Trauma can produce a devastating clarity. It paints the world in new and shocking colours, ruthlessly strips away what matters from what doesn’t, dulls the pain with pure adrenaline and primal instinct. Car crash victims talk of calmly strolling away from a burning wreckage. Survivors of dreadful accidents often chat lucidly away to the paramedics while lying in their own blood. When pushed to extremes, humans have a limitless capacity to endure, to carry on, to do the thing that is needed.
A lot of the speculation ahead of this game centred on how Ukraine’s footballers would cope with their first international fixture since the invasion of their country. Whether, for all the goodwill and generosity they have encountered, their lack of match practice would ultimately be the telling factor, that the emotional burden would take its toll in the pivotal moments.
To which the only possible response was: have you been watching the news lately? Have you heard Oleksandr Zinchenko and Andriy Yarmolenko speaking at any point in the last few months? These are bruised men, grieving men, probably tired men. But nothing in their actions or words over the last few months suggests anything other than the sharpest clarity: a team and a nation and a people simply enduring.
And so it proved on a milky summer’s night in Glasgow. As Artem Dovbyk coolly slotted home the game-clinching third goal, it was almost as if the effort and emotion of the last three months – the nights spent hiding in basements, the long training sessions in Slovenian exile, the anguished phone calls home – had hit Ukraine’s players in the space of a moment. Several sank to their knees. None had the strength to join Dovbyk, celebrating alone in the south-west corner of Hampden. For 94 minutes they had managed to shut out the world beyond and throw themselves into their sport. Now, they could throw the windows back open.
They had arrived with nothing to fear and nothing to lose. As Andriy Shevchenko put it, they had already won. Simply by being here. Simply by being alive as a nation. Simply by making the world speak their name and raise their flag. Instead, it was the Scots who struggled with the size of the occasion, with the tumult of their emotions, with the screaming legs of tiredness. If there was a certain pride in being the temporary centre of the footballing universe, there was also a confusion there too: whether to go for the jugular or sit tight, whether to harness the swirling noise or to block it out, whether to treat it like any other game or know that it was anything but.
The result was yawning gaps all over the field: between the front two and the midfield three, between the midfield three and a fatally passive back five, allowing Ukraine to create numerical superiorities everywhere. Billy Gilmour started by pushing up high on Zinchenko, then sitting back, then doing very little of either. With the ball Scotland were too slow, too cautious, subsisting on a diet of harmless crosses, floated in like hopeful little balloons.
It could have been over within an hour but for Craig Gordon in the Scotland goal. Instead, amid an overture of boos, Steve Clarke switched to a back four and Callum McGregor scored from a freakish goalkeeping error. But not for nothing did Ukraine finish the group stage unbeaten, drawing with France home and away. Their system – based on a resilient low block – is limited and uncomplicated. But it works, and most importantly everyone knows their job.
As for Scotland, Andy Robertson has just played his 56th game of an exhausting season. Gilmour and Grant Hanley have just been relegated with Norwich. Scott McTominay has spent the last few weeks reading about which world-beating central midfielder Manchester United are about to replace him with. Bound up in their worldly troubles, Scotland looked like what they were: a distracted and disjointed team thrown together with a bare minimum of thought and preparation. What do they know of football who only long punts to Lyndon Dykes know?
Ukraine didn’t win because their country is at war, but it probably didn’t hurt. The Ukrainian people need aid, they need food and medicine, they need missile defence systems and body armour. But they also need a little joy.
And so they watched in the air-raid shelters of Kyiv and Lviv as the sirens wailed and the bombs fell. They watched in the borrowed front rooms of Chisinau and Warsaw and Berlin, in a hotel bar in Aberfeldy that was showing the game for a few dozen of its newest arrivals.
And they watched from the safety of the Hampden seats, waving their flags, singing their songs, soaking in the last of the brilliant evening sunshine.
After the game the Ukrainian players walked over to greet them, and for a few minutes they stood in communion, whooping and hollering, giving thanks and blessings, each fortifying the other. And then it was back down the tunnel and into the dressing room, to check their phones for the latest news from home.
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