|Venue: Wembley Date: Sunday, 26 March Kick-off: 17:00 BST|
|Coverage: Live on BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Sport website & app; live text commentary on BBC Sport website & app|
As we approach 400 days since Ukraine was invaded by Russia on 24 February last year, football has become one of the few things that can disconnect the nation from the horror and despair.
On Sunday, at Wembley, Ukraine take on England to start their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign, having just missed out on the World Cup in Qatar with a play-off final defeat by Wales.
Saying that the importance of this game goes beyond the result itself though is a massive understatement, as the people of Ukraine and those at war look to pause their darkest thoughts for two hours of footballing hope.
“Football is still the number one sport in Ukraine and it’s helping people cope with what they’re going through,” former Ukraine striker and manager Andriy Shevchenko told BBC Sport. “The league was kept alive, a few teams made it in Europe, that helped a lot.”
More than 1,000 tickets will be given to Ukrainians and the British families who have welcomed them to watch the qualifier at Wembley, with around 4,200 Ukraine fans having bought standard tickets in what will be a sell-out crowd in excess of 85,000.
Through public statements, many of the Ukraine players and the national team caretaker manager, Ruslan Rotan, have shown their gratitude for the support they have received from the United Kingdom.
Shevchenko, a Ballon d’Or winner who scored 48 goals in 111 appearances for his country, has been helping with the humanitarian aid effort from his London home and still has close family living in Ukraine.
“England has been extraordinarily supportive over the past year. They have shown solidarity and kindness,” he said. “I think the atmosphere will be very emotional and warm toward the Ukrainian fans and the team. From the UK government to the civil society, we’ve been shown big support since the start of the war.
“I’m going to the match, it will surely be a great day for our nations. I had a shock on the first day of the war, it was impossible for me to believe that it was actually happening. After the Russian troops left Bucha, I was also in shock, seeing the horrors of war, the crimes. We’ve been through so many terrible moments since February last year.
“England is strong, but our team is ready to show what it’s made of. It’s surely going to be a special day. There’s no good or bad moment to face England, as they are very strong no matter what. But our players don’t need extra motivation. They know why they’ll be on the pitch.”
‘We want to offer positive emotions’
Shevchenko’s former Ukraine team-mate, Oleksandr Kucher, is manager of Dnipro-1 in the domestic top flight, who, with their city currently serving as a humanitarian and aid hub for those affected by war, are now based in the capital Kyiv.
Kucher’s training sessions are often put on hold by the airstrike alarm but the ex-Shakhtar defender believes football is crucial in helping his nation through the nightmares of war.
“The entire country will be watching England versus Ukraine on Sunday,” he said. “We kept on playing because we want to offer people positive emotions. If we can distract them from what they’re living, then our mission is accomplished. That’s why I’m happy that we are playing in our league again.
“My worst moment was at the start of the war. My relatives were in Kharkiv and I was still in a training camp in Turkey. I wanted to get back home immediately, but all flights had been cancelled. My family was there and bombs were flying over their heads.”
Capped 56 times for Ukraine, Vyacheslav Shevchuk, who also wore the captain’s armband, is finding life in Ukraine hard to bear.
“It’s really tough in Ukraine these days,” the 43-year-old said. “The entire world knows that we are under attack, that missiles are flying in from everywhere. Football is a way of showing that we still have life inside, that we deserve to live and have a peaceful life.
“I’m under a lot of stress, I’m worried for my family, for my children. My wife and my kids are far away from me, they are living in Europe. They are Ukrainian refugees like the other few million. We hope to defeat the enemy so our people can come back home.
“Teams train how they can. The players need to hide in trenches, in tunnels, when the air alarms can be heard. Games are put on hold. The stress is immense, we don’t want this to go on. We hope we’ll be back to normal after defeating the enemy.
“It’s hard to develop our football during these times, but we go on, we still want to face the best. We have a lot of youngsters in our side and Shakhtar even made it to the advanced stages of the Europa League this year.”
‘A religion that unites Ukraine’
Ukraine arrived in London on Tuesday and have been training at Brentford’s performance centre, including a behind-closed-doors friendly against the Bees on Thursday.
The country had initially joined Spain and Portugal’s bid to host the 2030 World Cup but it is not clear what will happen to their role after Morocco’s announcement they had now joined a three-way bid.
It has been reported there were concerns because of the ongoing war and governance issues at the Ukraine Football Association.
Despite the uncertainty, Igor Belanov, who became the first Ukrainian to win the Ballon d’Or in 1986, is highly optimistic about the outcome of the England match.
“Millions of Ukrainians are waiting for a win. I apologise to England fans, but we need this victory more than they do,” he said. “Football is a religion that unites Ukraine. It’s difficult for people in Europe to understand this, but even during the war, soldiers, medical workers, volunteers – they want to feel the taste of a peaceful life at least for a moment.
“The game versus England is one of the few opportunities to switch from war to sport for at least two hours. I expect victory, of course. What other options can there be? Soldiers in their trenches await victory. And their children, parents, or brothers want that as well. The whole country dreams of a win at Wembley.
“Football is the game of millions – it brings them back to peaceful times. For normal people, who one day were drivers, managers, sportsmen, or IT workers, everything changed. They had a life, plans, and hobbies. All of this suddenly ended and they needed to train in the army and went to war.
“Our players spend more time hiding from missiles than training, the sessions are interrupted all the time in Ukraine. Every day, the enemy destroys infrastructure, fires missiles at us, and kills people. This gets to your brain, to your soul and it doesn’t leave fast.
“I want to watch a beautiful game, full of emotions and events. That concludes with our victory, of course.”