Ukraine narrowly miss out on a 2022 World Cup spot but hope lies ahead

Photo Credit: AP

The heartbreak of Ukrainian players as they failed at the final hurdle to reach the 2022 FIFA World Cup was palpable. After time away from international action, Ukraine had regrouped for the World Cup qualification play-offs in emotional circumstances.

While their fans were left standing proud by their team’s valiant efforts, Ukraine’s story of earning a place at Qatar 2022 wasn’t to be completed. While that disappointment lingers, Ukraine moves on to tackle new challenges.

Where it started for Ukraine

When Ukraine started their 2022 World Cup qualification process back in March 2021, they couldn’t have known the turmoil that their country would face less than 12 months later. Ukraine started their qualification on such a positive note as well.

They earned a 1-1 draw in Paris against the reigning World Champions France. That was a good result in what was their toughest scheduled match. This was in Group D of the UEFA qualifiers. The group that also contained Finland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kazakhstan.

Ukraine drew the first five matches of their qualification process. That run included another 1-1 draw played out against France in the return fixture in Kyiv.

Those dropped points started to quickly stack up against them. It allowed France to pull out a big gap at the top of the group.

Following their 1-1 draw with the French in Kyiv in September 2021, Ukraine were basically playing for the second spot in the section. That was to secure a place in the qualification play-offs. Thatwas to be their second bite of the cherry to try and get to Qatar.

Ukraine finished their entire World Cup 2022 qualification group undefeated, but with only a W2 D6 record.

All of their home fixtures had ended in a 1-1 draw, which was very costly to them. Those were, in context, disappointing results for the national team against some weaker opposition.

Ukraine finished in second place in UEFA Group D of World Cup qualifying, six points adrift of France. Their top scorer in the group was Roman Yaremchuk who netted three times, with Andriy Yarmolenko the only other player to score more than one goal (2).

An emotional return in 2022

The final match that Ukraine played in 2021 was a 2-0 success away at Bosnia and Herzegovina in their 2022 World Cup qualification group. They didn’t then play a competitive fixture until their emotional return in June 2022.

In early 2022, the plans of the Ukraine national football team were disrupted by the events unfolding in the country. Having secured a place in the Qualification Play-offs, Ukraine’s scheduled semi-final against Scotland in March was postponed.

Ukraine had to wait until June 1st to contest that match. As some form of preparation for the second stage of their qualification challenge, a couple of Ukrainian Premier League teams were granted permission to go on a Global Tour Of Peace.

The Global Tour Of Peace

Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk, the two most successful clubs in Ukraine, went on a Tour of Europe. Part of that was to help raise funds for aid and awareness of what was going on back home, but also for the players to rebuild match sharpness.

Ukraine’s top flight had been shut down, but the national squad still had their World Cup Play-offs ahead of them. So the matches on the Global Tour for Peace at least gave the players from Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk playing time.

Starting on 9th April, between them, Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv played fixtures across Europe which included trips to Greece, Poland, Romania and Croatia. The results were not important of course, the message and chance at earning match fitness were.

In May, players from both clubs joined up at a training camp for the Ukraine national team. They were joined by Ukrainian players from other European leagues, like Italy’s Serie A and Germany’s Bundesliga, which by then had finished their domestic seasons.

Ukraine had three friendly matches organised as part of their build-up for the World Cup Qualification Play-offs. They played matches against German team Borussia Mönchengladbach, Serie A side Empoli and Croatian club HNK Rijeka in May 2022.

As a note, in late June 2022, the second stage of the Global Tour for Peace will play out, with Dynamo Kyiv involved in four other matches, two in Switzerland and two in France.

  • Yverdon v Dynamo Kiev
  • Lausanne-Sport v Dynamo Kiev
  • Lyon -v Dynamo Kiev
  • Lyon v Dynamo Kiev

Emotional and successful return in Glasgow

That all brought a return to the full international scene for Ukraine in June to face Scotland in their World Cup qualification playoff semi-final. Understandably it was a night of high emotion and respect between the two sets of supporters. Scottish supporters at Hampden Park joined in when the national anthem of Ukraine was played.

