When the Ukrainian national team walks out under the Hampden Park lights tonight they will hold in their hearts their 44 million compatriots back home – many spending the night under devastating Russian bombardment.
Midfielder Taras Stepanenko, who saw his native village of Velyka Novoselytsia destroyed, says soldiers regularly write to their national team asking only one thing – to qualify for the World Cup.
If they beat Scotland in tonight’s playoff qualifier in Glasgow, they will set up a meeting with Wales for a place at the World Cup in Qatar.
Scotland have not sent a team to football’s greatest tournament in more than 20 years, but a rollercoaster campaign now puts them just two wins away from their first appearance since 1998.
But despite being on opposite sides of the ball, their dreams of World Cup qualification on the line, Scottish and Ukrainian fans at Hampden Park will unite this evening to sing the visitors’ national anthem in a show of unity.
‘We will try to make our people happy and proud’
Manchester City star Oleksandr Zinchenko was tearful in the pre-match press conference, saying the dream of every Ukrainian is simply an end to the war.
“When it comes to football, the team, we have our own dream. We want to go to the World Cup, want to give these incredible emotions to the Ukrainians because they deserve it so much at this very moment,” he said.
“I am sure that the whole of Ukraine will be watching us. We will feel her support. We can talk a lot, but we need to prove everything on the field.
“We will try to make our people happy and proud.”
“It is very difficult. The boys think of their families at home,” Ukraine head coach Oleksandr Petrakov said on Tuesday ahead of the match.
“I had to joke, tell them that we have our own war – on the football field. They are good, they listened, they prepared, so we approach the game in a fighting mood.”
Scotland boss Steve Clarke says he is “desperate” to lead his team to the World Cup finals in Qatar, though he recognised the “incredible situation” the visitors find themselves in.
Asked about former Scotland skipper Graeme Souness saying he wanted Ukraine to win and then go on to win the World Cup, he said: “I can’t put myself into anyone else’s mind, everyone has their opinion on the situation.”
Ukrainian players representing 44 million compatriots
Stepan Luczka, a third generation Ukrainian and head of the UK Ukrainian Sports Supporters Club, said his national team display the “defiance” of the Ukrainian people.
“The 11 Ukrainian players will be playing on behalf of 44 million Ukrainians, representing them.
“I think it will mean so much more under the circumstances we find ourselves in for Ukraine to win.”
Asked about those watching the match back in Ukraine, perhaps among them soldiers on the front line, he added: “If that’s a little bit of positivity or joy that they can get out of life at the moment by all means watch the match, as far away or as close as you are to Hampden Park.”
Fans to sing visitors’ national anthem
Ahead of the game, language learning app Duolingo has created a phonetic version of the lyrics to Ukraine’s national anthem to enable fans of both teams to come together in song.
Duolingo spokesperson Colin Watkins said: “Football unites people, with The World Cup the pinnacle for this, but we all know this match carries even more significance, and the eyes of the world will be watching.
“We want all Scotland fans and all football fans to show their solidarity in song and show the world they are united with Ukraine through language.”