Russia Invading Ukraine Throws World Cup Qualifying Into Chaos

Written By Marco Cerino on February 28, 2022
europe world cup qualifying

Europe World Cup qualifying has been thrown into chaos after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The administration of the World Cup qualifiers falls to FIFA in this instance, not UEFA, and no one wants to play in Russia. Czech Republic, Sweden, and Poland, all with their own histories in facing invasion and totalitarian regimes in the past, have all decried the invasion. Poland’s football federation has publicly stated they refuse to play Russia no matter where the match takes place. Their goal-scoring super Robert Lewandowski tweeted in support of this stance. Sweden has said the same.

Another team of the 12 qualifiers for three World Cup berths is Ukraine. They are not scheduled to play any contests at home. Whether geopolitical conditions will allow them to compete remains to be seen.

UEFA Strips Russia of Champions League Final

The Union of European Football Associations was founded in 1954 and is likely one of the unsung heroes of the stability and prosperity on the continent since the end of World War II. During the Cold War, the national tournaments and World Cup qualifying pitted communist and democratic nations against each other in spirited, yet peaceful and fair, competition. Their club tournaments, namely the Champions League, turned clubs into international brands, players into global superstars, and club soccer into a moneymaking powerhouse – in some places.

However, those decades of harmony now appear in jeopardy. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the end of February is the most brazen and direct act of aggression in almost 80 years on European soil.

UEFA has acted with a degree of punishment. The Champions League final, awarded to Russia in St. Petersburg, will now happen in the suburbs of Paris this spring. For European soccer, where no major top-league champion is crowned in a playoff, this is the Super Bowl. Clubs are also distancing themselves from Gazprom, the natural gas company owned by the Russian government and major sponsor of athletics.

Even with this swift action, there remain some questions: Spartak Moscow will compete in the Round of 16 of UEFA’s Europa League, the second-tier continental club competition, albeit at neutral locations for the home end of upcoming two-leg matches. Russian national teams are still eligible for upcoming men’s (UEFA League of Nations) and women’s (2023 European championships) tournaments. Russia is also currently still hosting the final round of UEFA World Cup qualifying in late March.

Europe World Cup Qualifying Rules

10 nations have already won their Europe World Cup qualifying group and earned a berth into the 2022 FIFA World Cup:

  • Group A: Serbia
  • Group B: Spain
  • Group C: Switzerland
  • Group D: France
  • Group E: Belgium
  • Group F: Denmark
  • Group G: Netherlands
  • Group H: Croatia
  • Group I: England
  • Group J: Germany

“Last-Chance” Tournament Rules

The 12 teams advancing to this “last-chance” tournament consist of the 10 second-place finishers from qualifying group play and the two best remaining group winners from the Nations League. The winner of each path will claim one of the three remaining Europe World Cup qualifying berths.

Based on rankings, half were seeded to host the semifinal rounds. Like NCAA regionals, there are three host nations for each “path”, based on the semifinal hosts. The rounds are single-game elimination, with the standard 90 minutes of regulation, 30 minutes of extra time, and then a penalty shootout to determine advancement, similar to knock-out rounds of most tournaments.

The games will take place simultaneously, with the semifinals on March 24th and the finals on March 29th. Russia vs. Poland is scheduled to kickoff at 1 p.m. ET and all other kickoffs are slated for 3:45 p.m. ET.

As of now, the three host nations are Wales, Russia, and Portugal. This was all decided as part of the playoff draw in November 2021. The winner of each path earns a spot in the 32-team 2022 World Cup. FIFA rankings before the April 1 draw will determine the distribution of teams into the four seeding pots.

“Last Chance” Tournament Expected Goals

Czech Rep59.21418.399.1
N Maced.126.42316119.7

Europe World Cup Qualifying – Path A

Scotland vs. Ukraine

To Win In 90 Minutes

*Odds as of Feb. 28

Soccer is a sport that seemingly trades on unfairness and heartbreak. This tie almost doesn’t seem playable. Pitting the victims of this invasion against a country who hasn’t tasted international glory since the 90s?

Scotland performed well in Group F play, splitting their games with group-winner Denmark. However, draws to Austria and Israel in the first window created a hole from which they couldn’t recover. They did finish with a +10 goal differential in 10 games. Ukraine finished second in group D behind cup holders France with two wins and six draws. However, they never lost and bested Finland by one point to make this stage.

