Ukraine has seen some real ugliness as of late. While the country has been searching for answers politically, perhaps the 90 minute football match is just what the country needed to help bring the people together again and relieve some of the tension, if only for a short while. And Wednesday night in Larnaca, Cyprus did just that giving Ukraine something to smile about as they bested the Americans 2-0 in an international friendly.
A large banner laid out near the field read, "Ukraine is undivided. One country. One team." And they played like it. As for the Americans, however, the match provoked perhaps more questions than answers and offered few positives for the Yanks to take away from the experience.
Andriy Yarmolenko opened the scoring for Ukraine in the 12th minute as the left footed winger confidently found the back of the net after Denys Garmash’s initial shot was parried away from United States goalkeeper, Tim Howard.
Certainly not the ideal start to the match the Yanks were hoping for but having changed all 11 starters from the 2-0 win over South Korea on Feb. 1 in Carson, California, it was clear to Jürgen Klinsmann that the expected cohesion of the team just wouldn’t be there. Having said that, going into half time 1-nil down was hardly an impossible deficit for the Americans to overcome.
Klinsmann’s squad made no changes at half time and came out of the break surging. The red, white and blue continued to search for answers early on as they knocked on the door repeatedly. During that 20-minute stretch, for which the United States looked the stronger side, Ukraine took advantage of a speedy run down the middle of the park by substitute Marko Devic. In the 68th minute, against the run of play, Devic was able to get in behind the American defense notching a shot on target. Tim Howard came up big yet again but Devic’s second attempt sealed the American’s fate putting his side up 2 goals to none.
Some new faces graced the pitch for the Americans as well as some familiar ones. Defender Oguchi Onyewu earned his first start with the national side since the summer of 2013 where he featured in an exhibition match against Guatemala and in a CONCACAF Gold Cup match against Cuba eight days later.
The absence of Omar Ganzalez in the back line really hurt the Americans. Onyewu was paired with John Brooks in central defense and the two were very suspect throughout the match. We did not see the Gooch of old that tormented opposition in Germany and South Africa and caught the eye of Italian giants A.C. Milan. Brooks, although a bright young prospect for the future, most likely played himself out of Brazil during the match looking overwhelmed at times. Despite his lack of experience, look to Brooks to become a valuable member of the 2018 squad as the Americans prep for Russia.
Geoff Cameron started at right back and Edgar Castillo at left back, held together by Tim Howard between the posts. Although Cameron has found consistent form for club side Stoke City in the English Premier League, he left the fans wanting to see more from him. He really didn't raised his case for Klinsy to book his ticket to Brazil.
In defensive midfield, Jermaine Jones and Sacha Kljestan earned the starting nod. Jones’s play was dismal in the first half but picked up considerably during the second half. As for Kljestan – solid player in Europe, definitely a talent. Unfortunately, it looks as if he still lacks the ability to fit into the national team. It’s like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. He doesn’t fit. And to make matters worse, Brazil is most definitely his last shot at a World Cup.
Alejando Bedoya, Clint Dempsey and Fabian Johnson played ahead of Jones and Kljestan with Jozy Altidore as the lone forward up top. Bedoya’s performance was questionable at best and Clint Dempsey looked disinterested the entire match. He struggled to get involved in the run of play and it’s safe to say he failed leave any sort of mark on the game. Poor Jozy. His goal scoring troubles continued as he too failed to really make an impact.
It wasn’t all bad for the Americans though. Aron Johannsson and Brek Shea provided brief pockets of god play when they came on in the second half as substitutes. Shea made an immediate impact on the left flank as he delivered a couple of dangerous crosses into the box with his first few chances. Shea is still an enigma though. He possesses excellent footballing qualities but his decision making in the final third need to be better and more consistent. Johannsson, though, had the best goal scoring opportunity of the game and it came in the 87th minute from a corner kick where he volleyed a rocket at the Ukrainian defense, forcing them to clear the ball off the line.
Overall, the United States performance was sub par, forcing Klinsmann and his USMNT staff to scavenge for scraps of bright spots. No one really upped their stock to be taken to Brazil and the Americans, as a team, did very little to give Ghana, Portugal or Germany much reason to lose any sleep.
After what has been a period of turmoil in region – especially involving the Ukraine and Russia of late, Ukraine’s fighting spirit shone through before their 2-0 win over the United States on Wednesday afternoon
But what’s more moving, or poignant, depending on your own perspective, is that the Ukrainian players, all of whom speak Russian, chose to sing the anthem in Russian. Perhaps a diplomatic message to Russia, but more than anything it revealed just how intertwined these two countries are culturally and politically.
There was a peculiar feeling to the game from the outset after it was moved to an empty stadium in Cyprus, but the stadium began to come alive with Ukrainian fans singing loudly over flags with the message “Ukraine Is Undivided! One Country – One Team” written in bold capitals.
Then for the national anthem – titled ‘Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished’, becoming extremely poignant amidst the invasion by Russia. As described by the NBC, “the anthem “rung around the near empty stadium, about 900 Ukrainian fans were sat up in one stand with sullen looks on their faces. Back home Russian troops are swarming Ukraine’s borders as we speak and full conflict seems to be just a matter of days away”.
