Nine minutes into a press conference unlike any Hampden has seen, Oleksandr Zinchenko was asked to recall his last time in this stadium.
The question came through a Zoom link, from a journalist in Ukraine. He recalled Zinchenko’s goal to defeat Sweden in last summer’s European Championship and wondered how he would feel now that the Russian invasion of his homeland had changed everything.
What mattered more to him? Could Glasgow once again be the scene of Ukrainian joy in their World Cup play-off semi-final against Scotland?
This remarkable 25-year-old speaks more like a statesman than a footballer. His words are articulately selected and immensely powerful in their impact. Suddenly, however, taking them out of his mouth became an ordeal.
Tears filled Zinchenko’s eyes. He had to pause and stifle a rising wave of emotion to finish his sentences. But he did. Because the Manchester City midfielder feels a deep responsibility to represent his war-torn country beyond the confines of a football pitch.
“All Ukrainians want one thing: to stop this war,” Zinchenko said. ‘I’ve talked to people from all over the world, from different countries.
“I’ve also talked to some Ukrainian children who just don’t understand what’s going on in Ukraine. They just want the war to stop. They have a dream, to stop the war.
‘When it comes to football, the Ukrainian national team has its own dream. We want to go to the World Cup, we want to give this incredible emotion to the Ukrainians because the Ukrainians deserve it very much at the moment.
Ukrainian midfielder Oleksandr Zinchenko broke down in tears on the eve of his team’s crucial World Cup qualifier with Scotland.
The Manchester City star said he wanted to see peace in his homeland after the Russian invasion.
He had to pause and stifle a rising tide of emotion to finish his sentences.
‘It is impossible to describe these feelings until you are in this position. The things that are happening now in our country, is not acceptable. It’s something I can’t even describe.
He later left the Hampden Auditorium to applause from the assembled media that included representatives from as far afield as the United States and Japan. This game, this event, has a global audience.
Arriving with coach Oleksandr Petrakov precisely at the scheduled kick-off time of 6.30pm, Zinchenko opened with sincere thanks for the support Scotland has shown Ukraine.
“First of all, I would like to extend my gratitude to the Scottish team, the coaching staff, the players and all the Scots who have given Ukraine this incredible help,” Zinchenko said, referring to the instant acceptance of a postponement of the match in its original March date.
“I spoke to some of the players and the coaching staff earlier and they expressed their feelings towards Ukraine, for which we are very grateful.
Ukraine, ravaged by war since Russia’s invasion in February, take on Scotland at Hampden Park
Zinchenko had opened with sincere thanks for the support Scotland has shown Ukraine.
‘Secondly, our mood I would describe as a fighting mood. Everybody understands what is happening in Ukraine these days, how is the situation on the ground.
“That’s why I would say our motivation is definitely 100 percent to win.”
He warmly welcomed the idea of Scottish fans extending their solidarity by joining in the Ukrainian anthem before kick-off.
“We have to be together,” Zinchenko added. ‘We have to fight Russian aggression, basically we have to defeat evil. So yeah, this is an amazing, amazing initiative.’
Since the Russian invasion began in the early hours of February 24, Zinchenko has used the platform provided by his status as English Premier League champion. Staying in the UK felt more effective than the intense patriotic pull of returning home.
Zinchenko arrived with coach Oleksandr Petrakov precisely at the scheduled start time of 6:30 p.m.
“Maybe I was holding the gun a couple of times, the gun,” he said, recalling his thoughts three months ago.
‘Maybe… not maybe, I am 100 per cent sure that I will be more useful to Ukraine by being in Manchester and trying to help the Ukrainian people and Ukraine as much as I can with many different things.
“Starting with this, sending some stuff, sending some money, messaging my Instagram followers.
Even, I don’t know, doing some interviews, talking to you. I need to share this and I need to show the whole world what is happening right now in Ukraine.
Zinchenko has used the platform provided by his status as champion of the English Premier League
‘The whole world needs to know the real truth. This I feel is my mission. I agree 100% with Andriy Shevchenko, who said exactly the same thing.’
Focusing solely on one high-stakes soccer game may seem impossible under these dire circumstances, but that’s what Zinchenko and his teammates will be trying to do tonight for those who can still watch TV at home.
“We fully understand the situation that there may not be an opportunity for many Ukrainians to watch the game tomorrow,” he said, considering the impact of the war.
“But I’m pretty sure that every Ukrainian who gets the chance will watch us. We’re going to feel this 100 percent. We can talk a lot, but that’s what we’re going to try to do tomorrow on the pitch: try to make everyone proud.”
Petrakov is 64 years old, but he refused to leave his home in Kyiv when the war began and instead tried to enlist in Ukraine’s reservist army. A government official advised him that he would be more useful in his current role.
Petrakov is 64 years old, but he refused to leave his home in Kyiv when the war began and instead tried to enlist in Ukraine’s reserve army.
Initially, he had to form a team with local players who had not played competitively since last December and set up a training camp in Slovenia. Three friendly matches followed, with foreign stars such as Zinchenko, Andriy Yarmolenko and Roman Yaremchuk joining once their club duties ended.
“Clearly it is a very difficult task to prepare the team when every player is thinking about fathers, mothers, close relatives and relatives in Ukraine,” said Petrakov, who replaced Shevchenko as national coach last August and previously won the U-20 World Cup. Cup for Ukraine.
“We use a lot of methods, we try jokes, we try to motivate people in a light way.
“But all the players clearly know how big the challenge is for this game and that will make my task even more difficult. I am working under a lot of pressure and stress, but we are trying to do our best.
Staying in the UK felt more effective than the intense patriotic pull of returning home.
“We are trying to achieve the result and the team is fully prepared to fight.”
Petrakov also revealed that there would be a telephone vote for the best Ukrainian player at Hampden, with all proceeds going to charity at home.
“It is a charity vote in which each vote will mean Ukrainian hryvnia (currency) and all the money will go to the charity foundation,” he added.
“This time, all the lions on the field will help the lions on the battlefield.”