By ROB HARRIS
AP Global Soccer Writer
CARDIFF, Wales (AP) — Far from battlefields and Russian invaders, the Ukrainian footballers exempted from military service are trying to complete the mission to lead their country to the World Cup.
When they prepare to face Wales on Sunday in a playoff final, they will have a little extra inspiration in their Cardiff locker room from a flag sent by soldiers on the frontline.
Since Wednesday when Ukraine beat Scotland in a playoff semifinal, the players have continued to exchange messages with friends who have been defending their homeland in a war that has passed 100 days.
“We all hope that very soon Ukraine will be liberated and will return to being an independent country,” Ukraine midfielder Oleksandr Karavayev said through a translator in the Welsh capital.
“This is a great positive stimulus and brings positive emotions because everyone believes and sees how the whole world is united around us.”
The Dynamo Kyiv player has family still in the southern city of Kherson, which was captured early in the war by Russia.
“They cannot watch the match because there is no connection and internet,” Karavayev said. “But they communicate by messages and they read the news.”
Keeping Ukraine high in the headlines can be partly achieved by the men qualifying for a first World Cup since 2006. But it might take time for their compatriots on the frontlines to discover the result in Wales.
“It is a really hard situation in Ukraine and not everyone has the chance to watch football,” coach Oleksandr Petrakov said through a translator.
“I don’t communicate with any soldiers but the team writes to soldiers and even received a flag from the war which they promised to hang in the dressing room.”
From there they will step out on the field to face a Wales team trying to return to the FIFA showpiece after an even longer wait, having last appeared in the finals in 1958. Wales is expected to be carried, as usual, by its highly partial and emotional fans.
“Sport is sport and we don’t expect presents or an unfair win,” Karavayev said. “We know how hard it is and this is the most important game in our lives. But we wish to win and we will do everything possible to do that.”
There is much sympathy for Ukraine from Wales captain Gareth Bales, but also a ruthless sporting determination to qualify.
So would Bale apologize to Ukraine for snatching away its own World Cup dream?
“As horrible as it sounds, no,” Bale responded.
“It is a game of football and it is a competition that we want to get to as well. Everyone in the world feels for Ukraine but for this game, it’s a game of football. It is sport, it unites everybody. We understand what it will do for Ukraine but we want to get to the World Cup. It is not coming from a horrible place, but it is coming from our country, our hearts. We want to deliver for our own fans.”
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