Then came the moment of silence as the onlookers mourned the deaths of their compatriots. Ukraine’s players stood with their arms around each other, some bowing their heads, some not; – all revealing forlorn expressions.
But the result, a 2-0 win for the Ukraine, is just what their nation needed. A small battle-victory in a country facing imminent war.
Russia is once again flexing its muscle in a part of the world that it still considers to be a proxy state, by having the Russian Duma give President Vladimir Putin the authority to use the armed forces to protect the Russian speaking citizens of the autonomous Crimea region.
Crimea, although in the Ukraine, is heavily populated with ethnic Russians. Like the mostly Russian speaking inhabitants of Eastern Ukraine, they supported the outgoing leader and baulk at express indications of extreme Ukrainian nationalism, especially when manifested as anti-Russian sentiment.
Putin's game plan is just the same as it was in August of 2008 when his puppet Dmitry Medvedev invaded South Ossetia and claimed it as being an independent State from Georgia. South Ossetians had legitimate fears about an independent Georgia's attitude towards their culture and religion. The Russians posed themselves in the role of their protectors.
While on the surface the Crimean spat might just look like a squabble between neighbours to see who can control the gas pipelines coming from western Siberia, it is also designed to mask the fact that fears over Vladimir Putin becoming regionally dangerous were entirely justified.
US Secretary of State John Kerry goes so far as to compare Putin to leaders of the past reminding him of the fact by saying he, was "not going have a Sochi G8, he may not even remain in the G8 if this continues," referring to a summit planned to be held Russia this June, as well as continued Russian membership of the economic elite.
"He may find himself with asset freezes, on Russian business. American business may pull back; there may be a further tumble of the rouble.
Kerry would have been wise to stop there. He then uncharacteristically displayed a tone deafness to the perception much of the world still has of his own nation's recent history.
"You just don't in the 21st Century behave in 19th Century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext," Kerry told the CBS program Face the Nation.
This rhetoric will of course fall on deaf ears in the
Kremlin, (and the Middle East) and does sound rather hypocritical when you consider that a coalition
of forces led by the United States invaded Iraq for a second time in 2003 on
the pretext of ridding Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction. It turned out none were found and this was a war Senator Kerry himself voted for. His high minded words are going to be ridiculed in Moscow.
Even without that, it would be hard for the West to take too high a moral highground over the sabre rattling from Moscow.
The West has been happy to take Russian money and the political promises that went along with it while rewarding Russia with the Sochi Olympics and the 2018 World Cup. To their credit, the LGBT community has stood loudly and pointed out many of the flaws in Russian civil liberties as business was conducted.
FIFA boss Sepp Blatter and company though were happy to award the competition to Russia a country that has a neo-Nazi racist group of soccer fans that they do nothing to combat, gay bashing thugs who go unprosecuted, while also arresting anyone who dares to disagree with President Vladimir Putin such as members of the Punk Rock band “Pussy Riot” for so called hooliganism.
The West’s best option now would seem to be freezing any Russian assets overseas and imposing sanctions on their products but sport is rarely left alone when there is international punishing to be done.
While it is too late for Sochi, they could start with banning the Russian team from this summer’s World Cup in Brazil and then put pressure on FIFA to award the 2018 Cup to the country that came second in the voting which was a joint venture between Portugal and Spain.
Is this wishful thinking? Not entirely.
A similar situation occurred in 1979 following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan when then President Jimmy Carter led a 61 nation boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. It is easier to boycott though than to expel, although there is another precedent.
In 1992, at the height of Serbian war atrocities against both Croat and Bosnian civilians, UEFA booted Yugoslavia out of EURO1992. Their replacements, Denmark, won the whole tournament.
generally sport should not be used as a political tool, it has been on many
occasions including the 1938 World Cup in Italy, the infamous Berlin Olympics and then again the 1978 World
Cup in Argentina, but if the threat of Russia losing the tournament
in 2018 can avert a war on the border of the European Union and saves lives and the global economy, is it not worth a try?
If the sanction is merely to expel them from the World Cup, then that poses the question who takes their place.
There are two rules that have been used. Firstly FIFA could take the next team in Russia's group. Unluckily for FIFA, that brings even more problems as that side was Israel and all the security nightmares that would bring. Even worse, they would land in a Group containing Algeria who would possibly come under Arab pressure to make some kind of anti-Zionist protest.
There's another fairer way, which is to include the side who came closest to qualification; ie the side who fared the best in losing in the final round of the play-offs. Three of the four sides, Sweden, Romania and Iceland lost by two goal margins in those play-offs.
One side lost by just one goal and technically came closest to qualification for the World Cup from UEFA.
So who would that lucky side be, that would benefit from the expulsion of Russia due to any potential invasion of Ukrainian territory?
It would be, with irony weighing more than a Russian tank, be Ukraine.
The US Soccer Federation has yet to comment on the latest incident that involves their friendly match against Ukraine which is scheduled on the final day of FIFA’s international window, meaning it's the last opportunity for USMNT manger Jürgen Klinsmann to call up and evaluate his squad with European-based players.