Soccer in a time of war: Madison videographer Bill Roach documents the spirit of Ukraine
Roach was part of an ESPN crew reporting on the Ukraine national soccer team's World Cup bid.
There was a curfew at 11 that night in Kyiv, so the bar showing the June 1 semifinal World Cup playoff game in Glasgow between Ukraine and Scotland said people could stay until morning. Sleeping bags were encouraged.
Bill Roach got to the bar in time to get camera footage of the celebration when Ukraine scored its first goal. “That was cool,” Roach says.
Earlier, Roach and the ESPN crew he was working with were at an apartment in Kyiv with several Ukrainian soccer fans, one a soldier, home on leave from the front.
An air raid siren sounded. Nobody sought shelter. The game’s 9:45 p.m. start was imminent.
Roach went from the apartment to the bar, then back to his hotel just before curfew.
“That hotel was something,” Roach said. “Full of spooky looking guys.” Reporters, security, mercenaries — who knew?
In any case, the hotel didn’t get the channel the game was on.
“We listened to the second half of the game on a radio station through a phone,” Roach said. “I felt like I was in World War II.”
He wasn’t, but it was a war zone, all the same.
Shortly after Russian invaded Ukraine in February, a veteran ESPN producer reached out to Roach about the possibility of documenting the Ukrainian soccer team’s bid for a 2022 World Cup berth.
Roach — no relation to Madison Magazine columnist John Roach — is a Janesville native who has lived in Madison since coming to the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1978. He worked 14 years as a news photographer with WISC-TV and has been associated with ESPN, as a contract camera operator and freelancer, since 1995. He has also produced documentaries, including one on Spotted Cow beer.
The ESPN projects Roach has worked on have won numerous awards, including the 2018 Sports Emmy for Outstanding Journalism for “The Dictator’s Team,” a piece about the politicization of the Syrian national soccer team.
According to Roach, ESPN was uncertain about greenlighting the Ukraine soccer story. Last month, however, the journalist who would report it, the immensely talented Wright Thompson, convinced the network of its importance.
Ukraine needed two playoff wins in early June, against Scotland and Wales, to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. In May, Roach and the ESPN crew flew to Europe and spent a week with the Ukrainian team while they played warm-up games.
They returned to the United States for a few days, then flew to Krakow, Poland. The idea was to be in Ukraine while the playoff game was happening in Scotland (a second ESPN crew would be in Glasgow covering the game itself).
It was a four-hour drive from Krakow to the Ukraine border, and once inside the country, Roach found it to be “very Wisconsin. Very rural. Huge green fields. But there would be gun positions along the road with sandbags built.”
He continued: “When we got on the outskirts of Kyiv is when we started seeing buildings that were bombed out. There was a Russian tank on the side of the road, blown up, that they hadn’t moved yet.”
Roach has seen much in his globetrotting career. I once spoke to him at a time when in the span of 18 months he’d done stories on five different continents. His recent trip to Ukraine was his third visit to the country.
“Bill is the best in the world at this,” Wright Thompson told me, when we spoke by phone last week. “He is fearless.”
On the day of the night game against Scotland, Thompson, Roach, and the rest of the crew — which included an interpreter — went to Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv where, according to the New York Times, Russian paratroopers executed at least eight Ukrainians in March.
“They were indiscriminately shooting civilians along the road,” Roach says. “We interviewed one of the guys in the neighborhood our interpreter had found. I didn’t quite understand what was going on. He was standing next to this shallow, dug out, sandy area in the woods. It turned out to be a mass grave. They had moved [the corpses] to a proper burial but their wrapped-up bags of clothes were still at the grave site.”
That night, back at the hotel, the ESPN crew listened on the radio to end of the Ukraine-Scotland game.
Ukraine won, 3-1, and would play Wales in a few days for a World Cup berth.
Wright Thompson went up to his hotel room and worked through the night on a piece that would post the next day.
He described the scene earlier that night at the apartment when the Ukrainian national anthem played, “The team on the field in Scotland sang and the guys in this room sang along with them, loudly, unembarrassed, hands over hearts.”
I asked Roach if he felt the soccer team’s playoff run was a big deal in Ukraine.
“I would say it was a huge deal,” he says. “The war has brought the country together. There’s a pride and solidarity.”
Alas, Ukraine’s World Cup dream ended in Wales, with a 1-0 defeat on June 5. Roach was back in Madison by that time and watched the game on television.
“That goalie,” he says ruefully of the Wales netminder, “was pretty good.”
But the story may not be finished. The ESPN crew recently learned there might be a chance to interview Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, necessitating a return trip.
Whether or not that happens, the Ukraine soccer story now resides with so many others in Roach’s memory. He is modest about that. The stories aren’t summoned without prompting.
When he’s not traveling, Roach works as a night watchman at a pheasant farm in tiny Basco, south of Madison, poking his head in the barns to make sure things are OK. He says it’s a way for him to keep everything real.
Still, I asked, the places he’s been, the things he’s seen — he must think about them sometimes and marvel.
“Pretty amazing,” he says, after a moment. “It really is.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” at madisonmagazine.com/dougmoe.
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