Wales beat Ukraine to advance to first World Cup since 1958

CARDIFF, Wales. When it was all over, when the referee blew the whistle and the crowd roared and Ukraine’s dream of earning a spot at this year’s World Cup was gone, most of its national football team fell straight to the grass. Several players held their heads in their hands. The rest just stared into space.

The scoreboard confirmed what even the Ukrainians themselves could hardly believe at that moment: Wales – 1, Ukraine – 0. A qualifying path to the World Cup, filled with symbolism, spirit and national pride, an opportunity delayed by three months due to the war with Russia and approaching the denouement. on the day that began with explosions in Kyiv, first direct airstrikes on the capital in a monthended not in triumph, but in a cruel turn: a loss to Wales in an own goal scored by Ukrainian forward Andriy Yarmolenko.

“The most important game of our lives,” Ukrainian defender Oleksandr Karavaev called this match less than 24 hours before. And for weeks, he, his teammates and their compatriots treated every phase of the war-postponed World Cup campaign as such: a chance to please a nation in desperate need of it; the opportunity to demonstrate their pride in their jerseys, for their flag, for themselves; a chance to maintain the plight of his nation on the world stage.

With hundreds of daily messages from friends and family and frontline fighters urging them forward, and with the support of several thousand fans from the growing Ukrainian diaspora who came to support them, the players stormed through Scotland to Glasgow on Wednesday to arrive in Cardiff on Sunday within the framework of the only victory at the World Cup.

How high was the drama? A group of soldiers recently sent the team a tangible sign that they were all together: a Ukrainian flag signed by their comrades. He hanged himself again in the team locker room on Sunday.

“They put forward only one demand,” midfielder Taras Stepanenko said. told The Guardian messages he and his teammates have been receiving for weeks. “Please do your best to go to the World Cup.”

But it will be Wales, not Ukraine, who will travel to Qatar in November to face the United States in the first game. This was the other half of Sunday’s story, another story full of emotion, tormented expectations, and overflowing with national pride.

Wales have not competed in the World Cup since 1958. To take their team to the next level, on Sunday around 30,000 fans gathered at Cardiff City Stadium, the team’s cozy but bustling home, with their energy, voices and dream of winning. them.

Half an hour before the start, they were already in full voice, joining the Welsh singer Dafydd Ivan, who sang the folk standard “Yma o Hyd” at the top of his voice. The song’s refrain – “We’re still here” – spoke less subtly about the mood in a country that is happy to accept Ukraine, but just as happy to defeat it.

Wales also came to Cardiff to win.

“We will be the most popular team in the stadium, that’s the main thing,” Wales captain Gareth Bale said ahead of the game. “We understand what terrible things are happening in Ukraine. Our hearts go out to the children, families and people of Ukraine. But come tomorrow, it’s a football game. We want to win.”

Sunday’s match was in the strict sense of the word “winner takes all”. The winner will take one of the last three places in the World Cup and complete the group, which, in addition to the United States, includes England and Iran. The losing team—whatever the team—will walk away with the wholly inadequate consolation that, like every other country that is eliminated en route to Qatar, it may try again in four years.

Ukraine has not qualified for the World Cup since 2006, its only previous trip to the tournament. But Wales waited even longer – 64 years to be exact – and then waited another three months – Sunday’s game was originally scheduled for March but postponed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – for a chance to get the job done.

Bale struck the game-breaker in the 34th minute with a free-kick from 25 yards past the defensive wall and into the Ukraine goal. Yarmolenko was the only player who could intercept him, but in the incessant rain, he turned the ball not to a safe place, but past his goalkeeper Georgiy Bushchan into the Ukrainian goal.

Wales nearly doubled their lead three minutes into the break, but Aaron Ramsey, who brought a World Cup spot on a silver platter thanks to a cross by Kieffer Moore, shot wide of the gaping net.

The Ukraine, coolness turning to despair as the minutes ticked by, tried again and again to break through the Welsh defenses, which were slowly but surely tightening like a vise. Yarmolenko blocked several shots in the box, while Roman Yaremchuk and substitute Artem Dovbyk created more chances, but they were saved by 35-year-old Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessy.

“We did everything we could,” said Oleksandr Petrakov, coach of the Ukrainian national team. “I want to apologize that we didn’t score, but that’s a sport.”

Wales was just as proud and just as intransigent.

“We are thrilled, the fans are thrilled,” Bale said. “We’re going to the World Cup.”

The game ended the same way it began, under the incessant rain and amid mutual admiration. Players from Wales cheered for their opponents and Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Laos took the moment to seek out Oleksandr Zinchenko from Ukraine and talk to him quietly as he squatted alone on the pitch.

However, a few minutes later, Zinchenko and his teammates stood up again. They moved as a group until they stood in front of a small group of their fans in one corner of the stadium, where they cheered for their support. When they left, the Wales team took the same spot and paid the same tribute to the Ukrainian fans, some of whom by then had changed from their bright yellow and blue jerseys to the red ones worn by the Welsh fans in the final friendship show. a lasting sign of respect on an emotional day.

Then it’s time to go. It turned out that in more than 90 minutes of drama, it took only a moment – a wave of Bale’s leg and a wave of Yarmolenko’s head – for the dreams of one nation to come true and the dreams of another dispelled.