Skip to Content

Against the backdrop of war, Ukraine hopes to show the ‘spirit of our nation’ at Euro 2024

By Don Riddell and Ben Church, CNN

(CNN) — When Ukraine’s players step out on the field to play Romania in their opening group game of Euro 2024, they will do so with more than just sporting glory at stake.

In the harrowing years that have followed Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the besieged nation’s soccer team has become a beacon of hope for a country still suffering under the weight of war.

It’s a responsibility that the team takes very seriously and one which it will use as motivation at this year’s European Championship – the first major tournament Ukraine has qualified for since the war began in 2022.

“We all understand that football is not the most important thing now in Ukraine,” Ukraine head coach Sergiy Rebrov tells CNN Sport.

“But I think our successful performance in Europe gives our people in Ukraine positive emotions.

“Before [the war], when you’re fighting on the pitch, you are thinking only about the result. But I think all of us now are thinking about the result and about showing Europe the real character of our country.”

Ukraine finished third in its Euro 2024 qualifying group, behind England and Italy, but beat Bosnia-Herzegovina and then Iceland in a tense playoff campaign to qualify for the major tournament.

After securing its place in the competition back in March, Ukraine 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.”

Rebrov also said the team received happy messages from soldiers on the frontline, who said how proud they were of the achievement.

Ukraine will now have the chance to provide another morale boost for the nation as it tests itself against Europe’s elite, first facing Romania on Monday before playing Belgium and Slovakia in its remaining Group E games.

Rebrov, who became a popular figure in Ukrainian soccer as a player, took over as head coach of the national team in 2023 and has overseen the development of an exciting group of players, led by the likes of Chelsea star Mykhailo Mudryk and Arsenal’s Oleksandr Zinchenko.

But Rebrov says managing the team during wartime has been challenging.

Many of the stadiums in Ukraine – some of which helped co-host the European Championship 12 years ago – have been damaged by the fighting. That, combined with the constant threat of Russian violence, means Ukraine can’t play or train in its home country, forced instead to travel around the continent to play its home games.

“Traveling to the games is very hard. But, as I said, compared with our fighters, it’s nothing,” adds Rebrov, reflecting a sentiment at the heart of everything the team says and does.

Communication, then, is key to helping players and backroom staff who have been impacted directly by the consequences of war.

Rebrov says having those conversations is often “very hard” but that he tries to remind his players what they are fighting for every time they pull on that yellow and blue jersey.

To do this, the manager says he sometimes relays messages from those fighting on the frontline during team talks and has even shown his players videos of children who have had their lives impacted by the fighting before games.

“They made some videos for several minutes and, of course, the players were crying,” he says.

“When you’re watching this video, of course, you come onto the pitch with a different sort of motivation.”

Heading into the European Championship, Ukraine has already achieved a major goal by just being there.

It’s a powerful symbol that, despite everything, a Ukrainian team is still representing the war-torn country on the global stage. Russia, meanwhile, will not take part given UEFA’s continued ban on its participation.

While Rebrov knows that qualification alone has brought some good news to Ukrainians around the world, he still wants his team to do itself proud at the tournament in Germany and has told his players to give their “maximum.”

“We are there and we deserve to be there. I think now is very important to prepare seriously and to show again the spirit of our nation,” he says, while not setting any specific goals for progression at the Euros.

“Football is different for our players. They are concentrated, but the target is different: not only winning the match.

“I think it’s very important during the game to show passion, to show character, like shown by our defenders.”

Earlier in June, Ukraine documented its highest monthly number of civilian casualties in almost one year, amid Russia’s sweeping offensive on the northeastern region of Kharkiv.

The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) recorded a “significant increase” – at least 31% – in the number of civilians killed in Ukraine in May compared to April, according to a press release.

Set to that backdrop, Rebrov knows that sport is not very important, but he’s aware it still has a huge role to play in the war effort.

Since the start of the war, Zelensky has called on the nation’s biggest sports stars to fly Ukraine’s flag and the likes of heavyweight boxer Oleksandr Usyk and tennis star Elina Svitolina have continued to draw attention to their country’s needs.

This year’s European Championship is yet another opportunity for Ukraine’s soccer team to do their bit in boosting morale.

“Everybody from Ukraine […] is trying to help each other, trying to help our defenders, trying to help the volunteers,” Rebrov says.

“Of course, the most important dream is to finish this war and continue to rebuild our country.”

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

Article Topic Follows: CNN - Sports

Jump to comments ↓

CNN Newsource


KTVZ NewsChannel 21 is committed to providing a forum for civil and constructive conversation.

Please keep your comments respectful and relevant. You can review our Community Guidelines by clicking here

If you would like to share a story idea, please submit it here.

Skip to content