Ukraine can be heroes at Hampden in a way that echoes beyond football | Jonathan Wilson
A cold night towards the end of 1993. A group of eight men huddled behind a pile of snow at the airport, waiting, anxious. The sprint was only 200 yards. They were professional athletes, physically fit. It should have been easy. On the other side of the airfield, one run through the darkness away, lay freedom and their mission. But they knew they were within range of Serbian snipers.
This was Fuad Muzurovic’s grand idea. He was the coach of FK Sarajevo and as the siege of his city dragged on he realised his players had a value beyond taking up arms and fighting on the frontline. He conceived the idea of a world tour, playing friendlies, raising awareness of the plight of civilians and the need for aid. The scheme was approved by the Bosnia government.
“We trained in the basketball hall,” the defender Mirza Varesanovic said. “Every day going to and from training we were under fire from snipers and cannons, but our love for the club and for football was bigger than the fear for our lives. This was our way of fighting for Bosnia. We were some kind of Bosnian ambassadors.”
The biggest practical issue was escaping Sarajevo. The city had been protectively sealed by the UN, which controlled the airport. The squad was split into four groups of seven and each placed under the command of a member of the Bosnian special forces. They fled over four consecutive nights, agreeing to meet up in the village of Pazaric, 20 miles to the west.
Muzurovic’s group got across the centre of the airfield, where they were at the greatest risk from snipers, only to see a UN patrol. “They had a tank with a spotlight,” he said, “so when we saw the light we just turned around; we made it look like we were running into the city from the free territory. We lay down in the snow, the UN forces put us in a transporter and they took us to the free territory. That was the game you had to play.”
They hitched in a refrigerated meat truck to Pazaric, from where the squad travelled to Zagreb. Over the following months they would play 54 matches in 17 countries, meeting world leaders as diverse as the pope and the Iran leader, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who told them: “This is your way of fighting. This is the best way to present your young state to the world.”
Perhaps it was. It probably does make sense that when you have a gift that can touch people across the globe, inspire sympathy and understanding, offer succour to those back home, that you should use it. There is no sense in talented footballers being shot. But then there is no sense in bus drivers or grocers or postmen being shot either. Many of those players had doubts, wondered whether they were lying to themselves, wondered whether they should have been using their physical resilience to fight more directly.
Football has a tendency to inflate its importance, whether that is fans talking of a decade without a trophy as suffering or Fifa’s president, Gianni Infantino, claiming a biennial World Cup could ease the migrant crisis (or journalists thinking anybody cares about the very real struggles of travelling on Avanti trains). That it is inextricably intertwined with geopolitics is undeniable, but there is always an awkwardness when football and war intersect.
On the one hand, next week has Ukraine’s attempts to slow the Russian surge in the Donbas region with the big tactical question whether troops in Sieverodonetsk will be encircled; on the other, Ukraine face a World Cup qualifying playoff against Scotland with the big debate about whether Oleksandr Zinchenko should be used as a wing-back or in midfield.
One, obviously, is a matter of life and death that could shape the future of Europe; the other is an essentially trivial pastime, one that happens, for a century, to have attracted the attention of the world. It’s that latter fact that makes Wednesday’s playoff significant. The result will not change the world, but that Ukraine can still participate in such events, that it can still attempt to qualify for the World Cup while Russia are banned, does resonate.
Just as the 1954 World Cup was an important symbol of (West) Germany’s reintegration into world affairs, so it matters that Ukraine is still part of the world community – not as much as basements full of corpses in Mariupol matter, clearly, but on some level.
Less significant for Ukraine on Wednesday whether they win is that the game is happening at all. Certainly Scotland’s players should not allow themselves to be inhibited by the situation. Far more important is the reception Ukraine receive. Quantifying how much the world cares is extremely difficult, but a sea of blue and yellow flags at Hampden would be an incontrovertible message and might offer at least some comfort to those struggling on within Ukraine.
Ukraine have not played a competitive game since their World Cup qualifying victory away to Bosnia last November. Their preparation has consisted of friendlies against Borussia Mönchengladbach, Empoli and Rijeka, while plans for a game against DR Congo in Brussels on Friday had to be shelved after the local mayor was unable to guarantee the requisite police presence.
But the difficulties of the buildup are perhaps part of Ukraine’s greatest asset: the sense this is not a normal game. Slaven Bilic has spoken of how for Croatia at Euro 96 there was “extra motivation when you heard the national anthem, and especially when you saw the reaction at home”. That had begun to wane even by the World Cup two years later. Petty grievances fall away before the greater cause.
At the Euros last year, the Ukraine shirt controversially featured a map showing Crimea, Donbas and Luhansk as Ukrainian and, although they were allowed to wear the slogan “Glory to Ukraine”, the line “Glory to the heroes” was banned for its historical connotations.
Every Ukraine player, though, will know that this is their chance to be heroes now – and heroes in a far more profound sense than football usually means by the term.