Days after definitively beating Scotland to book themselves a spot in a winner-take-all playoff for one of the last World Cup slots, the Ukrainian men’s national team’s momentum seemed undeniable. The Ukrainians have made one World Cup, though qualifying for the 2022 edition would have been significantly more special, for obvious geopolitical reasons. All they had to do was beat Wales, a relatively even match for them. But luck was not on their side, and Ukraine lost one of the cruelest 1-0 matches you’ll ever see, tripping over themselves and playing unevenly at the worst times as they watched the Welsh crush their dreams.
Still, Ukraine was the better team on the day, dictating the tempo, taking twice as many shots, and enjoying more than two thirds of the possession. An empowered Oleksandr Zinchenko, playing farther up the field than he does for Manchester City, was once again a tremendous engine for his side, continually moving the ball from the midfield into dangerous areas. Zinchenko is Ukraine’s best player, and though others like Andriy Yarmolenko and Taras Stepanenko have been around for way longer, he’s a legitimate world-class talent, the sort that Ukrainian fans believed could take their team back to the biggest tournament in the world. After the Scotland win, where he was Man of the Match, Zinchenko broke down in tears talking about what a World Cup berth would mean. When his team took the field on Sunday, they did so wrapped in Ukrainian flags sent to them by soldiers. The whole world knew exactly how much a win would have meant.
But sports are not morality plays, and Ukraine was never guaranteed a happy ending. They thought they had the opener in the first few minutes, but it was waved off after the referee ruled that the free kick came too early. Gareth Bale set up the only goal of the game by blasting a free kick from a dangerous area in the 33rd minute, a free kick that was nodded on by Yarmolenko past his own keeper. It was as fitting that Bale had his goalscoring moment as it was cruel that Yarmolenko was on the other end of it. The two veterans were each their side’s most capped players in the match by a significant margin, and each were taking part in their fourth and probably final World Cup qualification campaign. One of their days was always going to end in disappointment, though I don’t think anybody expected it to be quite so brutal.
Yarmolenko nearly redeemed himself minutes later, as he appeared to draw a penalty. In the most controversial moment of the game, Yarmolenko snuck up on Joe Allen in the box and poked the ball away, setting up a shot on goal that resulted in a corner kick for Ukraine, but more importantly, getting in the way for Allen to clearly kick his foot and bring him down in the box. This seems like a fair penalty, and you often see one awarded on this sort of play, though a VAR check confirmed the official’s no-call.
Ukraine then spent the final 50 minutes of the game flying at the Welsh. They put nine shots on Wayne Hennessey’s goal, including a few truly nasty ones. But the Burnley keeper had his self-professed best game for the national side, and he made a series of shining saves to keep his team ahead. He defused a lovely Ukraine move in the 55th with a brilliant kick save, then had the moment of the match in the 82nd. After regaining possession off a scramble in the midfield, the Ukrainians worked it to Vitalii Mykolenko on the left side. He sent in a powerful cross, which Artem Dovbyk met at its apex to drive a powerful header to Hennessey’s left. But the Welsh keeper made a perfect save, extending his left paw to bat the sure goal away with power.
Ukraine had a few more decent chances, though Wales also hit the post and forced at least one great save of their own. Still, I think the loss may have been easier to take if it hadn’t been so close, or if Ukraine hadn’t traveled to Welsh soil and squarely outplayed the home side, but Wales was never going to roll over because this game also had massive stakes for them. Wales has now qualified for their second-ever World Cup, and their first in 64 years. This would have been their moment, the culmination of Gareth Bale’s 16-year journey with the national team and a chance to take down their island-mates England in the group stage. But the magnitude of Ukraine’s moment was more significant, and a story that could have been a triumphant one now gets an anticlimactic ending. The bitterness of this loss is on a scale totally unfamiliar to most fans. It is one thing to watch your team blow a big lead, or get upset by a relative minnow, or even miss a backbreaking penalty to hand Italy the European championship; those are all outcomes without any real heft outside of sports. Losing an extremely winnable game to guarantee a World Cup spot while a third of your country is in the process of being brutally annexed is as bad as it gets. There is no silver lining here, no chance for redemption, just pain.