WITH the third game of Scotland’s vital Nations League triple-header taking place in Krakow on Tuesday, it was no surprise to see large sections of the Tartan Army making a long weekend of it.

Hundreds of kilted fans had made their way almost directly from Hampden, where Scotland beat the Republic of Ireland 2-1 on Saturday night, to the city in southern Poland, a place of architectural beauty, great food and great, cheap beer. Scotland’s opponents were, of course, not Poland, but rather Ukraine, currently playing their home matches in the city for obvious, tragic reasons.

How much of a “home” game this would be for Ukraine was therefore open to question. Somewhere between one and two million Ukrainian refugees are believed to be living in Poland, but every one of them could be forgiven for having weightier concerns than football on their minds just now. Men of military age – still a hefty segment of most football fanbases despite all the democratising the game has undergone in recent decades – are barred from leaving Ukraine and have been since late February.

In the leadup to the game the Ukraine FA’s website had published a direct appeal for support in Krakow, and the manager Oleksandr Petrakov’s comments – “I’m not very sure how many Ukrainians will be at the match. Our biggest desire is to play home matches again” – suggested the home turnout could be small.

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The country’s football team has always been important to Ukraine and is a particularly potent symbol of national togetherness right now, however, so it was certain that however many Ukrainian fans made it to the game, those that were there would be passionate, committed to their team and keen to speak out in support of their heroic country. With that in mind, The National set out on the streets of Krakow on Tuesday to meet some of them.

In the early afternoon on Rynek Glowny, the vast 13th-century square at the heart of Krakow’s Old Town, I found the Tartan Army lining the bars and restaurants with flags and banners. Not many Ukraine fans (a blue and yellow flag wrapped around the shoulders is their kilt-equivalent identifying look, so much so that it is common to see people draped in the flag in cities across Ukraine these days, even when there is no football match) were around yet, but those that were were interacting happily with Scotland’s fans and having group photographs taken with them.

Olena Chernysh, her son Andrii and her daughter Milaniai were taking part in one such group photograph at a corner of the square. With the help of an app and some translation from Andrii, who at five years old was already making progress with his English, Olena told me the family were from Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv, near the Russian border in the east, and had left at the start of the war.

They had settled in Krakow for now, along with tens of thousands (some credible estimates put it at 150,000) of other Ukrainian refugees. She said she and her children were delighted to be able to show support for their country in their temporary adopted home city.

A little later I found two smiley young women, also wrapped in Ukrainian flags, walking around in the square collecting money for ambulances back home. They told me they were from Kyiv and Donetsk and had come to Krakow at the start of the war, but when I asked if they would like to be featured in my article they smiled apologetically. “We would like to, but we can’t,” said one.

I ARRIVED at the smart, compact Stadion Cracovii, a short walk west from the Old Town, a couple of hours before kick-off and found Ukrainian fans already congregating and enjoying a traditional band.

As kick-off drew nearer it became clear the FA and the coach needn’t have worried about the turnout – though the ground was not quite full, the Ukrainian support was sizeable and very vocal, with loud chants of “Slava Ukraini! – Heroiam Slava!” frequently traded between the stands.

The National: Maks Vasylenko, his girlfriend and mother travelled from western UkraineMaks Vasylenko, his girlfriend and mother travelled from western Ukraine (Image: Freelance)

When I arrived outside the ground I first met Taras, a man in his early 30s, who was having a group photograph taken with four friends, all of them women who had left various parts of Ukraine in February. Katowice, an hour’s drive west from Krakow, has a large Ukrainian refugee population, of which Taras and his friends are currently a part.

“We only heard the game was here yesterday,’ he told me as his friends arranged a large Ukrainian flag in front of them for another group shot, “so we decided to come along. It’s a chance to support our team and a chance for Ukrainians to come together at a really tough time. I think with the band playing and a lot of Ukrainians coming from around Poland there will be a great atmosphere in there.”

Maks Vasylenko, a teenage footballer, was in town for the match with his mother and girlfriend. They had come from the city of Ternopil, in western Ukraine, and were the only Ukraine fans I met who had travelled from the war-torn country for the match. Maks and his girlfriend spoke good English and translated for their mother, whose generation was not generally given the chance to learn English at school. When Maks told her I was a journalist from Scotland she beamed, hugged me and immediately asked Maks to take a photo of us.

“We always support our national team but now it’s even more important for us,” Maks said. A player for the FA Ternopil team prior to the war, he talked about football simply stopping in Ukraine after February 24 with the top division having recently resumed but lower leagues still out of action. As a result, Maks is still without a team. “I dream of going to England or Poland or Italy to try my luck there,” he said.

Local people offering facepainting in the colours of both teams lined the approach to the stadium, their services as popular with the Tartan Army as with the Ukrainian fans and the pause in walking offering yet another chance for both sets of fans to meet, embrace, have photos taken and wish each other good luck.

Kate, now living in Krakow having left Kyiv at the start of the invasion, was watching her three-year-old daughter have her face painted when I briefly spoke with her.

“The national team is important to us because it is a piece of my people…” she began, before immediately welling up, clearly totally blindsided by the emotion of the words that had just come out of her mouth. She quickly wiped away the tears to hide them from her daughter.

Before heading into the stadium I talked with Vadim and Anastasia, a friendly young couple living in Katowice who had left the Black Sea port city of Kherson shortly before it was occupied by Russia in the first days of the war.

“Hopefully they won’t be there for much longer,” I offered, drawing only thin smiles, faint nods and silence. Too big a topic for now, and very understandably so.

We moved on to the topic of the Tartan Army, who Anastasia found fascinating. “I didn’t know the Scottish fans were like this,” she grinned, gesturing at the legions of kilted supporters marching down the road beside us towards the stadium. “They’re so passionate, they are crazy!”

After the game – a tense affair from which Scotland ground out the point they needed to top their Nations League group ahead of Ukraine – I caught up again with Maks, the young football player from Ternopil.

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“The game was frankly not one of the best,” he said, “but the boys fought as hard as they could. There was a lot of support for them, all the fans tried to help them, but we did not have enough.”

And will he and his family continue to come to Poland to watch the team until the day, hopefully not far in the future, when Ukraine are able to play their matches at home again?

“This was my first trip abroad in my conscious life, and I would love to attend more matches of our national team whoever they are playing,” he said, before ending, unprompted, on a line that suggests a glittering career in public relations or the diplomatic service awaits if football doesn’t work out for him.

“Honestly, I would love to see more matches of the Scottish national team as well. I really like Che Adams and John McGinn!”