Inside Ukraine Soccer Team’s Bid to Reach 2022 World Cup

“There is no anger, only hate,” says Oleksandr Petrakov, the head coach for Ukraine’s men’s national soccer team, of his feelings toward the Russians who have laid waste to his homeland. We’re sitting in Petrakov’s bedroom cum office at a luxury resort perched beneath the Slovenian Alps. There are a lot of tactical notebooks, stopwatches, and other items on the coffee table. It’s here that the steely-eyed 64-year-old has ensconced his young charges at a training camp to prepare for battle.

They won’t be picking up guns, of course, although that was Petrakov’s first instinct when the rockets started falling around his home in Kyiv on Feb. 24. He marched straight to enlist with Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force, intent on fending off the invaders, but was turned away. “It would be wrong if I ran from my city where I was born,” he says, shrugging. “But they said ‘You are too old and don’t have any military skills. Instead, you better bring us to the World Cup.’”

Oleksandr Petrakov, the head coach for Ukraine’s men’s national soccer team in his hotel room in Brdo, Slovenia.

Ciril Jazbec, TIME

It’s a mission that Petrakov accepted with a grave fervor. As hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have taken up arms to fight the invading forces of Vladimir Putin, his players have been assigned a solemn duty: to raise their nation’s morale, earn cash for the Ukrainian military through charity matches overseas, and, most important of all, reassert the country’s disputed sovereignty by booking an unlikely place at November’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar. They must defeat Scotland on June 1, and Wales four days later in Cardiff.

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“It’s a very big responsibility,” Petrakov says. “I feel it more as the [Scotland]Game approaches. Many of our fans are soldiers in the Ukrainian army.”

Over the entire group, expectations are heavy. The spoiled lifestyles of professional soccer players, as well as their personal boot deals and lavish fans, are often a source of ridicule. But none of the 21 players currently in Slovenia is unaffected by Russia’s invasion—and a singularity of purpose permeates all aspects of life here. Everyday conversations are about more than celebrity boyfriends or nights out. They also discuss how to best ship medical supplies home and send heartfelt messages to troops in the frontline.

The team trains in the gymnasium at the National Football Center Brdo in Slovenia.

Ciril Jazbec, TIME

Petrakov took over as head coach last August, replacing former AC Milan striker Andriy Shevchenko, a prolific scorer regarded as Ukraine’s greatest player ever. Petrakov has not had any club coaching experience but he did spend a lot of time training Ukrainian youth players, and won the 2019 Under-20 World Cup.

It was that success that attracted the attention of some Major League Soccer teams, although Petrakov says he turned them down fearing his English wasn’t up to the task. Petrakov, while not having the same star status as his predecessors, has had the benefit of working with current Ukraine’s youth squad for several years. Petrakov’s young adult team show respect for him like a respected schoolmaster even when they are in their twenties and thirties. “They will do whatever he asks of them,” says one assistant coach, standing on the sidelines of the training pitch in Slovenia.

While many of the players from Ukraine were interested in joining the army at one point, the majority decided that they would be of greater assistance to the war effort. And the scene here in Slovenia—where the lush training pitch is flanked by wildflower meadows and ornamental lakes, with faraway church bells and horses neighing in the distance—couldn’t be further from the devastation in Ukraine today. This dissonance is difficult to deal with.

Midfielder Taras Stepanenko

Ciril Jazbec, TIME

When the war broke out, midfielder Taras Stepanenko rushed his wife and three sons—ages 4, 6, and 8—down to his house’s basement in Kyiv and stayed there for three days, ears trained on the shells raining nearby. Although initially reluctant to go home, the 32-year old believed that an agreement could be reached at any time.

But as the conflict escalated, he decided to follow his neighbors to the relative safety of the southwestern city of Chernivtsi—only for a Russian rocket to obliterate a building on their route just 20 minutes after they drove past. It still shakes him to think about it. “There were missiles every day,” he says. “I just had to tell my sons not to worry, it’s some far off place, everything will be OK.”

