Ukraine missed out on qualifying for the World Cup after the war-disrupted team was beaten 1-0 by Wales in the European playoff final for the FIFA football showpiece.
Andriy Yarmolenko inadvertently headed the ball into his own net on Sunday while trying to clear Wales captain Gareth Bale’s first-half free kick.
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While Wales heads to a first World Cup in 64 years – opening against the United States in November – this was an agonising end to Ukraine’s emotionally charged mission to qualify for Qatar while remaining under invasion by Russia.
The right leg of Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey kept out Viktor Tsyhankov’s poked shot 10 minutes into the second half as Ukraine searched in vain for an equalizer.
Artem Dovbyk’s header in the 84th minute looked destined for the corner of the net until it was pushed away by Hennessey’s left hand.
The Ukrainian players appeared heartbroken following the defeat, wanting to give their country a positive after it has endured three months of bombardment.
“The most important game of our lives,” Ukraine defender Oleksandr Karavayev said on Saturday.
‘Did everything we could’
Ukraine coach Oleksandr Petrakov said he could not utter a word of criticism of his players.
“I can only say thank you for everything he did for the team. I do not have any criticism to any of the players in the team,” he said. “I think we did everything we could but I want the people of Ukraine to remember our team, our efforts. I want to say sorry we didn’t score. But that is sport, that happens.”
Ukraine had beaten Scotland in their playoff semi-final to set up the meeting with the Welsh.
Back home, on the 102nd day of the invasion, Ukrainians took respite from the pain and suffering of the war by watching the game broadcast from Cardiff in bars, including in the capital Kyiv, which had been hit by Russian air strikes earlier in the day.
There were protests by the Russian Football Union on Sunday against the jersey being worn in Wales because Ukraine featured Crimea – which Russia annexed in 2014 – as being part of its map.
The spectre of the war was evident in the Welsh capital with a message of peace in English and Ukrainian on the screens in Cardiff City Stadium.
Rivalries were put aside when the Ukrainian national anthem was played and it was applauded by the home fans.
Of the 1,800-seat allocation for Ukraine, 100 free tickets were given to refugees forced to flee Ukraine since the invasion began in February, which led to Russia being disqualified from World Cup qualifying.
Ukraine has not qualified for the World Cup since 2006. This match was delayed about three months because of the invasion.