The whole world is waiting to see who the United States men’s national team is going to face in its opening World Cup match Nov. 21.
This is not due to any particular intrigue with the U.S. men. With apologies to Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, et al., the Americans’ qualifying saga can’t hold a candle to that of one of their potential rivals: the men’s national team of Ukraine, which sits two matches and a whole lot of uncertainty away from joining the U.S., England, and Iran in Group B.
Ukraine’s road to the World Cup is paved with ifs. With the country still at war following the Russian invasion in February, even the coach is uncertain whether his team will be able to play for its spot in the tournament in June. CNN reported in late March that manager Oleksandr Petrakov told Ukrainian television that he wasn’t sure whether his team would be able to participate at all. “As long as people in my country continue to die, I cannot think about playing the game in Scotland,” Petrakov is quoted as saying. Less than a week later, he sounded more willing, telling the Guardian that the preparations will be difficult but possible.
If the team is able to remain in the competition, then it will first play a playoff semifinal against Scotland on June 1. If Ukraine wins in Scotland, it will face Wales, which has already won its semifinal, just days later. If it notches another win in that match, the final spot in Group B will belong to Ukraine.
Putting a firm date on anything amid an ongoing war is fraught, but there is more hope now than there seemed to be even a few weeks ago. There is roughly the same amount of time between today and the possible date of the first playoff game as there is between the start of the invasion and today. Who would have guessed they’d be here now? Who would dare venture a prediction for where they’ll be then?
Ukraine certainly has a shot at making the tournament, if it’s able to play. The team made it to the playoff by going undefeated in World Cup qualifying, which is good. What’s bad is that did so in about the most unimpressive fashion possible, finishing a point ahead of Finland by winning twice and earning six draws. While the ties against group powerhouses France must have undoubtedly felt like wins, the ones against Kazakhstan and Bosnia and Herzegovina probably felt like losses.
Doing just enough to get by has become something of a habit for this generation of the Ukrainian team. Last year it made it to the quarterfinals of the rescheduled Euro 2020 tournament, but it did so by winning just once in the group stage against North Macedonia and squeaking into the knockouts as the weakest of the four third-place teams to qualify (ahead of Finland again). There, it ground out a last-minute extra time win against Sweden in the Round of 16 before getting stomped 4–0 by potential World Cup opponent England.
In a vacuum, Ukraine’s national team would likely be competitive against Scotland and Wales for the final spot in World Cup Group B; after all, the Ukrainians have shown they can be competitive against just about anybody, for good and ill. But nothing happens in a vacuum during a war. The Ukrainian Premier League has been suspended since late February when the invasion began. Heavyweight teams Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk, who employ the bulk of the national team’s domestic players, are embarking on charity tours in Europe to raise money and get their players some playing time. (Shakhtar, a regular Champions League qualifier, has already been in exile from Donetsk since 2014 due to the fighting in the Eastern region of the country.) Still, form and fitness are concerns for the Ukrainians, as midfielder Taras Stepanenko explained to the Sunday Times. For a team that already has a tendency to operate on narrow margins, a lack of sharpness could turn an even contest into a rout.
Ukraine’s hope likely rests on its players who are still active, scattered among other European leagues. It could do worse, since included among them are many of its brightest stars. Ruslan Malinovskyi is a key component of Italian side Atalanta’s high-flying attack. Oleksandr Zinchenko is a key reserve for Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, a favorite to win the Premier League and Champions League this year. Andriy Yarmolenko and Roman Yaremchuk bag goals for West Ham and Benfica, respectively, though perhaps not as many as either team would like.
What most of these players have in common is that they tend to play in different positions for their clubs and countries. Malinovskyi most often lines up as a forward or a second striker for Atalanta but tends to play central midfield for Ukraine. Zinchenko is most often a left back for Manchester City, though his occasional reps in center midfield serve him well when he plays there for Ukraine. Yarmolenko plays as a forward, attacking midfielder, or winger for West Ham, but finds himself mostly on the right side for his country. This positional versatility is in keeping with the country’s soccer history; the legendary Ukrainian coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi was a pioneer of both sports science and universality during his tenure as coach of Dynamo Kyiv.
