Ukraine shouldn't get a free pass to the World Cup

1 April 2022

10:18 PM

1 April 2022

10:18 PM

Should Ukraine be given a free pass into this year’s football World Cup? Boris Johnson has given his support to the idea, but there’s one downside: their entry into the tournament could come at the expense of Scotland or Wales. This hardly seems fair: Scotland will tonight feature in their first World Cup draw in 25 years; for Wales it is 64 years. Whatever the tragedy that has befallen Ukraine, it’s wrong to expect Wales and Scotland to step aside.

While we perhaps shouldn’t take the notoriously football phobic PM at his word, far more football savvy commentators agree with Boris. Jim White in the Daily Telegraph called for Scotland and Wales to do the decent thing and withdraw, declaring that ‘Ukraine in Qatar is the thing everyone now craves’. He then added, somewhat insultingly (for Scotland and Wales), that stepping aside would command more respect than qualifying and then being eliminated in the first round. If Scotland and Wales don’t oblige, suggested White, perhaps England could withdraw, and somehow nominate Ukraine as their replacement?

Generally, Fifa and Uefa have tried to keep out of politics and searching for precedents for the current situation is difficult. The sole example is Euro 1992 when Yugoslavia were barred from competing due to the ongoing civil war. Denmark was given 10 days’ notice to fill the vacancy, and in a classic sporting fairy tale ended up winning the tournament.

But that all had a cool logic and a practicality to it. Fielding a multi-ethnic side from the war-torn country would have been extremely difficult, even dangerous. Yugoslavia’s own manager Ivica Osim declared: ‘My country doesn’t deserve to play in the European Championship’. Had Yugoslavia not been expelled, they might well have withdrawn. Denmark were runners-up to Yugoslavia in their qualifying group and the natural choice to replace them.

This time round the question of a bye to Ukraine seems based more on sentiment and a belief in the symbolism of sport to influence world affairs. Ukraine’s appearance at the finals would be a massive boost to the people of that country and possibly have some influence on the conflict, therefore justice dictates a special case be made. That seems to be the rationale.

But such judgements require sporting bodies to assume the role of moral arbiters of complex global issues, opening them up to accusations of inconsistency and hypocrisy. Russia has already been expelled from the 2022 tournament, but should Saudi Arabia be allowed to compete (with 370,000 dead in the ongoing war in Yemen)? Or Iran with its appalling record of human rights abuses? Some might even add Canada to the list in light of recent events. China won’t be in Qatar, but should it be allowed to proceed with its prospective bids for the 2034 or 2038 World Cups given the persecutions of the Uighurs? Whatever the answer to these questions it should surely be a consistent one.

And isn’t all this talk of a bye a bit condescending and premature? First there is the assumption that Ukraine will be unable to honour their play-off commitments, or unable, under present circumstances, to field a strong enough side to progress on merit. This is not yet clear: Fifa has given Ukraine until June to meet Scotland and no doubt every possible assistance will be offered to help them do so – if they wish it.

Then there’s the assumption that the Ukrainians would want to progress to the finals in this way. To presume that the nation would want a sporting hand out – or are even much interested in football at the moment – seems rather arrogant. ‘Loose discussions’ around the issue of a bye (or an additional place in the finals being created) have apparently taken place with Fifa and the other members of Ukraine’s qualifying group (Scotland, Wales, and Austria) but there are no reports of any Ukrainian representation.

Understandably, there hasn’t been much talk of football from the Ukrainian authorities recently. The national team coach Oleksander Petrakov has cast doubt on whether the game with Scotland can go ahead and implied that people have far more important things on their minds. ‘As long as people in my country continue to die, I cannot think about playing the game in Scotland,’ he said, adding that he is ‘constantly in touch’ with the players and that ‘for them, football has faded into the background’.

A bye to Ukraine may have powerful emotional appeal for many, but advocates should consider whether it is an act of selfless generosity or an affront to the dignity of a proud people; and whether enlarging the purview of international sport to geopolitics is a wise or realistic proposition.

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