Far from battlefields and Russian invaders, the Ukrainian footballers exempt from military service are trying to lead their country to the World Cup.
When they prepare to face Wales on Sunday in a playoff final, they will have a little extra inspiration in their Cardiff locker room from a flag sent by soldiers on the frontline.
Since Wednesday when Ukraine beat Scotland in a playoff semifinal, the players have continued to exchange messages with friends who have been defending their homeland in a war that has stretched for 100 days.
“We all hope that very soon Ukraine will be liberated and will return to being an independent country,” Ukraine midfielder Oleksandr Karavayev said through a translator in the Welsh capital.
“This is a great positive stimulus and brings positive emotions because everyone believes and sees how the whole world is united around us.”
The Dynamo Kyiv player has a family still in the southern city of Kherson, which was captured by Russia early in the war.
“They cannot watch the match because there is no connection and internet,” Karavayev said. “But they communicate by messages and they read the news.”
Keeping Ukraine high in the headlines can be partly achieved by the men qualifying for their first World Cup since 2006. But it might take time for their compatriots on the front lines to discover the result in Wales.
“It is a really hard situation in Ukraine and not everyone has the chance to watch football,” coach Oleksandr Petrakov said through a translator.
“I don’t communicate with any soldiers but the team writes to soldiers and even received a flag from the war which they promised to hang in the dressing room.”
From there they will step out on the field to face a Wales team trying to return to the FIFA showpiece after an even longer wait, having last appeared in the finals in 1958.
Wales is expected to be carried, as usual, by its highly partial and emotional fans.
“Sport is sport and we don’t expect presents or an unfair win,” Karavayev said. “
There is much sympathy for Ukraine from Wales captain Gareth Bales, but also a ruthless sporting determination to qualify.
So would Bale apologize to Ukraine for snatching away his own World Cup dream?
“As horrible as it sounds, no,” Bale replied.
“It is a game of football and it is a competition that we want to get to as well. Everyone in the world feels for Ukraine but for this game, it’s a game of football. It is sport, it unites everybody.
“We understand what it will do for Ukraine but we want to get to the World Cup.
It is not coming from a horrible place, but it is coming from our country, our hearts. We want to deliver for our own fans.”
Ukrainian domestic football to resume in August
Ukraine plans to resume competitive football in the country in August despite being under attack by Russia.
Andriy Pavelko, the president of Ukraine’s football federation, has revealed details about his talks with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the heads of FIFA and UEFA about finding a safe way of playing men’s and women’s matches on home soil.
Ukraine was forced to abandon its leagues in February when Russia began an invasion that, according to Mr Zelenskyy, led to “at least tens of thousands” of Ukrainian civilians dying and large swaths of many cities and towns being bombed into rubble.
But as Russian forces have been redeployed to the east and south, fighting has subsided in the area near the capital Kyiv and elsewhere. There is optimism sport can resume to lift the spirits of the nation.
“I spoke with our President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, about how important football is to distract,” Pavelko said in the team meeting room in Cardiff.
“From the children to the old people, everyone is focused on the war. Every day they receive information about deaths, about the impact of the war.
“They’re in the worst mood. We spoke about how it would be possible that football could help us to think about the future.”
“That is a future with players being able to take to the field again in Ukraine to provide uplifting sports moments of joy.
“So we made the decision with the President that we would resume the Ukrainian championship in August,” Pavelko said through a translator.
“In Ukraine we will play on every level. So the Premier League, and the first and second professional divisions, and women’s championship.”