Scotland boss Steve Clarke says he hopes and prays the World Cup play-off semi-final against Ukraine can be played in June – but wants UEFA to deal with the resulting fixture disruption.
The crucial play-off, which could put Scotland 90 minutes away from playing at the World Cup finals in Qatar, was postponed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Clarke and the Scottish FA in full support of the decision to shift the date of the Hampden match from March 24 to the June international window.
Ukrainian FA president Andriy Pavelko has admitted that the ongoing crisis means that his country might not be able to fulfil the fixture in June.
Clarke said it’s his wish that the game does go ahead when it can be played, but was keen to stress that sporting competition is a minor issue compared to the impact of the conflict.
“Football is obviously secondary to the situation in Ukraine,” he said. “All our thoughts are with the Ukrainian people at this moment in time and hopefully we can get a quick resolution to the terrible situation there. It’s quite horrendous and obviously football takes a back seat.
“At the moment there are lots of discussions going on, most of which is above my head. All I can tell you is that there are plenty of negotiations going on, looking at different kinds of scenarios.
“The biggest thing for me is that I hope and pray that we can play Ukraine in June. That’s the most important thing. If we can do that then it means that the situation is a lot better for everybody.”
Scotland have hastily arranged a fundraising friendly against Poland for next Thursday, with proceeds going to help UNICEF’s efforts in Ukraine. The national team will then play Wales or Austria five days later.
While Clarke will use the double-header as preparation for the play-off semi-final and hopes to be contesting the final shortly after, he says that the authorities have to look at the schedule and find a solution to a fixture problem.
While the Ukraine World Cup play-off, and the potential final, have to take place in June’s international break, there are already four Nations League fixtures pencilled in over that period.
Armenia and Ukraine are meant to be at Hampden on Nations League duty on June 4 and 7, with away games in Ireland and Armenia on June 11 and 14. Clarke says it’s impossible to fulfill all the commitments in less than two weeks.
“Four Nations League games are also scheduled in but I have to say that there is no way that we can play six games [in June] so we need a little bit of help from UEFA on that matter,” he said.
“This camp is for us just to fine-tune, build on what we did at the end of last year when winning six matches, which is difficult to do. We want to continue that momentum so I’ll use that to look at one or two things that we might do in June.”
The manager, who doesn’t believe there was any possibility of moving Nations League games forward to this month to ease congestion, added: “The most important thing is player welfare, when we get to June and such a short window.
“We can’t really be asked to play potentially six matches. That’s too much.
“I think the window is already scheduled for four games. I think that’s a heavy fixture schedule anyway. Whether they can find more room in the calendar and make more dates available and play five games, I don’t know.
“I think six at that stage of the season, when players have had a long hard season with their clubs they need a rest during the summer.
“It’s going to be difficult for us but those are footballing matters. I don’t think we should forget everything takes a back seat in comparison to the situation in Ukraine at this moment in time.”
If the Ukraine play-off can’t be contested, it has been suggested that Scotland would receive a bye to the final. That’s not an outcome Clarke wanted to contemplate, saying his opponents had earned the right to qualify.
“I think rather than speculate about that, I just hope and pray that we get a chance to play Ukraine in a semi-final,” he said. “They deserve that and the world deserves that game to go ahead. Hopefully it does happen.”
Wales were open to Ukraine getting a bye to Qatar 2022
Welsh FA chief executive Noel Mooney has revealed that discussions were held about giving Ukraine a bye straight to the World Cup finals in December but that the moved looked logistically impossible.
Wales and Austria are on the other side of the draw in Scotland and Ukraine’s play-off path and have been part of talks about how to resolve the situation caused by the war.
Mooney said that consideration had been given to allowing Ukraine to proceed straight to the finals in Qatar, but with the other three nations all keen to make the finals there was an issue with expanding the tournament.
“It was a Welsh perspective that if it could be accommodated it could be a really good thing to do,” Mooney told the Press Association news agency.
“It’s something as a human being you would say, ‘OK if they’re not ready to play in June should they be given a bye’.
“There was some loose discussion around it, saying could you get an extra space for Ukraine because of the horrendous time they are going through.
“But it would mean an extra team in the World Cup as there’s three teams left – ourselves, Scotland and Austria – and it’s a big thing for us to qualify for the World Cup.
“From our perspective we’d have been very comfortable with giving Ukraine a bye with the other three fighting it out amongst ourselves (for one place).
“But there’s the integrity of the competition, and with the tournament (lasting) only 28 days to try and fit that sort of thing in would be very difficult. The feeling was that a 28-day tournament wouldn’t facilitate it.”
Mooney said that he expected a decision on the revised play-off schedule in June to be agreed in the next week or so.