Football as a Symbol of Hope: Ukraine at EURO 2020

April 2021 marked the seven-year anniversary of the Russian military incursion into eastern Ukraine. Over 14,000 have perished during the Donbas conflict, and nearly two million persons are displaced. The crisis continues to this day.

An apartment block in Donbas. Source: glavcom

Unfortunately for Ukraine, its woes go beyond the Donbas conflict. The current coronavirus pandemic has heavily impacted the Eastern European state. Over 50,000 Ukrainians have died from the disease. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Ukraine’s GDP declined by 7%. More than nine million Ukrainians are also living in poverty.

Finally, Ukraine continues to struggle in its fight against corruption. Graft has stunted the growth of the Ukrainian economy, and the elite has pressured many civil servants and politicians. Should this trend continue, Ukraine may lose the support of the International Monetary Fund and other Western organizations.

Despite these challenges, the recent success of the senior men’s national football team has given Ukraine a sense of pride and optimism in an otherwise difficult period in history. In other words, Ukrainians have turned to football in an attempt to uplift their spirits during these dark times.

Players of the Ukrainian national football team. Photo: Ukrainian football association

Ukraine’s senior men’s national football team, also known as the Zbirna, endured tremendous success in 2019 as it qualified for the 2020 European Championships. During the qualification period, Ukraine was undefeated. The Zbirna won six of its eight matches and drew the remaining two. The Ukrainians prevented their opponents from scoring in five of these eight games, and the Zbirna won its qualification group ahead of Portugal, the winners of EURO 2016.

Current manager Andriy Shevchenko has revitalized the national team. Rather than playing a traditional defensive style of football, Shevchenko has opted to have his men play with more possession. This has allowed Ukraine to be more threatening in front of goal. The Zbirna has also gone head to head with some of Europe’s biggest heavyweights.

Andriy Shevchenko at EURO 2020 in Glasgow. Photo: Ukrainian Football Association

These changes allowed Ukraine to make history at the 2020 European Championships. The Zbirna previously competed at EURO 2012 and 2016 but failed to advance past the group stage. Ukraine, however, had a change in fortune during EURO 2020. The Zbirna would defeat North Macedonia, and Ukraine earned an important victory in its group. The Ukrainians also nearly stole a point from a difficult Dutch side. These results meant that Ukraine finished third in its group. Thanks to losses by Finland and Russia, as well as Slovakia and Poland, Ukraine advanced to the competition’s knockout stages by being one of the best third-placed teams.

The Zbirna then made its first appearance in the Round of 16 at the European Championships. Coincidentally, Ukraine would face Sweden, the same team that helped Ukraine advance to this stage of the competition. Many expected the Swedes to overpower the Ukrainians. Sweden had just won its group ahead of Spain, and the Swedes looked menacing in their matches. Ukraine, however, had other plans. During this fixture, Shevchenko changed his tactics, and his team played a more conservative style of football. This allowed Ukraine to dictate the flow of play.

EURO 2020, Sweden-Ukraine, Glasgow, 29 June 2021. Photo: Ukrainian Football Association

Sweden’s match against Ukraine was a nervy affair. On several occasions, the Swedes looked more threatening in front of goal, but by the end of the game, the Ukrainians defeated the Swedes by scoring a goal in the final minute of extra time. The result meant that the Zbirna would once again advance to the next stage of EURO 2020.

Following the conclusion of the match, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy celebrated the Zbirna’s victory by posting on Instagram. In his message, the Ukrainian president stated that the national team had shown true character and strength. Several Ukrainian parliamentary members also celebrated the victory by wearing their Ukrainian football shirts to work. Simply put, Ukraine’s win over Sweden was more than just a football match. The result had brought a sense of national pride to Ukraine.

The Zbirna will now compete in its first quarter-final at the European Championships. The Ukrainians will face a formidable opponent in England, and few will expect Ukraine to progress further in the competition. Nonetheless, the Ukrainians have held their own. They nearly earned a result against the Netherlands, and their hard work saw them earn a last-minute victory against Sweden. Given these performances, the Zbirna knows that it has nothing to fear as it faces England in the competition’s quarter-finals on Saturday.

Overall, Ukraine has exceeded expectations at EURO 2020, and the Zbirna’s success has helped lift the spirits of the Ukrainian people. Ukraine knows it has a difficult task against England, but the Ukrainians have nothing to lose. After all, the national team has made its country proud.

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