Oleksandr Karavayev (midfielder), is from Kherson in the south. His knowledge comes with close Russian relatives. On April 25, his sister-in-law gave birth to a girl in Kherson, but Russian forces won’t let them leave the city. Nor will they let Karavayev or his brother—a seaman who was away when war broke out—back into Kherson.

Midfielder Oleksandr Karavayev

Ciril Jazbec, TIME

“We message all the time,” Karavayev says. “At least I know they have food and water. They confiscated everything we sent, so I tried to send some medicine. They are near the sea and hear firing every day in the direction of Odessa and Mykolaiv.”

Few coaches can rally their team in such emotional chaos. The challenge for Petrakov is to harness that heartache—the worry and collective hardships—and channel it into success on the pitch. Petrakov believes that hate is more powerful than anger or fear. It clearly motivates him too—he speaks with fiery eyes about Russian soldiers killing children and raping women in Ukraine. “They hate us and think we are an inferior nation,” he says.

Soccer is everywhere far Ukraine’s favorite sport and the domestic scene is dominated by two rival clubs: Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv. This sport can also be a proud indicator of one’s identity. “[It] is a national treasure,” says Petrakov.

In soccer, Ukraine has always been a strong competitor. The Soviet team, right up until the union’s breakup in 1991, was dominated by Ukrainian players. The Soviet team was almost entirely comprised of Ukrainians at the 1986 World Cup. Nearly half the players belonged to the Kyiv club. Dynamo turned that dominance into several domestic championships after independence.

Dynamo’s challenge to Shakhtar has grown since 2000. This is due to the financial strength of Rinat Akhmetov a billionaire who has made his fortune from energy and mining. He now has a huge media and real-estate empire and has been charged with corruption. Akhmetov denies all wrongdoing. He is also the owner and operator of Azovstal, a steelworks in Mariupol that used to shelter hundreds of civilly trapped people.

After Akhmetov purchased the club in 1996, Shakhtar adopted the tactic of signing young, talented Brazilians and then selling the most successful players—like Douglas Costa or Fernandinho—onto Europe’s biggest clubs at a vast profit. That strategy helped raise Shakhtar’s international profile and that of Ukrainian football more broadly. “The Brazilians became part of their core identity,” says Adam Pate, co-host of the Ukraine + Football podcast, who lived in Ukraine for 12 years until the war.

Detail of Oleksandr Karmayev’s soccer boot

Ciril Jazbec, TIME

Mykola Shahparenko’s tattoo “HOPE”

Ciril Jazbec, TIME

For years, however, the history of Ukrainian soccer has included political conflict and turmoil. Russia annexed Crimea, and Kremlin backed rebels took over territory in eastern Ukraine including Donetsk. After being forced from its Donbass Arena, the Shakhtar team wandered among temporary residences in Lviv and Kharkiv until it reached Kyiv.

Today’s chaos is far more dramatic than the turbulence that was experienced in those turbulent times. FC Mariupol was the worst victim, with their new facility and stadium destroyed in the fighting over this once flourishing port. Andriy Sanin (vice-president) of FC Mariupol tells TIME their offices have been destroyed and their gym is covered in concrete rubble. While the extent of damage to their main stadium is unknown, since it’s still forbidden to go there, he is preparing for the worst.

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Sanin has escaped west but not before ensuring the safety of FC Mariupol’s youth academy players. The coaches took those who were not able to be collected by their parents before Russian forces completely occupied the city in March 2. “I am proud of my colleagues; they are real heroes,” says Sanin. Their fate is still uncertain, as many of their parents remain away from them. The negotiations for sending academy players abroad are continuing.

Officials from the Ukrainian club have carried on humanitarian work. Shakhtar transformed the 40,000-seat Lviv stadium into a hostel for 3000 internally displaced persons. NK Veres Rivne and FC Rukh Lviv have both turned over their facilities to shelter the homeless and distribute assistance. “Clubs in western Ukraine, especially, have become the main organizing centers for humanitarian relief,” says Pate, who himself is currently teaching Ukrainian refugee children in Luxembourg.

