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Playing for Ukraine

There are very few places more well positioned for feel-good stories than the world of sport. From the 1980 US Men’s Hockey Team to Billy Jean’s Battle of the Sexes win to Major League Baseball after 9/11, sport is a social construct that currencies in emotional drama connected to our larger social condition. It’s also a space where, right or wrong, we like to believe that anything is possible.

That is the potential narrative around the Ukrainian National Men’s Soccer Team, who just ended their unplanned hiatus from competitive play thanks to the Russian invasion. It ended last night with a 3-1 win over Scotland in the semifinals of their World Cup qualifying group, a game that was originally scheduled for March 24. That means that if Ukraine beats Wales on Sunday, they would advance to the World Cup in a group that included England, Iran, and the US. There’s no reason to believe that they will in fact win that game, other than the fact that most everyone outside of Wales and Russia want them to, especially as the vast majority of players on the team hasn’t played a competitive match in months. That, and of course the mental trauma of wondering if your country and your family will survive. That tends to put soccer in perspective, if not on the far backburner.

There’s precedence for countries under hostile invasion winning on the global stage. Perhaps the most notable was the 1956 Hungarian Water Polo Team, who beat the Soviet Union in route to an Olympic Gold medal while that same nation was driving tanks down the streets of Budapest. In that case, Hungary was an Olympic favorite, and they would meet their oppressor in the field of play. That’s not the case here, as Ukraine has essentially no chance of winning the Cup. Just making the cup is the goal. Also Russia has been banned from competing in this and pretty much every international team competition. So there won’t be any metaphoric battle between these two nations, only real ones in this case.

As you can imagine, the Ukrainian squad is well aware of the burden they carry. Their coach dedicated yesterday’s win to the troops that fight in the trenches. Players have talked about wanting to win this for their people, and that it won’t mean anything unless they win the next game. It is a fairly large burden that could either allow them to do the implausible or, it should be noted, drag them down. In sport, there can be a fine line between motivation and obligation, especially when the other team wants to win just as badly as you.

Which brings us the larger issue. First, a lot of sports fans will see this quest for the Cup in somewhat binomial terms. Either Ukraine is going to make it, which is fantastic, or they won’t, which would be a shame. That tends to be the overarching perspective on most athletic conquests. Like playing in the Super Bowl, or trying to break the four-minute mile. There’s tons of appreciation for the outcome. I’d suggest in this case, and in most, that’s missing the point. The story here isn’t whether Ukraine wins. It’s their effort to do so in the worst of conditions. The meaning of this story comes not from Sunday’s game, but rather in the weeks and moments leading up to it, that sport can both endure and inspire during the darkest hours. If we lose sight of that truism, we might as well just cheer for a coin flip.

Second, it’s always important to remember that there’s a team, and all their fans, on the other side of this equation. As much as the Scottish team surely appreciates Ukraine’s quest, their captain also said how disappointed he was at the loss, and essentially apologized to their fans for missing the Cup. I’m fairly certain that the Welsh public wishes the best for the Ukrainian people, but still desperately wants to win this game – and very well might. I say this as one of the few people in this world that still cringes when I see former North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano celebrating after winning a national title in 1984, because I was a kid from Houston who desperately wanted the Cougars to win. So even though it feels like the whole world wants Ukraine to win, just know there’s another perspective.

That said, I’d feel pretty good if Ukraine does win. Because there’s no better place for feel good stories than sports.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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