Ukrainians dream of Wembley win amid war

Amidst a war that continues to ravage Ukraine, their supporters will turn up in their thousands to a sell-out Wembley Stadium on Sunday evening ahead of a EURO2024 qualifying fixture against England. The FA have given 1,000 tickets to Ukranian refugees and the British families that welcomed them, with over 4,000 standard tickets also sold to away fans.

It is at times like this when we can really begin to understand the significance of football, and the power it has to unite people at such difficult periods in their life. 395 days on from the Russian invasion, a corner of north-west London will be covered in blue and yellow – but while the fans in the capital might be jubilating, an entirely different scene takes place 1,300 miles away. Though they might be watching from afar, ex-Ukraine international Igor Belanov insists that “the whole country dreams of a win at Wembley.

Arsenal’s Oleksandr Zinchenko is expected to line up alongside his fellow countrymen at Wembley, and he revealed to the Daily Mail that “I remember, the first month after the invasion, I was going to the shop and little kids were coming to me and saying: ‘We are all with you, we are praying for you’.

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It’s a message that is echoed by other key figures surrounding Ukrainian football. Speaking to the BBC, Andriy Shevchenko added that “England has been extraordinarily supportive over the past year. They have shown solidarity and kindness. I think the atmosphere will be very emotional and warm toward the Ukrainian fans and the team. From the UK government to the civil society, we’ve been shown big support since the start of the war.

When asked for his preview of this fixture, Shevchenko was full of praise for Gareth Southgate’s England side, insisting that “England is strong, but our team is ready to show what it’s made of. It’s surely going to be a special day. There’s no good or bad moment to face England, as they are very strong no matter what.” He was quick to add that “our players don’t need extra motivation. They know why they’ll be on the pitch.

Igor Belanov became the first Ukranian to win the Ballon d’Or in 1986 – and he’s full of confidence that his country could walk away from Wembley with a positive result on Sunday. “The game versus England is one of the few opportunities to switch from war to sport for at least two hours. I expect victory, of course. What other options can there be? Soldiers in their trenches await victory… Millions of Ukrainians are waiting for a win. I apologise to England fans, but we need this victory more than they do.”

Kickoff at Wembley Stadium is at 5pm on Sunday, 26 March 2023. The match will be shown live on Channel 4 within the UK.