World Cup 2022: Ukraine qualifying would be a moment bigger than sports
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
There is no such thing as having a second-favorite team in soccer, so says the eternal unspoken rule of the beautiful game. If you're a true fan, at some point early in your life, you will choose a favorite club, and then you'll stick with them through thick and thin (usually even thinner) until you die.
In the international format of the game — country v. country, not club v. club — the same thing applies. Genuine fanaticism doesn’t allow for loyalty split between two flags. Elimination from a major tournament means just that. You don’t get to double-dip.
If events transpire a certain way this weekend and Ukraine’s national team continues its hopeful, against-the-odds, fantastical, inspirational and downright tear-inducing journey to capture a spot in this winter’s FIFA World Cup 2022, the event will have the wildest of all wild cards and a unique commodity on its hands.
If the Ukrainians, having beaten Scotland 3-1 at Glasgow’s Hampden Park on Wednesday, can get past Wales on Sunday in Cardiff, the World Cup field will suddenly possess a team everyone is cheering for — unless it’s against their own nation. Heck, maybe even then.
In a sport that doesn’t do sentiment, the yellow-and-blue-clad representatives of a country whose plight has garnered humanitarian sympathy around the globe will be the sentimental choice.
How could it not be so? Listen to the words of team stalwart Oleksandr Zinchenko, 25 years old but with an old-timer’s perspective. "Every Ukrainian wants one thing: to stop this war," Zinchenko told reporters. "I have spoken with people from all around the world, from different countries and also some Ukrainian kids. They have one dream: to stop the war.
"When it comes to football, the Ukrainian team have their own dream. We want to go to the World Cup. We want to give incredible emotions to the Ukrainian people because Ukrainians deserve it so much at this very moment."
Take a glance at a video of the national anthem from inside the stadium Wednesday, when thousands of Ukraine supporters, many of them refugees relocated to the United Kingdom, belted out the tune and waved flags collectively.
Or, if you really want to tug at the heartstrings, watch this clip from before the game. When a group of Scotland fans, having spent the week learning Ukraine’s anthem with the help of a language app, joined their rivals in song on Hampden Park’s steps.
Yeah, I’m not crying. You’re crying. Who am I kidding? Of course I’m crying.
If Ukraine pulls off the improbable, there will be plenty more sniffles come Sunday — and even more come Nov. 21. For that is when the United States plays its first match of the World Cup, in Group B, and takes on the winner of the Wales/Ukraine matchup.
USA v. Ukraine would be a soccer match, yes, but if it comes to pass, it will also be a historic cultural occasion. You can only imagine the thought and effort that will go into various elements of cross-national symbolism.
A 90-minute game can’t change the reality of a nation being invaded by an aggressor, but it would be a moment bigger than sports and an opportunity for Ukraine’s ordeal to be further highlighted — by a group of men, no less, who wear their nation’s colors with passion, pride and purpose.
Ukraine is a solid international team, ranked No. 27 in the world. It got into the playoffs by finishing second in a European qualifying group headed by reigning world champion France. The squad is no one’s idea of a leading contender.
But … national collectiveness is a strange and sometimes inexplicable thing. Give a soccer player a cause, and magic can find its way into the air. Iraq’s Olympic men’s team, with desperation raging back home, somehow came within a whisker of a medal at the 2004 Athens Games. Denmark, during Euro 2020 (delayed to last summer), responded to Christian Eriksen’s on-field heart attack by making a glorious run to the semifinals.
Add Ukraine’s effort Wednesday to the list. They were underdogs against Scotland. They will be again when lined up with Wales, and the same would apply were the USA clash to occur in Qatar later this year. But Ukraine at the World Cup would be an underdog with a cause, with an incentive on a different scale to each other team. We’ve seen it before; such things can occasionally overcome even a great gap in talent.
Ukraine’s athletes are Ukrainians first, athletes second. That much was evident in the early days of the Russian invasion. Numerous boxing champions returned home to take up arms. One of them, heavyweight champion Oleksandr Usyk, delayed a multimillion dollar rematch with Anthony Joshua in order to join a territorial defense battalion in the field.
The soccer players are fighters, too, weapon or not. When a country’s very existence is on the line, the struggle is all-in.
It is a gut-wrenching reality, regarding a plight unceasing in its need for international support. And when it comes to soccer, it plays out as a force of togetherness carrying a near-mystical power.
Ukraine is a team on which everyone is together. And, perhaps like never before, it's a team that everyone should be behind.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.