YukhymKonoplia (center), during training

Ciril Jazbec, TIME

They have also done their part. Despite a rule that no men of fighting age—defined as 18 to 60—are allowed to leave Ukraine or play competitive football domestically, Dynamo and Shakhtar were permitted to play charity games overseas to raise funds for the Ukrainian military.

They were permitted to travel abroad, which caused protests, particularly as top players from Ukraine and ex-internationals chose to remain and join the ranks, such as Andriy Bogdanov (32), and Oleksandr Aliyev (37) These games still have broad support. “By holding charity matches, they constantly remind the world of the terrible events taking place in Ukraine,” says Sanin. “Both Shakhtar and Dynamo are now at the forefront of the information war.”

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This tactic was approved by the top. Petrakov said he had spoken with Volodymyr Zelensky twice. “He’s a very positive man, very pleasant, and a big football fan,” says Petrakov. “I voted for him. We thank God that 73% of them voted for him. [of Ukrainians] who voted for him in elections were right.”

In contrast to Ukraine’s bid for the World Cup, Russia was ejected from the tournament following the invasion. Russians have been banned from competing in everything from the Eurovision Song Contest—which Ukraine won, not so incidentally—to the Wimbledon tennis tournament. It’s a response that has received support from many quarters but also criticism. The bans raise additional questions over why Russia’s role in Syria, Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and China’s persecution of its Uighur Muslim minority haven’t received similar censure.

Jules Boykoff from Pacific University, Oregon is an expert in politics and sport. As a soccer coach for the U.S., he believes banning competitors could lead to the exclusion of Americans as well as citizens of other countries for bellicose political actions, such the invasion of Iraq by the U.S. “All this lays bare the brass-knuckle geopolitics that often sits quietly beneath sport’s surface,” he says.

FEw in the Ukraine camp complain about Russia’s pariah status. “If we have to fight just to live our normal lives, they have to fight for their right to be part of world society,” says the midfielder Karavayev.

It’s a statement that will lose much of its potency without a triumph over Scotland. Ukraine’s two wins and a tie, in three recent charity games against club teams in Germany, Italy, and Croatia, have boosted the national team’s confidence. But despite this impressive form, Petrakov says these matches cannot compare with the rigors of competitive action, which Ukraine hasn’t experienced since November. Scotland’s players, by contrast, are coming to the close of their domestic seasons and should be in peak condition.

“There will be an incredible atmosphere in [Scotland’s national stadium] Hampden Park,” says Petrakov. “After missiles, rockets, and bombs, we don’t fear anything.”

In the bedroom of Taras Stepanenko, midfielder, a “Save Mariupol” shirt.

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Kseniia Nikitina from Zhytomyr Ukraine watches the team train with her 12-year old daughter Alisa and Martin, who are both 4-years-old.

Ciril Jazbec, TIME

Ukraine will be supported by most of the neutrals and their nation. “Ukraine has strong football, famous footballers, and they should know that we care for them, are proud of them,” says Kseniia Nikitina, from the Ukrainian city of Zhytomyr, who took her daughter Alisa, 12, and son Martin, 4, to watch training in Slovenia. “And now victory is important on all fronts.”

Ukrainians believe that the U.S. and Western countries will provide armaments worth billions to the Ukrainian army, which they hope will be able to push back the Russians. Asked whether he has a message for Americans, Petrakov doesn’t hesitate: “A very, very big thank you,” he says. “Growing up and living in the Soviet Union, I never imagined that people that I thought were our brothers, whom I slept and ate with during my younger years, could kill us. On the other side, Soviet propaganda showed us that Americans and Germans were our enemies. So we are very, very grateful for your support.”

We are so grateful. It would have to be in Group A with Iran and England if Ukraine was to make it into the World Cup. Petrakov might be willing to take a more relaxed approach to his American counterparts if the Ukrainians only needed a tie in order to advance to the next stage. He is a notoriously strict coach who sucks his teeth. “If you come to me, we will find a solution,” he says with a grin.

Ukraine’s men’s national soccer team needs to defeat Scotland in a playoff game in Glasgow on June 1 in order to advance to securing a spot in November’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar

Ciril Jazbec, TIME

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