Lobanovskyi and his Kyiv teams played a massive role in the history of more than just Ukrainian soccer. His ideas helped push the game into what would become its modern era; soccer historian Jonathan Wilson compares Lobanovskyi’s tactics and the Dutch style of Total Football to calculus as discovered simultaneously by Leibniz and Newton. He coached all three of Ukraine’s Ballon d’Or winners—Oleg Blokhin, Igor Belanov and Andriy Shevchenko—though at the time they won the award, both Blokhin and Belanov were technically Soviet footballers, playing for Dynamo Kyiv in the Soviet Top League. (Shevchenko would win his in 2004 after moving from Dynamo to AC Milan.) Dynamo Kyiv holds the record for most Soviet championships with its 13 titles, beating rivals Spartak Moscow by one and Dynamo Moscow by two. Lobanovskyi would take charge of the Soviet Union team on three separate occasions, often stocking it full of his Dynamo Kyiv players.
Dynamo Kyiv was once even a central component of Soviet leadership’s propaganda in the aftermath of a different war, thanks to the widely disseminated story of the “Death Match” in which former Dynamo Kyiv players beat a Nazi side in 1942 and were shot immediately afterward for daring to embarrass the invaders. That version of the story is apparently false. Some of the players who participated are believed to have been killed by the Nazis months later, but whether the outcome of the game played a role in their fates is disputed. Nevertheless, the story still seems to be treasured by some in Kyiv, and would go on to inspire all but the happy ending of the film Victory, in which Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, and Pelé play Allied POWs who defy the Nazis by outplaying them in a rigged exhibition shortly before escaping.
Ukraine then is a nation that understands the cultural weight that a sporting victory can have, though Petrakov at least is glad his team won’t be playing the nation’s actual enemy. (FIFA suspended Russia and ejected the men’s national team from World Cup qualifying in late February.) “I wouldn’t want this to happen while I am still alive,” the manager told the Guardian of a potential match against Russia. “I don’t [want] to shake hands with these guys.” Neither Scotland nor Wales deserve to be cast in the enemy role here—both associations have been publicly accommodating of the delay and the unique challenges facing their opponent—but Ukraine midfielder Serhiy Sydorchuk predicts that “the whole planet will be supporting us” in the playoff. (It’s worth noting that war-torn Syria and Yemen both participated in Asian World Cup qualifying, with Syria even making it to the final round.)
The reality may be more complicated, at least back home. For some, the idea of Ukraine playing for a spot in the World Cup may be a badly needed lift. For the new Ukrainian diaspora, the playoff could be a valuable moment of cultural gravity that pulls them back toward their collective identity, as seen when Dynamo Kyiv began its tour in Poland on Tuesday. But for many others, even those who might ordinarily care about the national team, the pain of the invasion may still be too recent and too great to be salved by any degree of sporting success. If even the team’s coach has his doubts about playing, then who could blame anyone for feeling that gesturing toward normal with an international soccer match was inappropriate?
Those with qualms will likely be trampled under the world’s hyperbole should Ukraine pull off the pair of victories it needs to make it to the tournament. World Cup qualification would immediately become another victory for the fighting spirit of the Ukrainian people, added to the mythos of the conflict alongside the woman who tried to force sunflower seeds on Russian soldiers so their corpses would fertilize the flowers or the guy who smoked his way through his own personal demining operation.
Then what would a sporting loss be? In this case, hardly anything. If the invasion takes away the best possible performance of the Ukraine national team, it should go without saying that that would come nowhere near comparing to the human losses the war has caused. Ukraine doesn’t need a symbolic synecdoche of a victory in World Cup qualifying to point to; the story of Ukraine in this conflict is already such a tremendously captivating underdog story, with its own heroes and villains and successes and calamities. One of the war’s compounding tragedies is that Ukraine and its people have done so well thwarting the invaders yet still suffered so much, especially as the conflict has moved out of the realm of strategic objectives and into one of inflicting and enduring misery. That’s not how these narratives are supposed to work, but war’s stories are never as clear-cut as those of sports. No one can predict what will be happening in Ukraine come November, but if its national team wins these two games, then it knows where it will be: At the World Cup, against all odds.