Ukraine’s soccer stars aim for Euro 2024 glory amid Russian invasion

The eyes of the footballing world will be on Germany this summer as the country hosts the 2024 UEFA European Championship. For Ukraine’s national team squad, the upcoming tournament is much more than a quest for sporting success. They travel to Euro 2024 knowing that their participation will help raise awareness of Russia’s ongoing invasion, and could also boost morale for the millions of Ukrainians cheering for them back home in the war-torn country.

“This summer more than ever before, our national team will be playing for all Ukrainians and for every single defender of the country,” comments Igor Gryshchenko of the Ukrainian Football Association. “Euro 2024 is also a great opportunity to remind the world that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not over and is currently escalating.”

Officials from the Ukrainian Football Association have sought to maintain contact with those currently serving on the front lines of the war. Gryshchenko says this engagement helps underline the morale-boosting role of the national football team’s success. “We see the positive impact our victories can have, generating a sense of pride and strength.”

Ukrainian national team coach Serhiy Rebrov has voiced similar sentiments. Following Ukraine’s March 2024 victory in the Euro 2024 play-off final against Iceland, Rebrov said qualification for this summer’s tournament was “for our supporters, for our country, for our people, and for our soldiers who are now protecting our freedom.”

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The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has had a dramatic impact on almost every aspect of daily life, including the country’s football industry. In the days following the invasion, the Ukrainian Premier League abandoned the 2021-2022 season entirely. The league returned months later, with matches now mostly staged in western Ukraine without the presence of supporters in stadiums. Games are often interrupted by air raids.

For security reasons, the Ukrainian national team has been forced to train and play outside the country since February 2022. Ukraine narrowly missed out on a berth at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, but made it through the Euro 2024 play-offs to secure a place at the European Championship for only the fourth time in the country’s history.

Many of Ukraine’s soccer stars have become prominent supporters of the country’s war effort, providing humanitarian and military aid while also using their high public profiles to keep the invasion in the international spotlight. National team captain Andriy Yarmolenko is one of numerous players to donate significant sums, while colleague Taras Stepanenko was nominated for an award from FIFPRO, the worldwide representative organization for professional footballers, for his work aiding Ukrainians whose lives have been impacted by the Russian invasion.

Oleksandr Zinchenko is one of Ukraine’s most recognizable faces thanks to stints with English Premier League heavyweights Manchester City and Arsenal. He was appointed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as an ambassador for the country’s official UNITED24 fundraising initiative, and teamed up with fellow Ukrainian footballing icon Andriy Shevchenko to organize a star-studded charity match in London last summer to support Ukrainian humanitarian efforts.

Zinchenko has spoken about the conflicting emotions of supporting his country’s war effort from afar. “I really want to be in Ukraine,” he told BBC Newsnight in April. In common with many of Ukraine’s most prominent sports personalities, Zinchenko has concluded that he can have a bigger impact by leveraging his public profile on the international stage. “The question is where we are more helpful for our country,” he commented.

As well as individual efforts, Ukrainian footballers have also worked together to found the Stands of Heroes organization. This initiative was established to support the relatives of football fans defending the country. So far, Ukrainian footballers have assisted more than 200 families impacted by the war. “This is one way for Ukrainian footballers to help football supporters who are fighting and volunteering on the front,” said Ukrainian national team defender Yukhym Konoplya.

Despite frequent claims that sport should be kept separate from politics, Ukraine’s appearance at the European Championship will inevitably help draw international attention to the ongoing Russian invasion of the country. The Ukrainian squad will also be acutely aware of their role as ambassadors of a nation that is currently fighting for survival.

Ukraine can expect no favors at Euro 2024 and will have to overcome Romania, Slovakia, and Belgium if they are to progress beyond the group stages of the tournament. Serhiy Rebrov’s players will be motivated by the knowledge that victory on the football pitch could provide their war-weary compatriots with a much-needed morale boost.

Mark Temnycky is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. 

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

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Image: Ukrainian players celebrate victory in the Euro 2024 play-off final against Iceland. (Credit: Mateusz Porzucek PressFocus)