Scotland outperformed xG stats in both categories while Ukraine’s offensive production was below expectations. For stakes and emotions, this might be the game of the tournament, especially if held at Glasgow’s famed Hampden Park.

Wales vs. Austria

To Win In 90 Minutes

*Odds as of Feb. 28

The host nation for the path gets an intriguing match-up with a rising Austrian side. This could feature the biggest name in the group, should Wales call up striker extraordinaire Gareth Bale.

Wales finished second in Group E behind Belgium, earning the spot with a 1-1 draw on the eighth and final day with the leaders in Cardiff. Austria finished fourth in Group F but advanced with their Nations League success, going 5-1-4 in 10 contests.

Austria will need to play better defense against a potent Welsh attack to possibly advance on the road. Welsh supporters know this is likely the last chance for Bale and his generation to garner international success.

Europe World Cup Qualifying – Path B

Russia vs. Poland

*Odds as of Feb. 28

This game is off the board at two U.S. sportsbooks, after Poland has refused to play Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. Fellow Group B participant Sweden said they won’t play Russia in a possible playoff “regardless of where the match is played.”

Poland striker Robert Lewandowski tweeted: “It is the right decision! I can’t imagine playing a match with the Russian National Team in a situation when armed aggression in Ukraine continues. Russian footballers and fans are not responsible for this, but we can’t pretend that nothing is happening.”

On the pitch, Poland finished second behind England in Group I as one of four teams to win at least five of the 10 matches played. Their offense recorded 30 goals in those games, the most of anyone at this stage. Russia finished just one point behind 2018 World Cup runner-up Croatia in Group H. Croatia took the group on the 10th and final day with a 1-0 win.

Russia played well as World Cup hosts based on strong defense. Lewandowski has become a prolific scorer with Bayern Munich and leads a powerful attack. 

Sweden vs. Czech Republic

To Win In 90 Minutes

*Odds as of Feb. 28

Lewandoski would be the biggest name in the group but maybe not the most recognizable star. That probably falls to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden’s forward known as much for his mouth as his feet. He helped Sweden make the 2018 World Cup with an upset of Italy in the playoff round.

Sweden finished second to Spain in Group B with five wins in eight matches but lost to Georgia and Spain on the last two match days. The Czechs advanced from Group E on the strength of their Nations League success, finishing one point behind Wales for second place. They did manage to hold group winners Belgium to a 1-1 draw last March in Prague.

The Czechs had a successful Euro 2020, making it to the quarterfinals after upsetting the Netherlands. Group play suggests more should be expected of the offense, led by Patrick Schick, who had five goals in last summer’s tournament. Could the young Czech star upstage the veteran “Ibra” on the road?

Europe World Cup Qualifying – Path C

Portugal vs. Turkey

To Win In 90 Minutes

*Odds as of Feb. 28

Now we come to what was SUPPOSED to be the most dramatic quartet of this round. This group features two teams ranked in the FIFA top 10. Hosting Portugal wants to send legend Cristiano Rolando to what is likely his last major international tournament. They’ll face a Turkish team looking to shake off a dismal Euro 2020 when they lost all three group games and scored just once.

Portugal finished second in Group A to Serbia, being relegated to this round after allowing a 90th-minute goal in the last of eight match days to the group winner in Lisbon. Turkey opened Group G play with a 4-2 win over the Netherlands in Istanbul, only to drop the return match 6-1 to the eventual top team.

Turkey’s offense looked good in group play but will face a tougher test in Portugal. That defensive performance against xGA will need to be better, especially against a prolific finisher like Ronaldo. 

Italy vs. North Macedonia

To Win In 90 Minutes

*Odds as of Feb. 28

The winners of Euro 2020 are in danger of missing a second consecutive World Cup. Italy fell to Sweden in the last playoff round in 2017. They face a tough path back but will start with the Cinderella of this playoff stage.

Italy lost none of their eight matches in Group C. However, a tie in November at home to Switzerland, a game that featured a late PK miss that would’ve all but sent the Italians to the World Cup, forced them into this position. North Macedonia finished second in Group J, including a 2-1 win at Germany in March. They lost 4-0 in the return match at home but won 5 of their 10 group stage contests.

Italy continues to worry about goal-scoring, as they know they can defend well. However, North Macedonia may have a weapon against that elite unit: Napoli’s Elif Elmas, who had four goals in group play, and can crack it from outside the box. 

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