|Event: Hampden Park, Glasgow Date: Wednesday, June 1 Weather:19:45 BST|
|Coverage: Hear live commentary on Sportsound and follow live text updates on the BBC Sport website and app|
Hampden, in its many guises, has seen so many historic occasions, from the world’s largest crowds in the 1930s to the world’s greatest game in the early 1960s, when Di Stéfano, Puskas and their fellow marauders Real Madrid turned the old gray technicolor place with their genius.
Kenny Dalglish driving Ray Clemence crazy. Zinedine Zidane’s volley against Leverkusen. Leigh Griffiths free kicks against England. David Gray’s header that ended Hibs’ 114-year wait to win the Scottish Cup. All the dramas under the sun. Every emotion imaginable, or so we thought.
On Wednesday, Scotland host Ukraine in a World Cup play-off semi-final that some thought we would never see. There will be 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 and variations on the theme, but other numbers will take this contest to the deepest possible level: over 4,000 Ukrainian civilians, at least, dead and thousands more. deaths among the army.
There are 3.6 million exiled Ukrainians in Poland, about a million in Romania, 700,000 in Germany, 600,000 in Hungary, half a million in Moldova and Slovakia. nearly seven million they have been driven from their own land, significantly more than the entire population of Scotland.
The eyes of the football world will be on Hampden and for tonight of nights they will be with Ukraine, hoping they are on at all times.
It is a game charged with political significance, an opportunity for its footballers to play their small part in reinforcing the message that Vladimir Putin may tear down Ukraine’s buildings, destroy its cities and kill its people, but he will never take away their spirit.
Putin may not care, but that is not the point. This Ukrainian team will be desperate to put a smile on their people’s faces, if only for a little while.
Excitement will swirl around Hampden like the wind on a winter afternoon. Elite athletes say that you have to be careful with emotion, that it can be used powerfully in your favor but that in excess it can drain your energy.
How will these boys from the Ukraine manage? Hampden will welcome you with a loving hug. That heat could inspire or it could overwhelm. The pressure they are putting on themselves to give their homeland a boost is enormous. The heart is with them.
‘This will feel like a world event’
There are 10 foreign-based players in Oleksandr Petrakov’s extended squad: Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko, Everton’s Vitalii Mykolenko, West Ham’s Andriy Yarmolenko and Benfica’s Roman Yaremchuk among them.
The rest have been in Slovenia recently. They’ve played friendlies in Germany, Italy and Croatia, bonded over a training camp, undercooked by the lack of properly competitive games since the outbreak of war, but certainly driven beyond our imagination by what they are watching and listening. from home.
It is a game that makes you check your vernacular. It’s not a battle or a fight, but it does matter. This will feel truly significant, a worldwide event. For one night, Hampden will be at the center of world sport and will be high on the world news list.
Ukraine has only reached one World Cup, 16 years ago in Germany. They were defeated in the play-offs of the 1998, 2002, 2009 and 2013 tournaments, the last two by a single goal. For the 2014 World Cup, they were 2-0 up after the first leg against France, then lost the second leg 3-0 after a man was sent off in the 47th minute.
They have hit the qualifying crossbar so many times that even in peacetime, motivation would be through the roof. In times of war, we are in a different stratosphere.
Ukraine went undefeated in eight games in qualifying, drawing six, including both games against a full-strength France. No one should be surprised if Wednesday goes all the way. Every sane voice knows that the Scots have a job to do and no sane voice will be hard on them if they do it and move to Wales in Cardiff at the weekend.
I wouldn’t make them into bad people if they beat Ukraine, it would just confirm that they are good footballers led by an excellent captain in Andy Robertson. Two wins this week, and you can spend the summer drinking as many beers on as many open buses as you like.
Clarke’s side are undefeated in eight. He has only lost one of his last 16 World Cup qualifying matches. They are one side up.
At first glance, the manager might have reason to worry about his attacking players’ lack of goalscoring form – Che Adams and Lyndon Dykes have failed to score in 13, John McGinn has found the net just once in 26 games – but this is a a team that has seen defenders score in the last four internationals and in five of the eight unbeaten run. Under Clarke, they tend to find a way.
They are resistant and they will have to be. Kieran Tierney is out, missing a prop. Tierney is two and three players in one, a reliable central midfielder, an attacking full-back, a menacing left winger. His relentless movement and reassuring presence have been a key part of Scotland’s comeback, but Clarke has at least known for a while that he would be without the Arsenal man.
He will presumably bring in Scott McKenna as his replacement. Newly promoted to the Premier League with Nottingham Forest, McKenna will have arrived at camp this week.
In the sentimental abyss that is the betting world, 24 firms out of 24 are Scotland’s favourites. Home court advantage, deep squad, confidence. None of them are buying into the fairy tale of an away win. The layers of probabilities don’t see it as a logical conclusion. But sometimes logic has nothing to do with it.
“Scotland must keep focus against Ukrainian heroes”
There is a story told in the Ukraine and beyond about the spring of 1942 and the liberation of soldiers from a Nazi prisoner of war camp, including a group of talented soccer players who had been captured when the Gestapo stormed the city. It speaks of an indomitable will of the Ukrainian people. The passage of time clearly hasn’t changed that.
Mykola Trusevych was one such footballer, a goalkeeper in his early 30s for Dynamo kyiv and runner-up as Ukrainian player of the year in the season before the war broke out. When Trusevych was released, he set out to find some of his former teammates. He found eight of them, added a few more from Lokomotiv kyiv and formed a team called FC Start.
The beginnings were good. They played in a local league and beat all the contestants. They spread joy and hope wherever they played, a joy and hope that the occupying Germans were eager to extinguish. A game was arranged between Start and Flakelf, the Luftwaffe team sent to show off the Ukrainians. Start won 5-1.
Outraged, the Germans demanded a rematch three days later. They put an SS officer as referee and ordered the Start boys to give the Nazi salute before kick-off. They refused. Despite being told they should seriously consider the consequences of winning, they beat Flakelf 5-3. The film Escape to Victory was loosely based on this true life story.
Within a few weeks, some of the Start players were rounded up, tortured, and sent to labor camps. Six months later, several of them were executed, including Trusevych. The Soviet poet, Stepan Oliynyk, wrote about them: “Because of our beautiful presence, they fell in a fight… For centuries, their glory will not fade, the fearless hero-athletes.”
There are fearless heroes throughout Ukraine’s history in recent months and all of Hampden will cheer for them. He will move, we know. It will be unforgettable, we also know that.
Driven by passion and playing for a cause far beyond mere World Cup qualification, he must assume that Ukraine will be formidable, significant playing time or not.
Scotland will have to keep their focus. They have a game to win, but it won’t be like any game any of them have played before. There has been football on this site for more than a century, but something new will unfold on Wednesday.
Of all the uncertainties about the outcome, one thing is guaranteed: this is going to be a powerful and moving night in Glasgow.