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Ukraine’s Soldiers Cheer National Soccer Team in Euro 2024


They had won one battle, and then sat to watch a battle of a different kind. Eight Ukrainian National Guard soldiers who had helped stall a Russian offensive in the northern Kharkiv region of Ukraine took the afternoon off on Monday to watch the men’s national soccer team play its first game of the European Championship.

“Football unites — it gives adrenaline and motivates,” said Evhen, 34, a soldier in the 13th National Guard Brigade who asked to be identified by only his first name, in accordance with military protocol.

The soldiers huddled in a bunker with soft drinks and chips to watch Ukraine play Romania in Munich, only to suffer heartbreak when their team lost by 3-0. But like most Ukrainians, they nonetheless take special pride in their sports team during the war.

“We have one team on the field and a million on the front,” said Andriy Shevchenko, a former soccer star who is Ukraine’s most famous player and now heads the national soccer federation. Like all Ukrainians, he said, “soccer players start their day by opening their phones and checking the situation on the battlefield.”

For the National Guard soldiers, who have been fighting together for more than a year, soccer became a chance to bond in the safety of a basement and cheer their national team. Huddled underground, they watched Ukraine quickly fall behind against Romania.

“At war, we look at things differently,” said a commander who uses the nickname Jackson. “Even now, while watching the game, we understand that at any moment we might have to leave and go into the trenches to fight. We are always ready.”

Soccer, he said, is important for Ukrainians, even during the war. “I don’t question it,” he said of people who support soccer players along with the army in wartime. “We are fighting and playing for our country.”

When Russia launched a cross-border attack north of Kharkiv last month, opening a new front in the war, Ukrainian soldiers stopped the advance within about 10 days. In one area of urban fighting, in the town of Vovchansk, they also drove Russian forces back from their leading positions.

With its soccer leagues all but hopelessly disrupted by war and occupation, Ukraine barely qualified for this tournament, needing to beat Iceland in a playoff on March 26 just to get in. That match was played in Wroclaw, Poland, since Ukraine cannot host games on its own territory because of the threat of Russian missiles.

Ukraine also has had no home games since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022. Since then, professional soccer players who joined the army have been killed, along with countless soccer fans. Numerous soccer fields and other sports training sites have also been destroyed by the war.

The Sonyachny soccer stadium, which was shelled in May 2022, was badly damaged. While under occupation for a month at the beginning of the war, the soccer field in Borodianka, north of the capital, Kyiv, was defaced by Russian soldiers who dug a trench in the form of a huge “V” across the whole field. Russian soldiers mark the letters “V” and “Z” on their tanks.

Oleksandr Tymchyk, who played in the game against Romania on Monday, lost a brother when he was killed in action in Donetsk Oblast in August 2023.

Since February 2022, FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, and UEFA, the European governing body, have imposed a ban on all Russian clubs and national teams.

The game on Monday began Ukraine’s fourth appearance in the European Championship. The first time, in 2012, Ukraine co-hosted the tournament, with Poland, holding several games in the city of Donetsk, two years before Russia occupied the city.

But this year, most of the nearly one million men in the Ukrainian Army, National Guard, paramilitary police and other units could not watch. Some on the front line watched on screens hooked to batteries and satellite internet links also used to convey artillery coordinates and other military data.

Unlike civilian fans of the game, soldiers are prohibited from drinking.

“Beer is really missing here,” Evhen noted. He said he missed his circle of soccer-fan friends at home. “But I also have a really good team of friends here,” he added. “These are great guys.”

Ukraine hopes to use the tournament to draw international attention to the country’s plight, including that of its sports facilities.

Kharkiv is the region where the biggest number of sports facilities have been destroyed in the war. And ahead of Ukraine’s match on Monday in Munich, the national federation, the Ukrainian Association of Football, displayed part of the badly damaged stand from the Sonyachny stadium on the Wittelsbacherplatz plaza in the city.

Members of the Ukrainian national team also recorded a video showing rocket damage to each of their hometowns. Some are from occupied Donetsk and the surrounding area. The midfielder Mykola Shaparenko is from Velyka Novosilka in the Donetsk region, which is under Ukrainian control but has been destroyed in the war.

Ukrainian sports news media and bars are also using the momentum of the tournament to bring in donations for the army. The Beer Pub Kutovy in Kyiv announced an auction of the soccer player Nazar Voloshyn’s T-shirt to collect the money for the Third Assault Brigade of the Ukrainian armed forces.

Ukraine will play its next game, against Slovakia, on Friday. Teams play three matches in a group stage to determine who advances to the knockout rounds. This means Ukraine still has a chance for a victory.

The soldiers lamented the team’s loss against Romania.

“Well, we are all upset,” said Evhen, the soldier in the 13th National Guard Brigade. “But it is good that no one’s life depends on this match.”

Still, they joked, they had plenty of opportunities to vent their frustration.

“We will get some rest with the guys, then go fire mortars until the victory, to let a bit of steam out in this way,” Jackson, the commander, said.

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