Scotland v Ukraine: Hampden braced for poignant and powerful occasion

Scotland fans are expected to show their support for Ukraine
Venue: Hampden Park, Glasgow At your place: Wednesday, 1 June Time:19:45 BST
Coverage: Listen to live commentary on Sportsound and follow live text updates on the BBC Sport website & app

Hampden, in its different guises, has seen so many storied occasions, from the largest crowds in the world in the 1930s to the greatest game in the world at the start of the 1960s, when Di Stefano, Puskas and their fellow Real Madrid marauders turned the gray old place technicolour with their genius.

Kenny Dalglish nutmegging Ray Clemence. Zinedine Zidane’s volley against Leverkusen. Leigh Griffiths’ free-kicks against England. David Gray’s header that brought an end to Hibs’ 114-year wait to win the Scottish Cup. Every drama under the sun. Every emotion imaginable, or so we thought.

On Wednesday, Scotland host Ukraine in a World Cup play-off semi-final that some thought we would never see. There’ll be 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 and variations on the theme, but other numbers will elevate this contest to the most profound level possible – more than 4,000 Ukrainian civilians, at least, killed as well as thousands more fatalities among the army.

There are 3.6m Ukrainians exiled in Poland, close to a million in Romania, 700,000 in Germany, 600,000 in Hungary, half a million in Moldova and Slovakia. Almost seven millionexternal-link have been forced from their own land – significantly more than the entire population of Scotland.

The eyes of the football world will be on Hampden and for this night of nights they will be with Ukraine, willing them on at every turn.

It’s a game loaded with political significance, a chance for their footballers to play their own small part in reinforcing the message that Vladimir Putin might tear down Ukraine’s buildings, destroy its cities, and kill its people but he’ll never take their spirit.

Putin might not care, but that’s not the point. This Ukrainian team will be desperate to put a smile on the face of their people, if only for a little while.

Emotion will swirl around Hampden like the wind on a winter’s evening. Elite sportspeople say that you have to be careful with emotion, that it can be used powerfully in your favor but that too much of it can sap you of energy.

How will these Ukraine boys cope? Hampden will welcome them with a loving embrace. That warmth could inspire or it could overwhelm. The pressure they’re putting on themselves to give their homeland a lift is enormous. The heart goes out to them.

‘This will feel like a world event’

There are 10 overseas-based players in Oleksandr Petrakov’s extended squad – Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko, Everton’s Vitalii Mykolenko, West Ham’s Andriy Yarmolenko and Benfica’s Roman Yaremchuk chief among them.

The rest have been in Slovenia this past while. They’ve played friendly matches in Germany, Italy and Croatia, they’ve bonded in a training camp, undercooked through the lack of properly competitive games since the outbreak of war, but no doubt driven beyond our imagination by what they are seeing and hearing from home.

It’s a game that makes you check your vernacular. It’s not a battle or a fight, but it does matter. This will feel truly significant, a world event. For one evening, Hampden will be at the very center of global sport and high up the list of global news.

Ukraine have only ever made it to one World Cup, 16 years ago in Germany. They were beaten in play-offs for the tournaments in 1998, 2002, 2009 and 2013, the last two by a single goal. For the 2014 World Cup, they were 2-0 ahead after the first leg against France, then lost the second leg 3-0 after having a man sent off in the 47th minute.

They’ve hit the qualification crossbar on so many occasions that even in peaceful times, motivation would be sky high. In war-time, we’re into a different stratosphere.

Ukraine were unbeaten in eight games in qualification, drawing six – including both matches against a full-strength France. Nobody should be surprised if Wednesday goes the distance. Every sane voice knows that the Scots have a job to do and no sane voice will be hard on them if they do it and move on to Wales in Cardiff at the weekend.

It wouldn’t make them bad people if they beat Ukraine, it would just confirm that they’re good footballers led by a terrific captain in Andy Robertson. Two wins this week, and he can spend his summer downing as many beers on as many open top buses as he likes.

A Scotland fan displays a banner in support of Ukraine amid Russia's Invasion

Clarke’s side are unbeaten in eight. They’ve lost only one of their past 16 World Cup qualifiers. They’re a side on the up.

On the face of it, the manager might have cause for concern about the lack of goalscoring form from his attacking players – Che Adams and Lyndon Dykes haven’t scored in 13, John McGinn has found the net just once in 26 games – but this is a side that has seen defenders score in the past four internationals and in five of the unbeaten run of eight. Under Clarke, they tend to find a way.

They’re resilient and they’ll need to be. Kieran Tierney is out, a mainstay missing. Tierney is two and three players in one, a dependable center-half, an attacking wing-back, a menacing left winger. His relentless movement and reassuring presence di lui has been a key part of Scotland’s upturn, but Clarke has at least known for a while that he’d be without the Arsenal man.

Presumably he’ll bring in Scott McKenna as his replacement. Just promoted to the Premier League with Nottingham Forest, McKenna will have floated into camp this week.

In the sentimental abyss that is the bookmaking world, 24 firms out of 24 make Scotland favorites. Home advantage, a deep squad, confidence. None of them are buying into the fairytale of an away victory. The odds layers don’t see it as a logical conclusion. But sometimes logic has got nothing to do with it.

‘Scotland must keep focus against Ukrainian heroes’

There’s a story that’s told in Ukraine and beyond about the spring of 1942 and the release of soldiers from a Nazi prisoner of war camp, among them a group of talented footballers who’d been captured when the Gestapo rolled into town. It talks to an indomitable will of the Ukrainian people. The passage of time clearly hasn’t changed that.

Mykola Trusevych was one of those footballers, a goalkeeper in his early 30s for Dynamo Kiev and a runner-up as Ukrainian player of the year in the season before war broke out. When Trusevych was freed, he set about looking for some of his old team-mates di lui. He found eight of them, added some more from Lokomotiv Kiev and formed a team called FC Start.

Start were good. They played in a local league and beat all-comers. They spread joy and hope wherever they played, a joy and hope that the occupying Germans were keen to snuff out. A game was arranged between Start and Flakelf, the team of the Luftwaffe sent out to show up the Ukrainians. Start won 5-1.

Incensed, the Germans demanded a rematch three days later. They put an SS officer in as referee and ordered the Start boys to do the Nazi salute before kick-off. They refused. Despite being told that they should seriously consider the consequences of winning, they beat Flakelf 5-3. The movie Escape To Victory was loosely based on this real-life story.

Within a few weeks, some of the Start players were rounded up, tortured and put in labor camps. Six months later, a number of them were executed, Trusevych included. The Soviet poet, Stepan Oliynyk, wrote of them: “For our beautiful presence, they fell in a fight… For ages your glory won’t fade, the fearless hero-athletes.”

There are fearless heroes all over Ukraine’s story these past months and all of Hampden will acclaim them. It’ll be moving, we know that. It’ll be unforgettable, we know that, too.

Jet-powered by passion and playing for a cause way beyond mere World Cup qualification, you have to assume that Ukraine will be formidable, lack of meaningful game-time or not.

Scotland will have to keep their focus. They have a game to win, but it won’t be like any game any of them have ever played before. There’s been football on this site for well over a century, but something new will unfold on Wednesday.

Of all the uncertainties about outcome, one thing is guaranteed – this will be a powerful and poignant night in Glasgow.

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