CARDIFF, Wales — When it was over, when the referee blew his whistle and the crowd roared and Ukraine’s dream of a place in this year’s World Cup was over, most of its national soccer team dropped straight to the grass.The rest simply stared into space.

The scoreboard confirmed what, in that moment, even the Ukrainians themselves could scarcely believe: Wales 1, Ukraine 0. A World Cup qualifying journey laced with symbolism and spirit and national pride, an opportunity delayed three months by war and reaching its denouement on a day that had begun with explosions in Kyiv, the first direct airstrikes on the capital in a month, had ended not in triumph but in the cruelest of twists: defeat to Wales on an own goal scored by a Ukraine forward, Andriy Yarmolenko.

“The most important game of our lives,” Ukraine defender Oleksandr Karavayev had called it less than 24 hours earlier. And for weeks, he and his teammates had treated their campaign as such: a chance to bring joy to a war-torn nation desperately in need of it, a chance to showcase their pride in their jerseys, in their flag, in themselves.

Fueled by hundreds of daily messages from friends and family and frontline troops urging them forward, they had pushed past Scotland on Wednesday to move within a single victory of the World Cup. One group of soldiers had sent a more tangible token that they were all in it together: a signed Ukrainian flag. It hung, again, in the team’s dressing room on Sunday.

“They make only one demand,” midfielder Taras Stepanenko had told The Guardian of the messages he and his teammates were receiving. “‘Please do everything you can to go to the World Cup.’”

But it is Wales, not Ukraine, that will be headed to Qatar in November, to a date with the United States in its opening game. That was the other half of Sunday’s story of fraught emotions and national pride.

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Credit…Matthew Childs/Action Images Via Reuters

Wales has not played in the World Cup since 1958. To push their team over the line on Sunday, more than 25,000 Wales fans had packed Cardiff City Stadium, the team’s home, with their voices and with a dream of their own.

A half-hour before kickoff, they were already in full voice, belting out a full-throated rendition of the folk standard “Yma o Hyd,” led by the 76-year-old Welshman who released it, Dafydd Iwan. The song’s chorus, “We’re still here,” spoke not so subtly to the mood in the country happy to host Ukraine but just as happy to beat it, too. Wales, its players had made clear before the match, had also come to Cardiff to win.

“We’ll be the most popular team in the stadium, that’s the main thing,” the Wales captain Gareth Bale said on the eve of the game. “We understand the awful things going on in Ukraine. Our hearts go out to the kids, families and people of Ukraine. But come tomorrow, it’s a game of football. We want to win.”

Sunday’s match was, in the strictest sense, a winner-take-all affair. The victor would claim one of the final three places in the World Cup, which kicks off in November in Qatar, completing a group that includes the United States, England and Iran. The loser — whichever team it was — had the inadequate consolation that, like every other country eliminated on the road to Qatar, it could try again in four years.

Ukraine had not qualified for the World Cup since 2006, its only previous trip to the tournament. But Wales had waited even longer, and it had waited three months for the chance to complete the job. (Its semifinal, a 2-1 win against Austria, had gone ahead as scheduled in March while Ukraine’s was postponed and Russia, increasingly a sporting pariah, had been thrown out of qualifying altogether.)

Bale had delivered the opening blow, lashing a 25-yard free kick past a defensive wall and toward Ukraine’s goal. Yarmolenko was first to the scorching attempt, but in the steady rain, turned it not to safety but past his goalkeeper, Georgiy Bushchan.

It took only an instant, it turned out, a simple flick of the head, for the dreams of one nation to be delivered, and for those of another to be dashed.

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By: Andrew Das
Title: Wales Beats Ukraine to Advance to World Cup
Sourced From: www.nytimes.com/2022/06/05/sports/soccer/ukraine-wales-world-cup.html
Published Date: Sun, 05 Jun 2022 18:46:34 +0000

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