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'They will fight on their battlefield - the football pitch': Dynamo Kyiv's youth team prepare to make Ukrainian sporting history

15:00 GMT+4 06/04/2022
Oleksandyr Vatsyk Dynamo Kyiv 2021-22
The teenagers are in Bucharest to take on Sporting C.P. in what will be the first competitive game played by a Ukrainian team since Russia's invasion

Though a match between two youth teams taking place in Romania might not seem like a momentous occasion, on Thursday, such a game is taking place that will be about more than just football.

Dynamo Kyiv’s Under-19s side will take on their counterparts from Sporting C.P. in the last 16 of the UEFA Youth League, marking the the first competitive match played by any Ukrainian team since Russia’s invasion of the country began on February 24.

The war may have started less than two months ago, but it feels like an eternity, while no one could have predicted the disastrous scale of the damage that has been done.

Not least Dynamo, who a week prior to Russia’s advancement into Ukraine, were complaining of Sporting’s refusal to enter the country, as the Portuguese outfit cited the increasing number of Putin’s troops appearing on the country’s border as a reason not to travel.

“Sporting decided to use the difficult situation in Ukraine in order to deny Dynamo of their home advantage,” read Ukrainian website Football24 ahead of a game that was originally scheduled to be played on March 1.

“On February 14, they wrote to UEFA, stating that they won't go to Kyiv, basing the decision on recommendations of their foreign ministry and the Portuguese embassy in Ukraine.

“Dynamo insist on playing in Kyiv, or at the very least in Lviv."

As it happened, UEFA insisted that the game be played in Kyiv, and rescheduled it for March 9.

That announcement came on February 23. A few hours later, it proved utterly irrelevant.

And while Sporting were proven right to have concerns, the whole row over when and where the game should be played does not matter now. Peace is the main objective, but trying to make life as normal as possible for the people of Ukraine will help maintain morale in the meantime.

Football, then, has the opportunity to offer a glimpse of normality, even if the national champions currently find themselves over 900 kilometres (560 miles) away from home.

When the war began, Dynamo's veteran Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu started negotiations with numerous key officials in his homeland in order to enable him and his players to move there.

His mission proved to be successful, and in the beginning of April the first team of Dynamo began training in Bucharest, ahead of a series of high-profile friendlies against teams such as Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, with all proceeds to be donated to Ukraine.

The U19s squad, though, moved to Romania even earlier, in the middle of March. Aided by FCSB owner Gigi Becali, they were provided with accommodation and training facilities, and began preparing for a game against Sporting that has suddenly taken on unimagined significance.

"It wasn't easy to assemble the team, because at the beginning of the war the players were not only in Kyiv, but also in Poltava, Cherkasy and other regions of Ukraine,” Dynamo’s deputy director general, Serhiy Mokhnyk, said. “We will do our best to ensure that the young footballers, who are the future of our club, justify the trust put in them and represent Ukraine with dignity.

"The players are preparing for the upcoming match with great zeal and motivation. They are grateful for the chance to fight and defend the honour of Ukraine on their battlefield – the football pitch.

“The young Dynamo players are trying to play this match for all their compatriots and will do their best to win, in order to give Ukraine at least a small moment of joy and sporting pride in the dark times of war.”

Dynamo certainly are capable of pulling off a victory. They won 4-0 away at Bayern Munich and 4-1 at home to Barcelona in the group stages, with only four players having scored more goals in the competition than the five netted by Senegalese forward Samba Diallo, who has been likened to his compatriot Sadio Mane.

Since their arrival in Romania, Lucescu has personally assisted U19s coach Ihor Kostyuk and attended all the team’s training sessions, while two friendly matches against Romanian opposition were scheduled, with Dynamo scoring five goals in each game.

Now they are ready for the big test, which will take place at the newly-opened Giulesti Stadium, the home of Rapid Bucharest.

Lucescu, who had two spells as Rapid coach in the 1990s, was present at the opening ceremony on March 26 in front of thousands of fans, who rose to their feet to give a standing ovation to their guests of honour, the Dynamo Kyiv players.

Dynamo hope that the locals will now come and support them on Thursday, while Sporting find themselves in the strange position of being determined to win a game that almost everyone watching will be hoping they lose.

"We understand the importance of the moment,” Sporting coach Filipe Pedro said. “It's much more than just a match. However, our goal is to qualify, and the players are focused on that.

"The fact that we didn't know if the game was going to take place affected us a bit psychologically. Of course, Dynamo had more difficulties, but they only played a couple of friendlies lately. Our team has a busier schedule, and less rest.

“Dynamo are proud to represent their country, but we also have a lot of ambitions.”

All eyes, then, will be on Bucharest for what has unexpectedly turned out to be one of the most important UEFA Youth League matches in history.