A fine spring morning in Victoria. The sun climbs a cloudless sky. Cherry trees line the street, bursting with pink and white blossoms.
I turn left, drive past the local park. Pull in at the sidewalk, sit in the car, watch as hordes of young boys and girls race about on the various fields. The sight leaves me energized, as I recall my own soccer childhood. I can literally feel the joy and excitement, even sense their dreams.
And why not? The youngsters have much to appreciate, admire and emulate.
Indeed, the sport itself in Canada rides the crest of a tidal wave. The Senior Women, contenders in every major tournament they enter, are currently ranked 6th in the world. Moreover, following a scintillating 2021 performance in Tokyo, they are crowned Olympic champions. Christine Sinclair, the backbone of the team over a glittering twenty-year career, is now the all-time leader for goals scored in international matches. Countless other players, stars and wonderful role models in their own right, ply their trade in professional leagues all over the globe.
Developments on the Men’s side are no less thrilling. Outrageous new talent, led by the likes of Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, embraces an electric, crowd pleasing, counterattacking style of play. A delirious run through CONCACAF qualifying is capped by a comprehensive 4-0 victory over Jamaica. This earns Canada its highest ever world ranking and a coveted place in the 2022 World Cup tournament, set for Qatar in late November and December.
A few days ago, FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, confirmed the draw for this showpiece event. Though a handful of play-in games remain to be played, 32 teams in total, from Asia, Oceania, the Americas, Africa and Europe, will compete. 8 groups of four. The top two from each pool progress to the knockout round of 16. Quarterfinals, semifinals and then the final follow.
A decade of planning edges towards fruition.
Alas, ever darkening and sinister storm clouds soon upset any sense of equilibrium.
On February 24, in an unprovoked act of aggression, Russia, steered by a demonic president, invades eastern Ukraine.
Wanton death and destruction follow. Bombed and besieged cities, such as Bucha, Mariupol, Kherson, Kharkiv, Odessa and Kiev, dominate the news. So do stories of valiant, courageous Ukrainian resistance and audacious counteroffensives.
Yet, the carnage continues. In just six weeks, property damage runs into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Four million Ukrainians become refugees, seven million more are displaced from their homes. Others flee while they still can.
Additional senseless horror stories likewise emerge from the bloody conflict. Documentation of savage Russian cruelty, of summary executions, rape, torture and looting. Of the massacre of innocent civilians. Of mass graves and of bodies dumped on roadsides. Of war crimes.
Many countries, galvanized by the USA and other members of NATO, rally to support Ukraine. They provide significant military and financial aid. Impose severe economic sanctions on Russia as international condemnation intensifies. Yet, given the potential political repercussions and ramifications, no apparent end to the strife is in immediate sight.
Against this murderous backdrop, sport, in Europe and around the world, continues on. Balanced against the futility and suffering caused by war, it is arguably of no consequence or importance. Nonetheless, FIFA at least fronts up and immediately expels Russia from any possible 2022 World Cup qualification.
However, a trickier decision remains. Namely, what to do about gallant Ukraine, under siege and trapped in a battle not of its own making? And, given the harsh, brutal circumstances, perhaps to be deprived of the opportunity to follow a possible pathway to the World Cup.
I ponder various options. Then decide that FIFA, while no stranger over the years to charges of corruption, bribery and kickbacks, must make a resounding and positive statement of intent.
The association can first give Ukraine every opportunity to fulfil its scheduled matches, vs Scotland and then, if successful, Wales. However, better yet, FIFA should simply grant Ukraine direct entry to the World Cup. Allow the national team to prepare as best it can despite uncertainty and tight timelines. The confirmed 32 qualifiers to then enter a lottery, with the unlucky loser to cede its place in the tournament.
Of course, any such decision would be highly controversial and unfair on the ousted team. Regardless, Ukrainians, perhaps especially the children, as well as millions of sympathizers around the world, would rejoice. Sport as a real tonic. With their team, appropriately nicknamed “The Heroes”, providing succor and relief in a time of great distress and pain. Shining a light amidst the current gloom. Lending a ravaged, war-torn country, many of its major cities already reduced to rubble, shreds of hope, belief and ambition.
In the end, it’s an easy call. Ukraine simply must take part in the 2022 World Cup. A proud nation, a talented squad. Complete with its own star players to revere and cherish.
May the cherry trees bloom.
C’mon FIFA. Do the right thing.