Euro 2024: After the defeat, pride prevails in Ukraine

Euro 2024: After the defeat, pride prevails in Ukraine

They had wrapped themselves in flags for the historic moment. In blue and yellow, the colors of their country. The Ukrainian national football team stepped onto the pitch of the Munich stadium on Monday afternoon in sunshine and 25 degrees – and sang the national anthem with great fervor along with their thousands of fans. The team obviously wanted to demonstrate their connection with their country. Many Ukrainian fans held their hands over their hearts during the anthem.

It wasn’t just any old kick-off at 3 p.m. against Romania. It was the start of Ukraine’s first game at a major tournament since the war began 28 months ago – Ukraine had not been part of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Many fans also brought Ukrainian flags to the stadium on this special Monday afternoon and cheered on their heroes. Around a million people have fled the country to Germany so far. According to the city, around 24,000 Ukrainians live in Munich, 17,000 of them refugees.

Ukraine’s Football Association President Andriy Shevchenko presents the installation in Munich city centre

Source: AP/Ariel Schalit

In the hours before the game, the Ukrainian association opened an installation in the city center: grandstand seats from the stadium in Kharkiv that was destroyed by Russian missiles were rebuilt. The European Championship was played here in 2012. It is intended to be a symbol. “Even though our grandstands are destroyed, we will not stop standing up,” the association said in a statement. According to the association, 77 stadiums in Ukraine have been completely or partially destroyed.

“We want to be perceived as a European nation”

Despite the war at home, Ukraine’s euphoria during the European Championships remains undiminished. The team has moved into its tournament quarters in Taunusstein in Hesse, and during training in Wiesbaden last week, thousands of Ukrainian spectators cheered on their national team.

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“It is very important for us to be there,” said national coach Serhiy Rebrov about participating in the European Championship. “We want to be perceived as a European nation. And it is important to play for our soldiers, the people at home and our fans.” Of course, football is “not the top priority in Ukraine at the moment. Many people, many children have died. It is a difficult time,” said the former national player. Europe is very supportive of his country, “but the war continues, we still need support to fight for peace in Europe.” He also said: “We love playing in Germany. The atmosphere is always incredible, the support is always very good, we are very grateful.” At international matches in Germany, such as the most recent 0:0 friendly in Nuremberg against the selection of national coach Julian Nagelsmann, you “always have the impression that we are playing at home.”

For Ukrainian fans, the match against Romania was more than just a football match

What: REUTERS

The Ukrainian players stressed that it was an honour to be here in Germany for the European Championship. During training, they recently received heart-shaped tags in the national colours of yellow and blue from fellow refugees, who applauded the German fans. The training session in front of around 4,000 spectators in Wiesbaden was a “solidarity campaign”, wrote the “Süddeutsche Zeitung”.

Ukraine has no chance against Romania

In sporting terms, the Ukrainians have been outsiders in their Group E with Belgium, Romania and Slovakia since the first matchday. They started well against Romania, but after a bad pass from their goalkeeper Andriy Lunin of Real Madrid, they fell behind quite early on: Nicolae Stanciu converted the first big chance of the game to make it 1-0 (29th minute). The Ukrainian fans – outnumbered compared to the many Romanian supporters in the arena – continued to cheer their team on. But Lunin did not have his best day in the second half either – he let a saveable shot from Razvan Marin through (53rd minute). It was 2-0 for Romania, it was the deciding factor in this match. Just four minutes later, Denis Dragus scored to make it 3-0.

After the first group match, the Ukrainian team will now face Slovakia (Friday, 3 p.m.) and Belgium (June 26, 6 p.m.) in the preliminary round. Second place in the table would mean a safe place in the round of 16. But this dream is a long way off for the Ukrainians after their clear opening defeat. Their defense was far too easy to outwit.

Wrapped in flags – the national team of Ukraine before kick-off

Source: AP/Ariel Schalit

After the final whistle, the Ukrainian players collapsed onto the pitch, disappointed and exhausted. But just a few seconds later, they went to their fans and applauded them. They received a lot of applause in return.

The issue of security is central for the Ukrainian selection in Germany. Federal Minister of the Interior Nancy Faeser (SPD) had announced that the national team would be given special protection in view of the situation. So far everything has been peaceful. During training in Wiesbaden, only a few fans ran onto the pitch to take selfies with their heroes. Everything remained calm around Ukraine’s first European Championship match in Munich, it was a peaceful football afternoon. A man ran onto the field in celebration, hugged a Romanian player – and then allowed himself to be led off the pitch by security forces. A similar thing happened to another man in the final phase of the game, who had climbed down from the stands in celebration.

“The courage of our military – our key to victory!”

The Ukrainians will continue to talk a lot about the situation in their country even after the first match. Cardboard figures of the players were recently exhibited in Wiesbaden. Striker Artem Dowbyk from FC Girona, who just became top scorer in the Spanish league with 24 goals and left Robert Lewandowski (FC Barcelona) and Jude Bellingham (Real Madrid) behind in the ranking, was quoted on his figure: “The courage of our military – our key to victory!” Ukraine is making references to the war and believes it is important that the media talk to the players about it. National coach Rebrow: “I know that many people are tired of this war, but we must not stop fighting and we need continued support.”

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Rebrow played professionally in England for a long time. During the playoffs, in which Ukraine qualified for the European Championship with victories against Bosnia (2:1) and Iceland (2:1), he said that his athletes should also represent the soldiers and be role models for them.

Ukrainian fans celebrate the team despite the defeat

“It’s really difficult, every day you read the news and know that Russia is firing missiles at our country,” said Taras Stepanenko of Shakhtar Donetsk. However, the situation is “additional motivation” for the players, says Olexander Zinchenko of Arsenal FC.

Distraction through football – Ukrainian fans in front of the Munich stadium

Source: dpa/Daniel Karmann

Last week, Hesse’s Prime Minister Boris Rhein (CDU) said to the Ukrainian players before training: “You are probably the best team, the best eleven that Ukraine has ever had.” The players “can perform a miracle – just like the men and women in Ukraine are performing a miracle for freedom. He is keeping his fingers crossed for the team just as he is for the German team. Performing this sporting miracle will be difficult after the 0:3 defeat. Their fans in Munich were nevertheless proud of the team. And waved their blue and yellow flags in the stadium long after the final whistle.

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