‘We could play at Wembley’: Ukraine manager on war, the World Cup and his hatred of Russia | Ukraine


When the war broke out in the early hours of 24 February, Oleksandr Petrakov, the manager of Ukraine’s men’s national football team, chose not to leave his home in the capital, Kyiv, as the Russians advanced and shells dropped, but to try to join the fight.

“My family told me to go to western Ukraine but I refused. I said: ‘I am from Kyiv, I can’t leave,’” says Petrakov. “I didn’t think it would be correct as people have to defend and I can’t run. I thought, if they come to Kyiv I will pick up a weapon and defend my city.”

He adds: “I am 64 but I felt it was normal to do this. I think I could take two or three enemies out.”

A Russian speaker from childhood, Petrakov now sticks to Ukrainian in public and while some are sad about Vladimir Putin’s war and others are angry, he admits to a more visceral emotion. “It’s just hate. It is not anger, but people hate those who invaded their land. We need time to calm down but for now it is just hate. They have broken our countries for years.”

Petrakov
Petrakov took over from the former Chelsea striker Andriy Shevchenko as manager last August. Photograph: Oleg Petrasiuk/The Guardian

Petrakov tried to sign up to Ukraine’s territorial defence, the reservists being deployed across the country to fight the Russians. He spoke to a member of Ukraine’s government but was advised that his lack of military experience was an issue and that he might be better employed elsewhere.

“I was told: ‘You have to sign a contract and someone will command you.’ He said: ‘I know you, that would be very hard. You don’t need this, you are another kind of person.’ And I’m 64, you understand?”

Petrakov, who took over from the former Chelsea striker Andriy Shevchenko as manager last August, is instead trying to get Ukraine’s men’s team, for all the horrors of the last five weeks, to this November’s World Cup. The team were due to play Scotland in a play-off qualifier in Hampden Park in Glasgow on 24 March but it was postponed.

A new fixture is pencilled in for sometime in June. Petrakov says he believes it will be honoured although there are serious obstacles that he hopes the likes of Uefa and major European clubs such as Manchester United might help him overcome.

Petrakov on the touchline during a  World Cup qualifying match last October against Bosnia and Herzegovina in Lviv.
Petrakov on the touchline during a World Cup qualifying match last October against Bosnia and Herzegovina in Lviv. Photograph: Ukrinform/Rex/Shutterstock

Competitive football is banned among those between 18 and 60 who can fight, under an order from Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Those who play their football in the domestic league are scattered across the country, unable to train properly. Petrakov initially proposed a training camp for those in the domestic league in the relative safety of western Ukraine.

“But there is also shelling in western Ukraine. And if someone says that the national team training camp has started, the enemies could start shelling us. These people are without morals, or principles, and we couldn’t risk our players. The Russians are not our brothers, they are the horde.”

The Ukrainian football association is instead on Petrakov’s advice trying to arrange with Uefa both a camp outside of Ukraine, possibly in the UK, and friendly fixtures with the likes of “Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal”, with the proceeds of the games going to support the Ukrainian armed forces.

Petrakov says he has 11 players in his squad playing outside Ukraine, including the Premier League, but 26 inside who need match practice. “We could play at Wembley, for example, against a London club. It could be a good exhibition game, a response for the Ukrainian army, as well as preparatory work for the Scotland game.”

Petrakov says he needs five or six games to return his team to fitness. “We have to play because without the [practice] games, it would be very hard to get to play with Scotland,” he says.

Zinchenko with Ukrainian flag
Oleksandr Zinchenko of Manchester City with a Ukrainian flag at an FA Cup match at Peterborough last month. Photograph: Michael Zemanek/Rex/Shutterstock

He has weekly phone calls with players including the West Ham winger Andriy Yarmolenko and Manchester City’s midfielder Oleksandr Zinchenko.

“They’re calling to me, saying please be safe, we couldn’t bear it if you were killed. You’re staying in dangerous zone. But it is easier here. If I were there, it would be harder. Mostly, all the parents of these players are staying in Ukraine. The players worry.”

Other players and ex-internationals have joined in the fighting, including Andriy Bogdanov, 32, and Oleksandr Aliyev, 37.

The idea of Ukraine playing Russia on the football field again is anathema to Petrakov. “I wouldn’t want this to happen while I am still alive. I don’t [want] to shake hands with these guys … We have to build a great wall and do what we can do to separate from them.”

Petrakov, who won the under-20 World Cup for Ukraine in 2019, is full of admiration for Zelenskiy’s leadership. “When we won the cup, he had become president and he called up and I didn’t even know his name and surname. I just called him ‘my president’, says Petrakov, laughing.

But the war rages on. Petrakov’s daughter, Viktoria, 32, and son Yevhen, 41, and his four-year-old grandson are in relative safety in the west of the country. But in their flat in Kyiv, his wife, Irina, 66, struggles with the sounds of war.

“She can’t bear the shelling and explosions and at 8pm she goes down to the shelter with the dog. I stay in the flat. It would be better for me to fight somebody if I could.”



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