Ukraine's World Cup quest ends in heartbreak, as USMNT learns its first opponent

On the 102nd day of a war that has shattered millions of lives and ended thousands, 15 hours after Russia renewed its aerial assault on Kyiv, a Ukrainian captain dug his face into Welsh grass, defeated.

Andriy Yarmolenko had just scored the own goal that would, ultimately, end his nation’s improbable World Cup quest. Wales beat Ukraine 1-0 in Cardiff on Sunday to qualify for Qatar, and book a date with the United States on the tournament’s opening day.

But as Gareth Bale wheeled away in celebration and Wales exploded with joy, the lasting image of the night lay in the Ukrainian penalty box. Yarmolenko stayed prone for a moment, and a second — but then, as if to embody his country’s indefatigable resilience, he lifted his sweat- and rain-drenched body, and trudged back toward midfield to go again.

Teammates encouraged him. They recovered rapidly from the 34th-minute self-inflicted wound. And for an hour, they peppered the Welsh goal repetitively. They pummeled goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey’s palms. They searched for a goal that, emotionally and sportingly, they deserved, but that somehow never came.

Oleksandr Zinchenko lashed a free kick into the net, only to be told that the referee's whistle had not yet blown to allow him to restart play.

Ruslan Malinovskyi and Viktor Tsygankov came close to leveling the score. Mykola Shaparenko guided a shot just wide, and Artem Dovbyk was denied only by a flying save from Hennessey.

Yarmolenko, in the 92nd minute, tried yet again, but fired his 20-yard shot over the bar.

They were relentless, and for 95 agonizing minutes desperately unlucky.

But they were, and will forever be inspirational ambassadors of a sovereign nation, and emblems of a distinct Ukrainian culture, the very two things that Vladimir Putin is trying to erase. They crouched to soaked turf, dejected, because they won't get to broadcast their message to millions in November; but the message will persist.

They were, and still are fiercely proud Ukrainians, and their countrymen will be fiercely proud of them. They walked stoically into the Cardiff City Stadium on Sunday with oversize blue and yellow flags draped around their shoulders. They saluted fans who chanted in support of them but also in support of the Ukrainian Armed Forces repelling the Russian invasion back home.

They played for the soldiers who’d sent them messages daily last month, and the ones who’d sent the flag hanging in their locker room, and so many more.

They played for their president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who’d congratulated and thanked them after their semifinal victory on Wednesday; and for every single person he and they represent.

They were better than Wales on Sunday, but soccer, like life, can be cruel. Their fans cried to bemoan that cruelty as the seconds wound down, and Ukraine's very first loss of the qualifying cycle neared, and the World Cup dream slipped away.

But then those fans applauded. Yarmolenko and his teammates, through their own tears, reciprocated.

Welsh fans, jubilant but also inspired by their opponents, joined the ovation. Even Welsh players did too. In parking lots afterward, rather than boisterously commemorate their nation's first World Cup berth since 1958, Welsh supporters clapped and stopped to embrace their Ukrainian counterparts.

The U.S. men's national team, Ukraine's would-be opponents in Qatar, said they were also "inspired" by the Ukrainian players' "spirit and bravery" amid "this horrendous assault against their country."

For months, Ukrainian soccer had been shaken by that assault. Players spent the early days of the war in hiding, sheltering underground. Explosions jolted them awake on the morning of Feb. 24, two days before the Ukrainian Premier League season was supposed to resume. Players hustled wives and children to basements and garages, unsure what their lives would become or how long they'd last.

Across Europe, their Ukrainian teammates at foreign clubs felt helpless. Yarmolenko spent sleepless days and nights working around the clock to evacuate family members.

But they also felt patriotic pride. Players that had, for years, largely steered clear of politics suddenly recognized that their platforms, and their upcoming World Cup qualifying playoffs, could wield immense power in a war fought over identity as much as territory.

So they embraced their responsibility. While they trained at Slovenia's idyllic national soccer center, regaining fitness after the Ukrainian league was suspended, they stayed emotionally attached to the daily horrors back home. And they vowed to fight their own battle, for the millions of Ukrainians who bunkered to watch Sunday's match as sirens wailed.

"We will try not to let them down," Shaparenko had said last month.

And although they fell just short of the World Cup, just short of the planet's biggest sporting stage, they didn't let anybody down. On Sunday, like on Wednesday, for two hours each, they lifted the spirits of a nation that will never give in.

Andriy Yarmolenko (R), Ukraine's captain, scored the own goal that sent Wales to the World Cup. (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Andriy Yarmolenko (R), Ukraine's captain, scored the own goal that sent Wales to the World Cup. (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)