MÖNCHENGLADBACH, Germany (AP) — Ukraine is back on the soccer field.
The Ukrainian men’s national team returned to action Wednesday for the first time since the invasion by Russia, beating German club Borussia Mönchengladbach 2-1 in a charity fundraiser.
The friendly was a chance for the Ukrainians to get back into form ahead of a World Cup qualifying playoff game against Scotland on June 1, but also just to show their team is still going, despite everything.
“We thank you all for your great help,” former world heavyweight boxing champion Wladimir Klitschko, whose brother Vitali is mayor of Kyiv, said in a video message to the German club and fans played ahead of the game. It felt as if “both (teams) are playing for us,” he added.
The squad for the unusual club-versus-country friendly was assembled from Ukrainian clubs whose league seasons were frozen Feb. 24 on the morning Russian troops invaded.
Ukraine has banned men of fighting age from leaving the country during the war, so the players needed special permission from the authorities to travel. Some have been touring Europe for weeks, first with the Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk clubs playing fundraising games, then at a national-team training camp in Slovenia.
The crowd of 20,000 contained many Ukrainians — they were given free tickets — who roared their appreciation when winger Mykhailo Mudryk rounded the goalkeeper and scored in the ninth minute to give Ukraine the lead.
Gladbach responded five minutes later with a powerful shot from Ireland youth international Conor Noss to level the score.
Mudryk had another good chance midway through the second half but could only tap the ball into the keeper’s arms. Substitute Oleksandr Pikhalonok gave Ukraine the win in the 82nd with a low shot from just outside the box.
If Ukraine beats Scotland in the single-leg playoff in Glasgow on June 1, it will face Wales four days later in Cardiff for a place at this year’s World Cup in Qatar.
Ukraine’s big names including Manchester City left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko, West Ham forward Andriy Yarmolenko and Benfica striker Roman Yaremchuk are expected to join up with the team in time for the Scotland game once their club seasons finish.