With less than a thousand fans inside the hollow, empty and slightly eery Antonis Papadopoulos stadium in Larnaca, Cyprus, the neutral setting for the U.S. national team’s friendly against Ukraine on Wednesday was a poignant, emotional and disturbing reminder of the troubles affecting Ukraine.
The game was switched to Cyprus last week, after the situation in Ukraine grew more serious, as anti-government protests have already seen dozens killed and political unrest sweep across the former Soviet nation. Ukraine beat the U.S. 2-0 in a confident display, but that wasn’t important. Sure, a win will take the threat of impending war off the minds of Ukrainians, for now, but it was all about their team coming together and uniting as one.
Ukraine’s players looked thoughtful, sad and defiant as they lined up and belted out their national anthem (in Russian) before kick off full of gusto and pride. Seeing 11-men representing a nation on the verge of crumbling stand together as one was awe-inspiring and sent a shiver down the spine.
“Ukraine has not yet perished.”
That is the title of Ukraine’s national anthem, and as it rung around the near empty stadium, about 900 Ukrainian fans were sat up in one stand with sullen looks on their faces. Back home Russian troops are swarming Ukraine’s borders as we speak and full conflict seems to be just a matter of days away. This is a disturbing and worrisome time for not only Ukrainians but the entire Western world.
Following the emotional national anthem, the two squads lined up around the center circle and observed a minutes silence for all those people who’ve perished in the uprising in the capital Kiev and elsewhere in Ukraine. Most of the Ukrainian players bowed their heads, but stood with their arms around one another. This was about more than a soccer game.
Lengthy discussions about the Ukraine national team traveling to Cyprus to play the game had taken place, but seeing the faces of the players during the immaculately observed minute silence said it all.
These players, right now, need to represent their country and give their people something to cheer and rally behind as more troubling times lie ahead.
What was a run of the mill international friendly has now turned into a huge political and humanitarian message from the Ukrainian people.
They are united. They are ready to fight for their country. And as their national anthem states: “Ukraine has not yet perished.” This match was reinforced that notion to those trying to tear Ukraine apart.
A huge banner was unfurled by the small band of Ukraine fans who’d made the trip to Cyprus.
“Ukraine is Undivided – One Country, One Team.”