Ukraine’s soccer players feel a duty to represent their nation’s identity on a global stage and give pride to people back home during Russia’s war on their homeland.

Mission fulfilled so far.

With Ukraine now just one win away from a morale-boosting spot in the World Cup finals, its players have been encouraged by messages from Ukrainians fighting the war back home.

“They text before the game,” Ukraine midfielder Ruslan Malinovskyi said in the afterglow of Ukraine beating Scotland 3-1 in Glasgow. “Guys, we are with you, do your job on the pitch, we do our job to protect our country.’”

The hugely impressive Ukraine team moved on Thursday to Wales where victory would secure its place at the World Cup finals in Qatar starting in November.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy posted thanks to the team on social media for “two hours of happiness.”

The team’s performance and unity with people at home came “from our soul, from our heart,” said midfielder Taras Stepanenko, who has spent the past eight years playing for a Shakhtar Donetsk club exiled from its home city by Russian-backed conflict.

“I have maybe 100 messages from my friends, from my family, from our army who serve now in a very difficult situation,” Stepanenko said after the game.

Stepanenko acknowledged he “wanted to cry” during the Ukraine anthem played minutes before kickoff.

He laughed while explaining one post-match message sent by a friend. A soldier stationed on the border joked that Scotland’s goal which barely crossed the goal-line had not really breached Ukraine’s territory.

“My very good friend, now he’s in a very difficult point of fighting every day. He said this ball didn’t cross,” Stepanenko said.

The story seemed to confirm the players’ confident predictions that anyone who could follow the soccer game at home would try to do so. Bars in Kyiv stayed open behind locked doors through a curfew and during air-raid alerts.

“We did everything for the people we played for,” coach Oleksandr Petrakov said at the stadium, “for the armed forces in the trenches and in the hospitals, who give their last drop of blood, (for) those in Ukraine who suffer every day.”

By srtwa

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