LARNACA, Cyprus — When the plane carrying the U.S. men’s soccer team touched down Tuesday in Cyprus for an exhibition against Ukraine on Wednesday, it was not even certain that the Americans would have an opponent to face. Then they spotted an Air Ukraine jet on the tarmac at Larnaca Airport. That was at least a good sign.
Hours earlier, Ukrainian television reported that the game had been canceled. The news had seemingly put an end to more than a week of questions about when, where and even whether the game would be played amid Ukraine’s political instability and a possible armed confrontation with Russia.
The game had already been relocated once, from its original site in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. The television report, citing the Ukrainian soccer federation’s president, Anatoliy Konkov, implied that it had finally met its end.
“We cannot hold the national championship, so what kind of football can we talk of at all?” Konkov said on Ukrainian television Monday night. “If we do not have an opportunity to play on home soil, why shall we go to Cyprus?”
After hearing of the report, U.S. Soccer insisted on a written confirmation from its Ukrainian counterpart that the game would go ahead before the American team boarded its 3 1/2-hour flight from Frankfurt, where it had set up a training base. After receiving that assurance, the Americans left for the airport Tuesday morning.
“Yeah, we heard things just like everyone else,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard, who also plays for Everton in the English Premier League. “But unless you’re told otherwise, you just have to carry on as normal. If it’s off, it’s off. There’s nothing we can do about it.
“I live in Manchester,” he joked under a sunny sky, “so I’m just glad to see the sun again.”
The warm early spring temperatures and the neutrality of Larnaca made it the perfect place to continue the Americans’ preparations for the World Cup, even if the location offered its own security concerns. The Cypriot soccer association postponed all league games over the weekend after a bomb damaged a referee’s car.
Despite the chaotic buildup, the U.S. team appeared in a relaxed mood during training in Limassol on the eve of the game. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann led his players in a light session, using his whistle to set the tempo and his distinctive California-infused German tones to shout encouragement.
Midfielder Jermaine Jones said he was “a bit surprised” that the game was being played, considering all that had happened in Ukraine. “But for me, it’s important we don’t really focus much on that,” he said. “We’re here to play a game and prepare for the World Cup.”
Howard said: “This is an opportunity for us to play in a different sort of environment. It’s a neutral venue, so I guess it’s quite useful before a World Cup in that sense. Although I suppose there won’t be many fans at the game.”
The deck chairs and sun loungers are piled high on Larnaca’s beach, awaiting the influx of largely British tourists in the summer months. It is the kind of resort that sticks a fried egg on top of every meal and offers free shots to vacationers at every bar, but for several American players it could be where any hopes of a summer at the World Cup come to an end.
For players like Oguchi Onyewu and Jonathan Spector, who was called into the roster as an 11th-hour injury replacement, this could be a last chance to stake a claim for a place in the 23-man World Cup squad. It may be just an exhibition, but time is running out, and the pressure is on.
Of course, any such pressure pales against what is facing Ukraine. Only two players on its roster play outside the country, which may be on the brink of war.
“I’ve been following what’s been happening,” Howard said, “and some of the reports on the TV have been hard to watch. It feels kind of strange to be playing a team you don’t know what their mental state will be. They’ll be worried about their homeland and their families, so playing football at a time like this must be very difficult.”
At the team hotel in Ayia Napa, Ukraine’s captain, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, described the national team as a symbol of the country’s unity, admitting that troubles back home would weigh heavily on players’ minds. “It’s a dangerous situation,” Tymoshchuk told The Associated Press. “We have our families. We worry, but we hope that we can keep the peace in Ukraine as quickly as possible.”
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company