When it was over, Ukraine’s players stood weeping in the rain in Cardiff, their dream of a World Cup berth ended by Wales in a taut 1-0 game that cruelly turned on an own goal.
Although this game was played in Cardiff, the partisan crowd was respectful of Ukraine, a sentimental favorite whose players have family and friends in a war zone. And midfielder Oleksandr Zinchenko used the postgame platform to make a plea for unity.
“We need to show the people that everyone needs to live in peace and we need to stop the war altogether because you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” he told Sky Sports. “Today it’s Ukraine, but tomorrow Russian aggression could be with your country. That’s why we need to be united and we need to be together.”
Ukraine took the attack to Wales in the first half but was unable to do what it wanted on offense. Meanwhile, Gareth Bale, with five goals in his previous five appearances for Wales, came through after Dan James won a free kick on the edge of the goal area. Bale fired a kick that Ukraine captain Andriy Yarmolenko deflected into the net for an own goal in the 34th minute.
“It’s the greatest result in history for Welsh football,” Bale told Sky Sports. “It means everything. It’s what dreams are made of. I’m speechless because I’m so happy. Words can’t describe how we feel at the moment.”
The difference late in the game for Wales was goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, who made nine saves, including a stunning one in the 83rd minute against Artem Dovbyk, with Ben Davies blocking the rebound.
“Every challenge they threw at us we dealt with,” Davies told Sky Sports. “It’s incredible, a dream come true. As a squad we’ve worked so hard for this. We may not have the most talented group, but we give it everything we have got.”
After the final whistle, a soldier in the crowd led a chant of “Slava Ukraini” — “Glory to Ukraine.”
Wales players and officials understood there would be considerable cheering for Ukraine and had given 100 tickets to Ukrainian refugees living in Wales.
“Most of the world want Ukraine to get through,” Wales Manager Robert Page said, acknowledging his team was not the sentimental favorite. Wales First Minister Mark Drakeford had noted that while he supports the Welsh team, the game offered the “opportunity for us to reaffirm our support for Ukraine as it fights Russia’s unprovoked and brutal act of war.”
The Football Association of Wales also invited the Ukrainian ambassador to Britain to attend the match, to which Ukraine advanced after an emotional 3-1 win Wednesday over Scotland. That meeting came six months after Ukraine’s previous competitive match and after its contest with Scotland was postponed from March because Ukraine could not field a team after Russia’s invasion.
Several Ukrainian players reportedly considered joining the country’s army following the invasion in February. Oleksandr Petrakov, the team’s 64-year-old coach, tried to enlist but was turned away, and the team was granted permission to travel outside of the country to prepare for last week’s match as it hoped to secure the country’s first World Cup berth since 2006.
Zinchenko fought back tears last week as he spoke of how his country’s determination to “never give up” inspired the team, whose players took the field with the flag of Ukraine draped over their shoulders. “We want to go to the World Cup, want to give these incredible emotions to the Ukrainians,” Zinchenko said last week, “because they deserve it so much at this very moment.”
Players for both teams had said they would try to treat this as just a game. “If we could click our fingers and take away the pain the Ukraine are going through, we’d do it in a heartbeat,” Page said. “But when it comes to football and the whistle goes [off], we’ll want to win that game. Business is business.”
President Volodymyr Zelensky has given his approval to restart Ukraine’s soccer leagues in August.