“We respect the English national team. But we are not afraid,” read a defiant headline on Thursday in Vysoky Zamok, a daily newspaper from Lviv in western Ukraine. Propelled into the Euro 2020 quarter-finals by sheer moxie, grit and a bit of tournament luck, Ukraine now hope to upset an England team that feel fate is on their side.
Ukraine’s Cinderella story has seen the team progress from third place in Group C to secure a surprise win over Sweden with a 121st-minute header on Tuesday. As his underdogs prepare for Saturday’s match in Rome, Andriy Shevchenko said what millions of exhilarated Ukrainians are hoping: “Anything is possible.”
“It is unbelievably difficult to score against the English but their strengths should not scare us,” Shevchenko, the coach and the hero of another victory over Sweden at Euro 2012, told reporters. “They should motivate us because in football, like in life, anything is possible.”
After the extra-time bruiser with Sweden that saw the Dynamo Kyiv striker Artem Besedin injured by a gruesome tackle, Shevchenko said the most important thing was for his players to rest. “We’ll be restoring the players physically and psychologically. They gave a lot of energy [during the match].” As for Besedin, he said, “the guys will be playing against England for him too”.
In the Ukrainian press, there is little doubt that Saturday’s match will be a long shot. “The English are a class above the Ukraine side,” wrote a columnist for Ukraine’s Vesti. “But with our fighting spirit and luck, our side can level the difference.”
There are painful memories too. After Ukraine crashed out of Euro 2012 in a 1-0 defeat by England, Uefa’s then-chief refereeing officer, Pierluigi Collina, said it was a “mistake” not to have allowed a goal for Ukraine after replays showed the ball had crossed the line.
The official betting reported by Ukrainian websites on Thursday put Ukraine as 35-1 outsiders to win the tournament, with England the 3-1 favourites.
Yet something is different at this year’s tournament, where England can see a path to the final by beating Ukraine and then Denmark or the Czech Republic. Ukraine, who could have gone home after taking only three points in their group, have a shot at glory as well.
“Favourites don’t always win at this tournament,” wrote Askold Yeromin in a column for Vysoky Zamok, pointing out the surprise losses for the Netherlands, Portugal, and France. “Ukraine’s ‘underdog’ status should help our footballers play without inhibitions, since the weight of responsibility for the result won’t hang over them. At least to the same degree that it sits on the shoulders of the English side.”
Ukraine’s win over Sweden was met with wild scenes of joy in Kyiv and across the country. There is a sense that Ukraine are playing for more than just a shot at a European Championship. In a congratulatory note, president Volodymyr Zelensky said that the players were representing the whole country, including territories wrested away by Russia and its proxies.
“I couldn’t believe what happened,” the father of the Dnipro-1 forward Artem Dovbyk told NikVesty after his son’s winning goal. “My wife cried so hard the tears rolled down like peas. I jumped for joy and yelled. My neighbours must have heard but didn’t say anything … I couldn’t believe that my only son had made all of Ukraine so happy.”