War-battered Ukraine celebrates soccer team’s ‘crucial victory’ to reach Euro 2024

Ukraine’s soccer team qualified for this summer’s European Championships with a come-from-behind win over Iceland, a rare moment of joy for the country more than two years into Russia’s invasion.

A late winner from Chelsea winger Mykhailo Mudryk was enough to secure the 2-1 victory on Tuesday night, and spark jubilation among the tens of thousands of Ukrainians inside the Wroclaw Stadium in Poland, the neutral venue chosen because of Moscow’s ongoing war against its neighbor.

At the final whistle, Mudryk fell to his knees in prayer as players and coaches celebrated on the field, and the fans who packed out all four sides of the stadium cheered with joy, in a sea of blue-and-yellow scarves and flags.

Coach Sergiy Rebrov’s players made a ring around the center circle to lead the fans in a ‘Viking thunder clap’, the celebration made famous by their defeated opponents Iceland at Euro 2016.

Poland is home to about 1 million refugees from neighboring Ukraine, among the nearly 6 million Ukrainians who have fled since Russia’s invasion began in February 2022, according to UN data.

Ukraine finished third in their qualifying group, behind England and Italy, but beat Bosnia-Herzegovina in an earlier play-off to set up the decisive clash with Iceland.

A brilliant individual goal by Albert Gudmundsson had put Iceland ahead on the half-hour mark, but was canceled out by Viktor Tsyhankov’s equally impressive second-half strike.

Calling it a “crucial victory,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked the team for “proving once again that when it is difficult for Ukrainians, but they do not give up and continue to fight, then Ukrainians will certainly win.”

“At a time when they want to destroy us every day, we are proving every day: Ukrainians are and will be!” Zelensky wrote in a post on Telegram. “Ukraine is and will be! Thank you for the victory! Glory to Ukraine!”

Star player Oleksandr Zinchenko, who Zelensky has enlisted as a celebrity ambassador for Ukraine’s war effort, also posted after the win: “Glory to Ukraine.”

Held in Germany in June and July, Euro 2024 will be Ukraine’s first major tournament since Russia’s invasion unleashed the kind of destruction that has not been seen in Europe for decades.

Russia will not be taking part, having been banned by European governing body UEFA because of the invasion.

Ukraine will play in Group E of Euro 2024, along with Belgium, Slovakia and Romania, and face the prospect of taking to the continental stage while war rages back home.

Much of the country’s east remains under Russian control and, after months of stalemate, Kyiv’s forces had to withdraw last month from the significant frontline town of Avdiivka.

While Zelensky has repeatedly asked Western allies for extra assistance – and the world’s attention has largely shifted to the military situation in Israel and Gaza – a multibillion-dollar US aid package is held up by congressional wrangling.

CNN’s Josh Pennington contributed to this story.

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