Players like Man City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko and captain Andriy Yarmoleknko were given standing ovations by both sets of supporters.

Ukraine could not have asked for a better start to the match as Yarmolenko, who plays for English Premier League side West Ham, gave them a lead just after half an hour. The energy and tempo that Ukraine played at on the night, caught the Scots off guard.

Ukraine would go on to press home their advantage at Hampden Park, scoring twice more, to run out 3-1 winners.

No change from Wales

Victory in Glasgow put a place at the 2022 World Cup firmly within reach for Ukraine. They had one more test to pass, which was a trip to Cardiff to face Wales. The winner of that clash would be one of the final teams to fill a slot at Qatar 2022.

But on the night, Ukraine never found the same energy levels as they had done against Scotland. They looked half a yard slower and couldn’t find the creativity or the pace to unlock a very well-organised Welsh set-up.

In a cruel twist, it was an own goal by their captain Yarmolenko in the first half that proved to be the only goal of the game. It was the crucial blow to their World Cup 2022 hopes and a chance to lift the hearts and spirits of their fans even further.

The 1-0 defeat for Ukraine was their first loss since July 2021 when they had been defeated in the quarter-finals of Euro 2020 against England.

Ukraine World Cup History

Ukraine have only made one previous appearance at the FIFA World Cup. The country only became a member of FIFA in 1992. However, the draw for the qualifiers for that following World Cup, USA ‘94, had been made in the previous year before them joining FIFA.

Ukraine, along with other former Soviet republics, had not been involved in that draw. So FIFA didn’t give them a place at the 1994 World Cup.

The first World Cup qualification campaign therefore that Ukraine went through was to try and reach France ’98. They couldn’t get there, falling to Croatia in the qualification play-offs after finishing second in their group. That is something that has been a very familiar story for Ukraine.

In five of the seven World Cup qualification campaigns that Ukraine have undertaken, they have fallen in the qualification play-offs after earning a runner-up spot in their group.

The two exceptions were in the 2018 qualifiers when they finished third in their group, and ahead of the 2006 World Cup for which Ukraine qualified.

At Germany 2006, Ukraine faced Spain, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia in the group stage. After a 4-0 thumping at the hands of Spain in their opening match, Ukraine then took clean-sheet victories over Saudi Arabia and Tunisia to reach the Round of 16.

Ukraine survived a penalty shoot-out in the Round of 16 against Switzerland after a 0-0 draw, which put them into the quarter-finals against Italy. Ukraine lost that match heavily, going down 3-0 against the eventual winners.

Euro 2026 target for Ukraine

There is still hope for the future of course for the nation as they size up their next big goals of reaching Euro 2024 and then the 2026 World Cup. Since that painful night in Wales for Ukraine, they have come back strongly in the 2022 UEFA Nations League.

Ukraine posted a W2 D1 record from three matches played in June, taking four points in two fixtures against Ireland, and a win over Armenia. When the UEFA Nations League resumes later this year, Ukraine will face a couple of games against Scotland and their return fixture against Armenia.

Ukraine played their home matches in the UEFA Nations League in Poland. As it stands, their one remaining home fixture against Scotland in late September will also be played on neutral territory.

The Euro 2024 qualifiers then start for them in March 2023.

The record of qualification by Ukraine for the UEFA European Championships has been excellent recently. Ukraine have been to the last three editions of the Euros. They participated in the competition for the first time as joint hosts with Poland in 2012 but failed to get past the group stage.

Ukraine then qualified for France 2016 via a playoff against Slovenia. But they again fell short in not getting out of the group stage. Ukraine lost all three of their group stage matches on that occasion. But progress was made by Ukraine at Euro 2020 as they reached the quarter-finals.

In difficult circumstances, Ukraine have still managed to lift the spirits of their fans. With a talented young squad at their disposal, better times could be rolling along in the near future.