Ukraine's hoping to keep the surprises coming in the men's World Cup Qualifiers
ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:
On Wednesday, the Ukrainian national soccer team did something very few predicted.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: 3-1, game, set - and match to Ukraine, who the hearts of a devastated nation.
NADWORNY: They beat the Scottish national team in Scotland to advance to the final World Cup qualifier against Wales. But before the game even started, there were questions about how the Ukrainian team would match up against the favored Scots, not only because the Ukrainian players are dealing with the emotional stress of their country being at war but also because some team members hadn't played competitively in months due to the invasion. Now the team is hoping to pull off another win against Wales on Sunday. Here to talk about Ukraine's big win and preview their next game is Roger Bennett. He's the co-host of the sports podcast "Men In Blazers." Welcome.
ROGER BENNETT: Oh, Elissa, it's a joy to be with you.
NADWORNY: OK, Roger. So you are originally from England. I'm wondering if you can give us some perspective - how big this win was for Ukraine and the loss for Scotland.
BENNETT: Well, there's an old sporting adage that football is the most important least important thing. But watching this Ukrainian team take the field right now, charging towards November's World Cup - huge stakes. It feels like the most important most important thing. Few teams in world sports have ever been more universally beloved than this Ukrainian team in their yellow and light blue shorts. They take the field, wearing their nation's flag on their backs. The crowd in Scotland, many of them wore Zelenskyy masks. Glory to Ukraine broke out as a chant during the game, based on the official military greeting used by Zelenskyy in his regular video addresses.
And to watch the first goal scorer in Scotland, the gentleman called Yarmolenko, who rainbowed the ball over the head of a helpless Scottish goalkeeper - this striker plays in West Ham in the Premier League, but he'd had to take compassionate leave in the middle of the season to go and rescue his own wife and kids, who'd escaped Ukraine via Poland.
BENNETT: To watch him reel away in glory, you realize you're watching shattered, grieving, traumatized human beings come together with remarkable focus and making a deeply, deeply powerful statement to their homeland and to the world.
NADWORNY: Well, I imagine, you know, as you said, Scottish fans are kind of like, into the Ukrainian team. They're singing the Ukrainian national anthem before the game. Do you think it was hard for Scottish fans to root against Ukraine? Like, were they secretly pulling for them?
BENNETT: The - Scotland, God love, are a nation footballing league with just a string of traumas of their very own. And so even some of their most well-known spokespeople at the Al Michaels equivalent of Scottish football went on television and said, even I'm rooting for Ukraine. So, yeah, they're about to play Wales 90 minutes on Sunday with a place in the World Cup on the line. And Wales are a wonderful nation. Wales had not been in the World Cup themselves since 1958, but it does feel like only the Welsh and the Russians will be cheering for Wales. I mean, the Welsh journalists are calling this Wales versus the World. And the Ukrainian captain, Oleksandr Zinchenko, has said the game won't be about physical conditions or about tactics. It will be about survival.
NADWORNY: Well, I can imagine that this is probably been very emotional for the players on that Ukrainian team. I mean, you mentioned kind of going back home to rescue family members. Some of them were hiding in bomb shelters just months ago. I mean, do you have a sense of what this has been like for the team?
BENNETT: Yeah. The game against Scotland midweek ended 3-1 to Ukraine, and the Scottish scored a goal which made it agonizingly close down the stretch. The ball was narrowly over the line. And after the game, Ukrainian midfielder Taras Stepanenko told the press that he got into the locker room, powered up his phone and looked at the texts, and he said he got hundreds from soldiers fighting on the Russian front who told them that, quote, "the army at the border didn't think the ball had crossed the line." And that's just like, the surreal reality. They are footballers, yes, but human beings first and foremost.
And their jubilant manager, Oleksandr Petrakov, who is a dour man, not normally an emotional man at all, but one who said that in this past couple of months, as he's worked with this squad, and as you said, many of these players who - the ones who play at home in Ukraine have not been out to kick a football for months because their league shut down. He said it's his life mission now, he's realized, to qualify his nation in their hour of need. And he dedicated the win. This was his words - to the people watching back home in shelters, for the armed forces in the trenches, for the people in the hospitals. So to play with that front of mind, you realize you're watching deeply traumatized human beings coming together, playing as a collective, but with the stakes that couldn't be higher.
NADWORNY: What more can you tell us about the Ukrainian team? Like, what are some players that we should follow along with?
BENNETT: The captain is a young gentleman. Oleksandr Zinchenko is 25, plays for Manchester City, the champions of the Premier League. Watching him post-invasion immediately taking the field, the crowd in England all brought Ukrainian flags of support along, and he broke down on the field, played while sobbing. And to watch him lead, you realize you're watching a footballer, but really an ambassador. He has sobbed in almost every press conference in a most dignified, valor-propelled (ph) way as he's been forced to talk not about football whatsoever, but to beg for peace and talk about his nation's struggle, that longing, that belief. And that's ultimately the joy and the wonder of football is it's a massive story trapped in a small story. And human beings like Zinchenko are truly rising to the moment.
NADWORNY: OK. So for tomorrow's match between Ukraine and Wales, what are your predictions?
BENNETT: From a pure footballing perspective, we have no idea how much adrenaline got them through the Scotland game, how much energy they'll have. These are tired men. They are human. They are bruised. They are scarred. They are traumatized. We had one of our fans write in to us on Friday, a Ukrainian listener in the United States. Then he wrote, I cried during the Scotland-Ukraine game. I will cry on Sunday during the Wales-Ukraine game. And hopefully I'll cry in November watching the United States-Ukraine World Cup match. And so I think the only thing that's for sure is that there will be tears.
NADWORNY: Wow. An incredible game. An incredible story. That was Roger Bennett from the sports podcast "Men In Blazers." His latest book is "Reborn In The USA: An Englishman's Love Letter To His Chosen Home." Roger Bennett, thanks so much for your time.
BENNETT: Elissa, courage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.