “I had tears in my eyes.”
“Thank you to the Ukrainians who came to support us,” he said, “and thank you to the Germans.”
Petrakov said he spent the early stages of the war at his apartment in the capital, Kyiv. At that time, as Russian forces closed in on the town, “you’re sitting in the apartment and you don’t know where a projectile is going to land,” he said. “I don’t wish anyone to go through this.”
The crowd of 20,000 at the game included many Ukrainians – they received free tickets – who roared their appreciation when winger Mykhailo Mudryk rounded the goalkeeper and scored in the ninth minute to give the lead to Ukraine.
Gladbach responded five minutes later with a powerful shot from Irish youth international Conor Noss to level the score.
Mudryk had another good chance midway through the second half but could only kick the ball into the keeper’s arms. Substitute Oleksandr Pikhalonok gave Ukraine the victory in the 82nd minute with a low shot from just outside the box. The two Ukrainian strikers represented the national team for the first time.
Ukraine had not played since beating Bosnia and Herzegovina 2-0 on November 16 and had to reschedule games due to the war. Petrakov said he was happy with the performance after such a long time without playing, but the team still needed to work on their mistakes.
If Ukraine beat Scotland in the qualifiers in Glasgow on June 1, they will face Wales four days later in Cardiff for a place at this year’s World Cup in Qatar.
Ukraine’s hottest players, including Manchester City left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko, West Ham striker Andriy Yarmolenko and Benfica striker Roman Yaremchuk, are set to join the squad in time for the European Cup qualifiers. world once their club season is over.
Before that, the national team will play friendly matches against Italian club Empoli and Croatian club Rijeka next week, the Ukrainian Football Federation announced on Wednesday.