LJUBLJANA (Reuters) – Ukraine will pour their heart and soul into ensuring they win their World Cup playoff matches as soldiers repelling the Russian invasion want the team to do everything they can to qualify, midfielder Taras Stepanenko said on Friday.
Ukraine, who last played against Bosnia & Herzegovina in a 2-0 victory in November, face Scotland in a World Cup playoff semi-final on June 1, with the winner set to face Wales for a place in the finals in Qatar later this year.
Ukraine will play a friendly against Bundesliga side Borussia Moenchengladbach on May 11 in what will be their first match since the February invasion, which Moscow calls a “special operation”.
“Everyday we receive messages from our soldiers. A lot of soldiers, a lot of people in Ukraine love football and they (have) only one demand: ‘Please do everything you can to go to the World Cup’,” Stepanenko told a news conference.
“Because for the country, for them, it’s like a moment of hope. It will be like a celebration for the country. That’s why we have to play, not only a football game, we have to play with our soul, with our heart.
“This is very, very important. It will be very emotional for my country, for our players and for all Ukraine.”
The team is currently training in Slovenia and Stepanenko said it has not been easy for them when they read about the situation in Ukraine on the news.
“Everyday you see the photos, videos about what happened in my country and every time we speak about these guys, sometimes it’s difficult,” he added.
“But we understand what this game means for us and we have to do everything we can to do our best.”
With the Ukrainian Premier League suspended due to the invasion, head coach Oleksandr Petrakov said they have to prepare for the friendly like it was any other official match as they have had no match practice in months.
“We haven’t got any official games now and we have no internal championship because of war, so the most important thing for our guys is to give their all in these games,” he said.
“Not like it’s a friendly, but like it’s an official match, because it’s the only opportunity for us to have good preparation.”
(Reporting by Antonio Bronic, Writing by Rohith Nair in Bengaluru; editing by Pritha Sarkar)