The Interview: Nick Ames
The intrepid writer for The Guardian has written extensively on the Ukraine men's national team and what it has gone through as it prepares for Wednesday's World Cup qualifying playoff at Scotland
The Ukraine men’s national team meets Scotland on Wednesday (2:45 pm ET, ESPN2, TUDN) in a World Cup qualifying playoff, the winner of which will take on Wales this Sunday for a spot in the World Cup (and a date on opening day against the USMNT). Ukraine is a story that transcends sports, of course, and Ames has spent extensive time with the Ukraine team and its players to discuss how they have gotten through Russia’s invasion of their country.
The entirety of the written interview below is reserved for paid subscribers. As always, you can still get the entire free audio version of my podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you like to go for your pods.
Our guest now is someone who I find myself saying about more than any other writer, "I wish I would've written that story." Nick Ames writes for The Guardian and covers football matches while also writing some of the best feature stories globally about the sport, including recently stories on the Ukraine men's national team, the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, and FC Sheriff in Transnistria. Nick, it's great to talk to you. Thanks for coming on the show.
It's a pleasure, Grant. How are you?
I'm doing great. There's a lot to talk about here, and I want to start with Ukraine, because this podcast is coming out on Monday, two days before Ukraine's game against Scotland in World Cup qualifying. And your stories with the national team of Ukraine, with Dynamo Kiev, with Oleksandr Zinchenko, Darijo Srna, you've done a lot now in recent months. And they're actually in a position where the Ukraine national team, if they beat Scotland, and then if they were to beat Wales, would land in the World Cup playing against the United States on opening day of the tournament. What did you learn spending time with the Ukraine national team recently?
“I spent a couple of days around the [Ukraine team] hotel, watching training, some good chats with the coach, Petrakov, who is a very old-school kind of guy with quite a dry humor as well, sort of plunged into a situation that he'd never ever asked for. And I think he came out with a good line, which was, ‘If we qualify for Qatar, I've lived my life for a reason.’ He sort of sees it as a kind of almost destiny to do this for his country now.” — Nick Ames
I learned a lot. It was at their training camp in Slovenia that they've been based at more or less for the last two or three weeks, courtesy of Aleksander Čeferin, the UEFA president, who is of course Slovenian. Beautiful training complex in the foothills of the Alps, really nice. I learned that they really, really want this. I mean, there is a lot of awful, tragic stuff going on back home that I think we all know about very well, and it's easy for them to ask themselves maybe, and for us as media to ask ourselves, is football, is World Cup qualification important? Does it matter on the scale of things? And I was interested in that question, because I've spoken to quite a few Ukrainian players from different levels of a game in previous weeks.
And some of them were along the lines of, we don't want to talk about football at all. Even Oleksandr Zinchenko, who I'd interviewed two or three weeks previously, hadn't really wanted to look ahead to the World Cup games. Now, this squad gathering, when I attended it, it was domestic-based players only, because the players such as Zinchenko, such as Yarmolenko, players like this who are based abroad, obviously haven't finished their seasons yet.
So the squad's composition is changing slightly as we speak now, as those players filter in. But the vibe was totally, we need this, the country needs it, the country needs something to smile about. And it was very interesting listening to Taras Stepanenko, who's one of the senior players on the team, talking about how soldiers on the front line write to him and write to them every single day, saying, "Please give us this. Please give us this bit of hope, this bit of recognition, this thing to smile about while we're all suffering here."
So it is important. And I think also it's important to remember that what Russia is trying to do in Ukraine is erase Ukrainian culture, no more, no less, really. I think I said it in my piece from Slovenia. And I think as you and I both know, Grant, from our travel: What is an international football team, if not an expression, a representation of a culture, of a country's hope, of a country's ambition, of how a country expresses itself and everything around it? So I think that is all tied into what the feeling was in the camp.
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