It was nine minutes into a press conference unlike any other Hampden has seen when Oleksandr Zinchenko was asked to think back to his last time in this stadium.
The question came via a Zoom link, from a journalist in Ukraine. She recalled Zinchenko’s goal to defeat Sweden in last summer’s Euros and wondered how he felt now that the Russian invasion of their homeland had changed everything.
What mattered most to him? Could Glasgow again be the setting for Ukrainian joy in their World Cup play-off semi-final against Scotland?
This remarkable 25-year-old speaks more like a statesman than a footballer. His words are articulately selected and immensely powerful in their impact. Suddenly, though, just getting them out of his mouth became a test.
Tears filled Zinchenko’s eyes. He had to pause and choke back a rising tide of emotion to finish his sentences. But he did. Because the Manchester City midfielder feels a deep responsibility to represent his war-torn country far beyond the confines of a football pitch.
‘Every Ukrainian wants one thing – to stop this war,’ said Zinchenko. ‘I have spoken with people from all around the world, from different countries.
‘I have also spoken to some Ukrainian kids who just do not understand what is happening back in Ukraine. They only want the war to stop. They have one dream, to stop the war.
‘When it comes to football, the Ukrainian team have their own dream. We want to go to the World Cup, we want to give this incredible emotion to the Ukrainians because Ukrainians deserve it so very much at this moment.
Ukraine midfielder Oleksandr Zinchenko broke into tears on the eve of his purs crucial World Cup qualifier with Scotland
The Manchester City star said he wanted to see peace in his homeland following Russia invasion
He had to pause and choke back a rising tide of emotion to finish his sentences
‘It’s impossible to describe these feelings until you are not in this position. The things which are happening now in our country, it is not acceptable. It’s something which I can not even describe. ‘
He later left the Hampden auditorium to applause from assembled media that included representatives from as far afield as America and Japan. This game, this event, has a global audience.
Arriving with coach Oleksandr Petrakov precisely at the scheduled 6.30pm start time, Zinchenko had opened with heartfelt thanks for the support Scotland has shown to Ukraine.
‘Firstly, I would like to extend my gratitude to the Scottish national team, to the coaching staff, the players and the whole lot of the Scottish people who have provided Ukraine with this incredible help,’ said Zinchenko, referencing the instant acceptance of a postponement of the match from its original March date.
‘I spoke to some of the players and the coaching staff before and they expressed their feelings towards Ukraine, for which we are very grateful.
Ukraine, ravaged by war since Russia invasion in February, face Scotland at Hampden Park
Zinchenko had opened with heartfelt thanks for the support Scotland has shown to Ukraine
‘Secondly, our mood I would describe as a fighting mood. Everyone understands what is going on in Ukraine these days, what the situation is like on the ground.
‘That’s why I would say our motivation is definitely 100 per cent to win.’
He warmly welcomed the idea of Scotland fans extending the solidarity by joining in with the Ukrainian anthem prior to kick off.
‘We have to be together,’ added Zinchenko. ‘We have to fight Russian aggression, we have to basically defeat the evil. So, yes, this is an amazing, amazing initiative. ‘
Ever since the Russian invasion began in the early hours of February 24, Zinchenko has used the platform provided by his status at the English Premier League champions. Staying in the UK felt more effective than the intense patriotic pull of returning home.
Zinchenko arrived with coach Oleksandr Petrakov precisely at the scheduled 6.30pm start time
‘Maybe I was holding a few times the gun, the weapon,’ he said, recalling his thoughts three months ago.
‘Maybe… not maybe, I am 100 per cent sure I will be more useful to Ukraine to be in Manchester and to try to help the Ukrainian people and Ukraine as much as I can with a lot of different things.
‘Starting with this, sending some stuff, sending some money, sending messages to my Instagram followers.
‘Even, I do not know, doing some interviews, speaking with you. I need to share this and I need to show to the whole world what is happening right now in Ukraine.
Zinchenko has used the platform provided by his status at the English Premier League champions
‘The whole world needs to know the real truth. This I feel is my mission. I 100 per cent agree with Andriy Shevchenko who has said exactly the same. ‘
Focusing solely on a high-stakes football match might seem like an impossibility in these awful circumstances, but that’s what Zinchenko and his team-mates will attempt to do this evening for those still able to watch on television at home.
‘We totally understand the situation that maybe there is no opportunity for a lot of Ukrainian people to watch the game tomorrow,’ he said, considering the impact of the war.
‘But I am pretty sure that all Ukrainian people who have the opportunity will watch us. We are going to feel this 100 per cent. We can speak a lot, but that is what we are going to try and do on the pitch tomorrow – try to make everyone proud. ‘
Petrakov is 64, but refused to leave his Kyiv home when the war started and instead tried to sign up for Ukraine’s reservist army. A government official advised him he would be of greater use in his existing role.
Petrakov is 64, but refused to leave his Kyiv home when the war started and instead tried to sign up for Ukraine’s reservist army
He had to initially fashion a squad from domestic-based players who hadn’t played competitively since last December and set up a training camp in Slovenia. Three friendly matches followed, with overseas stars such as Zinchenko, Andriy Yarmolenko and Roman Yaremchuk joining once their club duties were complete.
‘It’s clearly a very difficult task to prepare the team when every single player is thinking about fathers, mothers, close relatives and family back in Ukraine,’ said Petrakov, who replaced Shevchenko as national coach last August and previously won the Under-20 World Cup for Ukraine.
‘We are using a whole load of methods, we try jokes, we try to motivate people in a light manner.
‘But every player knows clearly just how huge the challenge is for this game and that will make my task even more difficult. I am working under a lot of duress and stress but we are trying to show our best.
Staying in the UK felt more effective than the intense patriotic pull of returning home
‘We are trying to achieve the result and the team is fully prepared to fight.’
Petrakov also revealed there would be a phone vote to elect Ukraine’s man of the match at Hampden, with all the proceeds going to charity back home.
‘It’s a charity vote where every vote will mean Ukranian hryvnia (currency) and all the money will go to the charity foundation,’ he added.
‘This time all of the lions on the pitch will be helping the lions on the battlefield.’