Wembley Stadium, London
The sight of Ukrainian flags flying along Wembley Way – the road approaching the iconic Wembley Stadium – took on extra significance Sunday as Ukraine faced England in its Euro 2024 qualifier.
While the horrors of war continue to cast a shadow over its country, here was the Ukrainian men’s national team facing one of the best sides in the world on the global stage.
Win or lose, the Ukrainian players wanted to put on a show for its fans and offer those back home 90 minutes of respite.
However, the team knew it needed something of a miracle to beat England at Wembley and one was not forthcoming.
Ranked 21 places higher than Ukraine, England had too much quality on the pitch and its experience shone through.
Goals from England men’s all-time record goalscorer Harry Kane and Bukayo Saka was all it needed as the 2-0 victory earned another three points in its qualifying campaign.
Despite the defeat, the Ukrainian fans continued to make their voices heard as a sea of yellow and blue sang and danced in unison until the final whistle – some even held messages asking for more military aid in Ukraine.
Speaking to reporters after the game, Ukraine’s caretaker manager Ruslan Rotan thanked fans for their “incredible wave of support.”
He also thanked the home crowd, adding: “It was an atmosphere unlike any other international game I’ve experienced.”
In truth, the atmosphere around the stadium started building hours before kickoff on what started off as a cold and rainy afternoon in London.
But the gray clouds were in stark contrast to the vibrant yellow and blue flags that were waved by, and draped over, supporters making their way inside.
One thousand Ukrainian refugees, and the families who sponsored them in the UK, had been invited as special guests to the game and they were joined by over 4,000 fans who managed to get their hands on tickets.
Despite being vastly outnumbered by the England faithful, the Ukrainians were in fine voice.
And, as much as they acknowledged the heartbreaking backdrop to this match, many supporters just wanted to enjoy the experience and focus on football – a distraction from the brutal reality at home.
“It’s the way to remind people of Ukraine. To show the world that we are still standing,” Ukrainian fan Oleksii Soboleva, 40, told CNN Sport before kick off.
Soboleva and his family had moved to London six months ago, having previously left Ukraine before the full scale invasion last year.
They all agreed that, no matter the result, it would be an emotional night at Wembley.
“We’re not scared of England, though,” Marta Soboleva told CNN Sport, a wry smile spreading across her face, eyes full of excitement.
Not far from where the Sobolevas spoke to CNN Sport, a small group of Ukrainian fans had gathered at the foot of the steps leading up to the historic arena.
Moments earlier, former striker and previous manager of the Ukraine national team, Andriy Shevchenko, was among them doing his media duties ahead of the match.
The 46-year-old had stayed to talk and take pictures with supporters and joined in with chants supporting his beloved country.
The Ukraine fans continued to enjoy the spectacle inside the stadium, greeting their players with rapturous applause as they emerged onto the pitch, each with a Ukrainian flag wrapped around them.
Prior to the match, Ukraine’s boss Rotan thanked the United Kingdom for the help it had given his nation since the start of the war but promised that his side would put niceties aside once the referee blew the first whistle.
The Ukraine team was true to its word, creating some half chances in the early stages and giving their passionate support something to cheer about – and cheer about it they did.
While their team struggled to keep pace with England on the pitch, Ukrainian fans inside Wembley outsang and outdanced a rather subdued English crowd off it.
For much of the first half, Ukraine had actually managed to keep England at bay – throwing their bodies on the line to stop their host from taking the lead.
But eventually the pressure of constant England attacks became too much and Kane scored the opener in the 37th minute after latching onto Saka’s cross.
The goal seemed to open the floodgates, with Saka himself doubling the advantage with a wonderful curled effort from outside the box just three minutes later.
While the second half was more of a formality, both sets on fans engaged with each other in good faith. At one point, thousands of supporters lit up Wembley Stadium using the torches on their phone as they watched England dominate possession.
The final whistle was greeted by a huge cheer from the Ukraine section of the stands, as it serenaded its players who applauded the support in return.
In the context of war, the result of Sunday’s match mattered very little but this was another example of when sport is much more than just a game.
The 90 minutes put a smile on the faces of the thousands of Ukraine fans inside the stadium. It showed that the country was still standing strong and was a sign of brighter days to come.
And while many players will leave England disappointed, they will be proud that they’ve once again represented their country on the global stage – a powerful message for a country still under attack.