Ukraine’s World Cup dream is over after a cruel 1-0 defeat by Wales in Sunday’s playoff final left a nation ravaged by war without the release of seeing their country compete in Qatar later this year.
Heads bowed, the Ukraine players were still saluted like heroes from the small band of visiting fans decked out in blue-and-yellow flags in one corner of the Cardiff City stadium on Sunday.
“To get to the World Cup would have lifted the spirit of the people,” Igor Makarenko (44) told AFP. “The spirit Russia is trying to crush.”
The tradesman had travelled with his family from their home in London to support Ukraine.
Having deliberated over whether to return to his homeland to fight, Makarenko stayed put in Britain to help co-ordinate supplies for Ukrainian refugees who have fled to Europe and his family who are still living close to the Belarusian border.
“I have three brothers on the frontline,” he added. “I asked them whether I should come back and they told me it was better to stay and send money for petrol to make Molotov cocktails.”
Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko faced a similar dilemma.
The 25-year-old admitted earlier this week to having “one hand on the weapon” when war broke out before being convinced he could do more good by using his profile positively.
Zinchenko symbolically wrapped the Premier League trophy in the Ukrainian flag after winning the title with City last month.
On the field, he was outstanding as Ukraine made a nation proud by beating Scotland 3-1 on Wednesday in their first competitive match since Russia’s invasion.
“We, as football players, need to still represent our country as much and as best as we can,” said Zinchenko. “We need to show the people everyone needs to live in peace and we need to stop the war all together because we don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow.
“Today it’s Ukraine but tomorrow Russians can be in your country, so we need to be united.”
In the midst of wild celebrations as Wales clung on to secure their place at a first World Cup since 1958, Gareth Bale led the Wales players over to applaud the Ukrainian support and team.
“We are fully aware of what is going on, we just wanted to show our appreciation to them,” said Wales manager Robert Page.
“They deserve a lot of credit for what they have done. We wanted to show them that respect.”
After the Ukraine players disappeared down the tunnel to a dressing room decorated with a flag sent by soldiers fighting on the frontline, the Wales squad and crowd united for a chorus of the traditional folk song ‘Yma o Hyd’ (We’re still here).
The same can be said of Ukraine’s footballers, who in the week the war passed 100 days, gave some sense of normality to their people with proud performances on the pitch.
“We have war raging all over the country, women and children dying on a daily basis, our infrastructure ruined by the Russian barbarians,” said Ukraine coach Oleksandr Petrakov.
“The Russians want to hurt us but the Ukrainians are resisting. We just want your support, to understand what is happening at home.
“God forbid it would touch you and you feel what we can feel deep inside.”
© Agence France-Presse by Kieran CANNING