Four months after their last match in which they won the Turkish Women’s Cup, Ukraine’s Women’s national soccer team return to action in Rzeszów, the eastern Polish city into which many of their compatriots have evacuated as the invasion of their nation continues.
Initially scheduled to be played in April, on Friday and Tuesday, Ukraine will play two ‘home’ matches against Scotland and Hungary needing to win both to keep alive their slim hopes of qualifying for the FIFA Women’s World Cup finals next year in Australia and New Zealand.
Led by former FC Barcelona head coach, Lluís Cortés, the current IFFHS club coach of the year, Ukraine last played in February, winning three successive matches in Antalya, Turkey to win the Turkish Women’s Cup. Just two days later, Russian troops invaded the east of their country.
The majority of the national team played for one of the two leading teams in the eastern city of Kharkiv, Zhytlobud-1 and Zhytlobud-2. Goalkeeper Kateryna Samson represented the league leaders Zhytlobud-2, she recounted to me the tragic swing in emotions the players experienced as they travelled home from Turkey.
“Winning an international tournament is very cool, we were so happy as we returned to Ukraine. On February 23, we flew to Kyiv and took a train to Kharkiv. The news that the war had begun caught me on the train! My mum called and told me this. At that moment, I forgot about football and winning, it was scary. We heard explosions, saw tanks, fighter planes flew overhead. Everyone called home to their relatives, it was a terrible morning.”
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Samson’s family lived in the border city of Sumy, quickly on the frontline of hostilities. “The first emotions were fear for my family who lives in a city located near the border. I didn’t want to believe it was true. My family is still in Sumy, they didn’t want to leave because it was dangerous. Of course, even in my worst nightmare I could not have thought that this could happen.”
Just two months earlier, Kharkiv had hosted UEFA Women’s Champions League matches at their Metalist Stadion, as Zhytlobud-1, the only Eastern European side in the sixteen-team group stage, hosted Paris Saint-Germain. Now both Kharkiv sides were left without the facilties to even train as Samson explained to me, “our base in Kharkiv was destroyed, seven rockets fell on our field. All the players and coaching staff have left the city.”
With the European transfer window closed, there seemed to be few options for the players to continue playing until Cortés lobbied the European governing body, UEFA, who eventually created an exemption for Ukrainian soccer players. “Lluís and the all coaching staff, like us, flew to Ukraine. The first thing they asked was if we were safe, and after when they arrived in Spain they started collecting humanitarian aid, looking for teams for the players. Lluís began to discuss with UEFA about the possibility of opening the transfer windows and helping Ukrainian players change clubs.”
Assisted by agent Irina De Rosa, Samson and the other Ukraine players were forced to relocate at short notice. In Samson’s case, this involved decamping to Hungary, the nation she will be attempting to prevent scoring next Tuesday. “I did not have any contacts with Hungary. De Rosa called and said that there is a team there, they need a goalkeeper. So I ended up in Győr.”
In the meantime, Ukraine’s oppressors, the Russian Federation have had their women’s national team thrown out of this summer’s UEFA Women’s Euro finals in England. Samson, who previously played for six years in the Russian league feels their exclusion is entirely justified.
“Do I sympathize with the players? No. They play football in their own country. As an athlete, I understand their frustration, but I don’t sympathize with them. UEFA’s decision is absolutely fair, their state came to us with a war, I believe that sport should unite all the peoples of the world! Those who go to war against another state have no place in sports.”
For Ukraine’s first match to be against Scotland offers parallels with their men’s team who returned to competitive action earlier this month in a FIFA World Cup Qualifier in Glasgow, defeating the Scots. Samson hopes the women’s team can match them. “I watched this match in Győr and supported our guys. Of course, this victory adds optimism and confidence. It would be great to repeat the result of the Ukrainian men’s team.”
On the morning of that first game, her old club Zhytlobud-2, who were awarded the Ukrainian Women’s league title when the national championship was abandoned due to the war, will discover their Round 1 opponents in next season’s UEFA Women’s Champions League. Samson clings to the belief that she may return to Kharkiv to play for her old club in the competition. “I hope that Zhytlobud-2 will assemble with the same squad as before the start of the war, and we will be able to adequately represent Ukraine in the Champions League. Of course I will watch the draw.”
For now, defeating Scotland is the priority as they train in Rzeszów for a match they hope will be attended by some of the many Ukrainian people currently resident in the city, a magnet for refugees fleeing the war. The game will be streamed live on the BBC throughout the United Kingdom. “We feel the support of people from all over the world at this difficult time for us!” Samson said. “We will be glad to everyone who comes to the stadium. To those who will watch our match live and support us, we will also be grateful.”