Mark Temnycky –
What was projected to be a good year for the Ukrainian senior men’s national football team has quickly turned into disappointment. The start of 2021 has not been a good year for Ukraine, as the Zbirna dropped points in their opening three world cup qualification matches.
After earning an impressive draw in France, the Ukrainians dropped points against Finland and Kazakhstan. Three points from three matches, especially against two weaker opponents, is poor for someone of Ukraine’s caliber. While the Ukrainians still have five qualification matches to play, the Zbirna are already in jeopardy of missing out on the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Recent results completely contrast Ukraine’s impressive run in 2019. During this period, the Zbirna won its UEFA European Championship qualification group ahead of Portugal. The Ukrainians went undefeated during this qualification campaign, and they went undefeated throughout the 2019 calendar year. Based on this run of form, some football pundits and fans tipped Ukraine to be a dark horse in the upcoming 2020 European Championships.
The coronavirus pandemic, however, derailed this possibility as football was put on hold from March to June 2020. International matches returned in the autumn of 2020, and the Ukrainians struggled for form as positive coronavirus cases plagued the senior national team during the September, October, and November international breaks. The Ukrainians earned two important victories in the UEFA Nations League’s prestigious League A against Switzerland and Spain, but Ukraine also earned embarrassing results against France in an international friendly, and Nations League matches against Germany and Spain.
To end a poor 2020, Ukraine lost its final group match on a technicality. The game was scheduled against Switzerland in November 2020 in a winner-take-all scenario. If Switzerland were to win the match, the Ukrainians would be relegated to the competition’s League B. If Ukraine were to win or draw, the Swiss would be relegated to League B.
Ultimately, the Ukrainians were relegated to League B, but this was not due to the result on the pitch. During the start of the November 2020 international break, several of Ukraine’s players missed the match against Germany as they tested positive for the coronavirus. Days later, some additional Ukrainian footballers tested positive for the virus. While Ukraine still had enough senior players to compete in the match, and while the Swiss national team and UEFA were prepared to let the game continue, the local medical authorities canceled the match.
This decision was then contested at the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS), where Ukraine argued that it was ready to play the match. The Ukrainians also argued that the match should be postponed and rescheduled rather than a Ukrainian forfeit. Despite these arguments, CAS upheld the initial ruling. The result meant that Ukraine lost to Switzerland on a technicality, Zbirna were relegated from League A.
Ukraine will now compete in the competition’s League B during the 2022/23 season. The draw for the UEFA National League will be held after the 2021 European Championships.
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