Mark Temnycky –
When the fulltime whistle blew on 14 October 2019, a sense of shock and awe-filled the Olimpiyskiy Stadium in Kyiv as Ukraine defeated Portugal in a Euro 2020 qualification match. The result meant Ukraine would win their Euro 2020 qualification group, and the Zbrina qualified directly for the European Championships. To finish off their fantastic run, the Ukrainians would conclude their Euro qualification campaign with a draw against Serbia, and the result meant the Zbirna went undefeated in the 2019 calendar year. Based on these results, things were shaping up in Ukraine’s favor ahead of the 2020 European Championships. Their impressive qualification run, as well as their displays in 2019, tipped them as a potential dark horse for the 2020 European Championships.
The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, however, altered the course of Euro 2020. Due to the severity of the disease, UEFA’s Executive Committee and UEFA’s 55 national member associations decided to postpone the competition until 2021. International friendlies in March and June were canceled, and the majority of UEFA’s member nations suspended their football leagues until further notice. No one is certain when football will return.
Delay an opportunity for Ukraine?
While the coronavirus pandemic has derailed the 2019/20 football season, what might transpire could lead to new and unexpected opportunities, particularly for Ukraine. To better understand this potential opportunity, one must first examine Ukraine’s previous runs at the Euros.
Ukraine made its first appearance at the European Championships in 2012 as a co-host. Under the old qualification rules, host nations automatically qualified for the competition, meaning they were not involved in the qualification process. In other words, while the rest of UEFA’s member nations competed against one another in a series of competitive qualification fixtures, Ukraine spent the duration of 2010/11 and 2011/12 by playing a series of international friendlies.
The lack of competitive football, in addition to a series of matches against weaker opponents, failed to help Ukraine adequately prepare for Euro 2012. While Ukraine won their opening match against Sweden in the group stage, the Zbirnawere later eliminated from the competition after they lost to France and England.
Ukraine’s second appearance at the Euros offered more promising results, yet ended in catastrophic failure. During the Euro 2016 qualification period, Ukraine were placed with Spain, Slovakia, Luxembourg, Belarus and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (now known as North Macedonia). Ukraine would finish third in the group, behind Spain and Slovakia, but ultimately qualified for the 2016 Euros after Ukraine defeated Slovenia in the qualification playoff round. Ukraine’s successful playoff run saw the Zbirna qualify for a consecutive European Championship, and the Zbirna began to prepare for the 2016 Euros. After a series of good international friendly performances in 2016, many speculated Ukraine would perform well in their second appearance at the Euros.
What transpired was further from the truth. Ukraine lost all three of their group stage matches, were the first team to be eliminated from the competition and were the only team to not score a single goal at the 2016 European Championships. The Zbirna were embarrassed on the international stage.
Ukraine’s preparation for Euro 2021, however, could be a different story. Initially, Ukraine were scheduled to play Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Israel in preparation for the 2020 European Championships. The coronavirus pandemic, however, saw these matches postponed and the tournament was moved to 2021. Assuming international football will return in the autumn of 2020, Ukraine will face a series of new opponents in preparation for Euro 2021.
Euro 2020 in 2021, four spots still open
Currently, sixteen teams will still have to compete for the final four places for Euro 2021, but should this final qualification phase not interfere with the rest of international football, UEFA’s 55 member associations were meant to compete in the second installment of the Nations League. Based on Ukraine’s performance in the inaugural 2018/19 UEFA Nations League, the Ukrainians defeated the Czechs and Slovaks in Group 1 in League B, and the Ukrainians were thus promoted to the prestigious League A. As a result, Ukraine will compete against Germany, Spain and Switzerland in Group 4 in League A.
While Ukraine’s matches against their three opponents in the Nations League will be much more difficult than Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Israel, this could help Ukraine better prepare for the 2021 Euros. The challenges provided by these stronger opponents would help the Zbirna develop into an even stronger team, as it would make them more competitive. In other words, while Ukraine may not win many of their games against Germany, Spain and Switzerland, it will better tailor the Zbirna for the hardships that will be felt at the 2021 Euros. This, in turn, could see Ukraine advance further in the European competition next summer.
Overall, one could speculate on how Ukraine would have performed at the Euros this summer had they not been moved to next year. Would Ukraine’s success during their unbeaten run in 2019 equate to similar success in 2020? Or would this have led to a sense of false confidence and a similar Euro exit in 2016? No one will know. Ukraine must make do with the current situation at hand. Perhaps this will be a silver lining in an otherwise challenging period in history.
Disclaimer: This piece does not make light of the coronavirus pandemic, as it recognizes the hardships felt by those affected by COVID-19. Instead, it presents a potential opportunity from an otherwise challenging period in human history. Futbolgrad offers its condolences to those lost to the pandemic and expresses its thanks to the first responders and medical professionals who are combatting the spread of the disease.
Mark Temnycky is an AIPS accredited journalist who covers the Ukrainian men’s national team and Ukrainian clubs competing in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League for the Futbolgrad Network. Follow him @MTemnycky