Sports

Ukraine set to resume chase for World Cup spot, could play US in Group B


Players wearing Ukrainian flags embrace prior to the friendly match between KP Legia Warszawa and Dynamo Kyiv in Warsaw as part of the series “Match for Peace! Stop the War!”

Players wearing Ukrainian flags embrace prior to the friendly match between KP Legia Warszawa and Dynamo Kyiv in Warsaw as part of the series “Match for Peace! Stop the War!”
Image: Getty Images

Russia’s brutal war isn’t stopping the Ukraine national football team from returning to competition. With the 2022 FIFA World Cup starting in November, the Ukrainians are one of seven teams vying for the final three unclaimed spots in the tournament with three hailing from Europe.

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The Ukrainians first match of 2022 will take place June 1 against Scotland in Glasgow in a European second-round World Cup qualifier play-in. The match was originally scheduled for March 24, exactly a month after Russia started its invasion of the country. A postponement was granted by FIFA. The Scotland-Ukraine winner will face Wales, which defeated Austria 2-1 in March in its play-in, for the final spot from Europe at the World Cup.

Ukraine advanced to the second round of qualifying, and not directly to Qatar, by finishing in second place in its group in the first round. France got the automatic berth, while Ukraine finished ahead of Finland, Kazakhstan as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Ukrainians haven’t played together since a Nov. 16 World Cup qualifier against Bosnia, a 2-0 win in Zenica and are on a seven-match unbeaten streak dating back to the team’s quarterfinal exit of UEFA Euro 2020 against England.

The English would be one of three teams Ukraine would face in Group B at the World Cup should Ukraine win its next two matches. The Ukrainians first opponent would be the United States and would play Iran a few days later. Due to the war and the spectacle of the World Cup, a United States versus Ukraine showdown to open play in Qatar for both teams would likely be the most-watched USMNT game of all-time, domestically and internationally. The current men’s record is USA vs. Portugal from the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which drew more than 25.5 million viewers.

Russia was banned from World Cup qualification by FIFA after the country’s invasion, despite finishing in second place in its first-round group as well. Poland, Russia’s play-in opponent, automatically advanced to a second-round final against Sweden, which it won.

The Ukraine national team has played since April 1992, when the country gained its independence after the fall of the Soviet Union. Ukraine’s only previous appearance in a FIFA World Cup was in 2006, when it made a run to the quarterfinals. The Ukrainians have also qualified for the past three UEFA Euro tournaments, including as co-hosts of the 2012 edition with Poland.

Most Ukrainian international players also play for domestic clubs with exceptions such as Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko and Benfica’s Roman Yaremchuk. No professional football matches have taken place in the country since the invasion began with a requirement for all Ukrainian males above the age of 18 to remain in the country mandated by Ukraine’s government.

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