‘The war affects us every day’: Ukraine feel burden of lifting spirits at home

Veteran midfielder Taras Stepanenko knows his team carry a responsibility beyond the pitch as they face Belgium

Taras Stepanenko used to be the great hope of Ukrainian football. Perhaps he lacked a little pace, but he read the game superbly and was a fine passer of the ball. Most of all, he had an assurance, an aura of quality that made him stand out. When he joined Shakhtar Donetsk from ­Metalurh Zaporizhzhya shortly before his 21st birthday, the route to a major ­western European club seemed clear. ­Fourteen years later, a lot has happened, but he is still there.

He has won 11 Ukrainian league titles and eight cups, but he has only ever played 262 minutes in the knockout stage of the Champions League. There used to be a sense of Stepanenko as an unfulfilled ­talent, but loyalty has an additional value in Ukraine these days. It may be his achievements with Ukraine at this Euros have a significance that ­reverberate far beyond anything he has achieved at club level.

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