Ukraine celebrate ‘gift for our country’ with Euro 2024 place

Ukraine‘s qualification for the Euro 2024 soccer finals has cheered a country suffering hardship in its conflict with Russia and for a few weeks in June and July the tournament will provide a welcome distraction from the harsh reality of war.

The team came from behind to defeat Iceland 2-1 in their playoff final in neutral Poland on Tuesday and book a fourth successive appearance in the continental finals.

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They will be in Group E with Belgium, Slovakia and Romania, who they face in their opening game in Munich on June 17.

Russia’s war with Ukraine has now entered a third year and, despite heavy casualties on both sides, it shows no sign of coming to an end following the invasion of February 2022.

Ukraine fans displayed yellow-and-blue banners criticizing Russia, whose team UEFA banned from trying to qualify, and its president Vladimir Putin in the stadium in Wroclaw.

“I am very proud to be a Ukrainian, to be of the same blood as those who are now giving their lives for our freedom,” team captain Oleksandr Zinchenko said after Tuesday’s victory.

“We need to talk about it, shout about it every day. This is the only way we can win. It was one of our most emotional games.

“It is an amazing feeling. I am very happy because it is another dream come true. A big thank you to our fans, they helped us through these difficult times amazingly.”

Coach Serhiy Rebrov said in the build-up to the Iceland match that it was hard for his team to concentrate on football.

“The missiles are flying every day. Our mission is to show that we’re all alive and fighting against the Russians and that we need Europe’s support,” Rebrov said.

He added that his players were “watching the news about the shelling of Odessa and Kyiv [and made] even more angry and eager to show our potential on the football field.”

The coach hailed the “character of our players and our nation” to keep going in a qualifying campaign where, as refugees from the war themselves, Ukraine have staged ‘home’ matches spread across Europe.

There was some poetic irony that Poland, where the team’s mission was successfully completed, currently has the largest concentration of Ukrainian refugees of any country.

It has certainly been no easy path to the finals.

Rebrov’s side came through a tough qualifying group that included European champions Italy and runners-up England, managing draws against both sides.

It followed the disappointment of losing to Wales in a playoff for a place at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, after which former Ukraine striker Rebrov took over in June last year.

With Roman Yaremchuk and Artem Dovbyk in attack, the pace of winger Mykhailo Mudryk, guile of Zinchenko in midfield and steel of Illia Zabarnyi and Vitalii Mykolenko at the back, Ukraine have a capable squad.

What they have proven now is that they can battle against the odds in the face of adversity and win the day, hoping that will become a unifying message for the country.

“It was very difficult to be on the coaching bench today, I saw how difficult it was for the guys,” Rebrov said.

“I am grateful to all of them for this gift for our country. In such a difficult time, it is very important.”

Information from Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.