211 to 1: Reflections On The Road to Qatar 2022 – (II) The Road Broadens

Part One of this series, “The Beginning”, can be found here.

The earliest games of World Cup qualifying concerned Asia only; now additional confederations begin their qualification processes. But the earliest games in Africa concern more than football, shining a light on an abundance of humanitarian crises.

Part Two: The Road Broadens

9. Now Or Never: Uzbekistan

10. The Worst Place On Earth: Eritrea

11. FA Johansen: Sierra Leone

12. Sticking It Out: South Sudan

13. “Abuse Us, Criticise Us”: India

14. Freefall: Togo

15. Success And Nowhere: Botswana/Malawi

16. Enclaves And Annexations: Lesotho

17. A Lion’s Roar: Iran

18. Perpetual Crisis: Sudan

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Part Two: The Road Broadens

9. Now Or Never: Uzbekistan

(17/07/2019)

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For the White Wolves, being achingly close can no longer be the limit of their ambitions.

Having gotten qualification for Qatar 2022 underway, it is Asia that continues the process ahead of the other confederations, with the draw for their Second Round having taken place today in the AFC’s HQ in Kuala Lumpur. Unlike the far less noted First Round draw, the proceedings for the Second Round draw were much better attended, in a much larger room. Chris Unger was back, seemingly happier to be there this time, albeit his thoughts on how Qatar “still has a lot to do” to be ready to host the World Cup were a bit strange. Actual footballing celebrities were present, in the form of Australia’s Tim Cahill.

The mood was relaxed enough: there were good-natured ohhs and ahhs when Malaysia were drawn with neighbours Indonesia, then outright laughter when Thailand are drawn in the same group, then even more when Vietnam are put there too; it is evidence of how disconnected the confederation is that neither Ungar or Cahill understand what is going on when the noise is being made. Iran are drawn with Iraq, the Republic of Korea with DPR Korea, to slightly ominous silence. Guam face lengthy trips to Syria and the Maldives. Elderly suited men from Asia’s powerhouses looked somewhat stern and scribbled notes furiously, while the hijab clad women next to them filmed proceedings on smart phones, smiling all the while.

The event felt like the real start of things. But, for a lot of Asia’s nations, it is essentially the beginning of the end. Asian qualification for the World Cup, since even before the AFC was founded in 1954, has been a very closed shop. Most of the nations that had representatives present at the draw will not make it to Qatar 2022, and have never made it to any World Cup. Only twelve nations from Earth’s largest continent have reached the finals, and one of those, Israel, isn’t even in the AFC anymore. The Republic of Korea (10), Japan (6), Australia, Saudi Arabia, Iran (all 5) DPR Korea (2) Indonesia (as the Dutch East Indies), Kuwait, Iraq, the UAE and China PR (all once) are the chosen few.

More recently, the normal upper level of AFC international football has contracted even more. South Korea, Japan and Australia have all taken up most of the AFC’s limited spots for the last three tournaments, with Iran joining them for the last two. Saudi Arabia’s 2018 qualification was their first in twelve years, but it was normal before then. Of the rest named above, the most recent was North Korea in 2010, then China PR in 2002 , then all the way back to the UAE in 1990. By the time Qatar 2022 comes around, the AFC will not have sent a debuting team to a World Cup Finals for twenty years, though that trend will be bucked when the tournament starts, courtesy of the hosts.

The point being, that it is hard to break through in Asia. The top table belongs to those select: the top nine ranked nations in Asia, at time of writing, are former qualifiers (DPR Korea and Indonesia are the exceptions). The highest ranked team otherwise, the one that can be deemed the most likely to shatter that ceiling and upset the Asian apple-cart, is the central Asian nation of Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan certainly doesn’t register much on the footballing radar, despite punching above their weight. The former Soviet Republic has only been a FIFA member since 1994, but has been a consistent qualifier for the Asian Cup, and since 2007 a consistent presence in the knock-outs. A fourth place finish in 2011 is the nation’s best footballing achievement on this stage, indicating a team that was ready to establish themselves as not just the best of central Asia, but as one of the best on the continent, aided by a league whose top sides have proven at least somewhat competitive continentally, albeit very focused on the Uzbek capital of Tashkent.

But the story of the “White Wolves” and their last number of World Cup qualifying campaigns is one of the most heartbreaking you are likely to read in the story of recent international football. They routinely get to the last group phase, but it is there that the trouble starts: falling out of contention quickly in 1998, and 2010, missing a play-off place by a point in 2002. But it is 2006, 2014 and 2018 that are the real kickers.

For Germany 2006’s qualifying process Uzbekistan waltzed into the final stage, then struggled in a group that contained Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Korea. Their lone win, against wooden spoon holders Kuwait, got them a play-off against Bahrain for the right to play a CONCACAF side for qualification. In one of the most bizarre international matches of recent history, Uzbekistan were winning 1-0, courtesy of a penalty converted by Captain Mirjalov Kasimov, when they won a second penalty. It was scored, but Japanese referee Toshimitshi Yoshida blew for encroachment. Then, instead of doing what the rules said and ordering it retaken, he instead gave Bahrain a free.

The game finished 1-0 but, incensed, the Uzbeks raised a complaint with FIFA, seeking for the game to be awarded to them 3-0. Instead, the governing body compounded the initial error by ordering the entire first leg re-played. An Uzbek politician summed it up nicely: “The referee stole our second goal and now FIFA is stealing our first goal.” The re-played first leg ended 1-1 in Tashkent, the second-leg went scoreless and Bahrain advanced, only to lose narrowly to Dwight Yorke’s Trinidad and Tobago (and, if you’re wondering, Yoshida still refs, in his native J-League).

For the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Uzbekistan breezed through the first couple of rounds with ease, going unbeaten in a Third Round group that contained eventual qualifiers Japan. The Fourth Round contained, once again, expected qualifiers Iran and the Republic of Korea, but the Uzbek’s fought it out tooth and nail, with a famous away win in Tehran and a hard-fought home draw against the Koreans. It was elsewhere that they let things slip, dropping points to lowly Lebanon, against Iran in a costly 1-0 home defeat to a 93rd minute strike and in Korea where the only goal was when Akmal Shorakhmedov put the ball into his own net.

But for some unlikely heroics from the Koreans, who rescued four points late in the group with 96th minute goals in consecutive matches, Uzbekistan would have nabbed that second automatic qualifier spot before the final heartbreaking day. Three points, and a few GD, behind Korea, they needed to run up the score against Qatar and hope already qualified Iran could do them a favour in the other game. The Iranians did their part, beating Korea 1-0, while an inspired Uzbekistan scored five straight in the second half of their game. It wasn’t enough: the Republic of Korea got the last automatic spot by one GD. Uzbekistan went into the play-off system, where they lost a lengthy penalty shoot-out, 9-8, to Jordan after a 4-4 aggregate draw. Jordan went on to be thrashed by Uruguay 5-0 in their subsequent intercontinental play-off.

The Russia 2018 campaign was even harder, if that can be believed. Again Uzbekistan made it to the last group stage without much difficulty. Again they were drawn with Iran and the Republic of Korea, with a very competitive Syria and China PR thrown into the mix. While the Iranians coasted to the top spot, the other four traded wins and losses, with the Uzbek’s twice losing to late goals. On the final day they faced Korea at home, knowing they needed a two goal win to guarantee some manner of progression, while Syria traveled to Tehran. While the Uzbek’s couldn’t break down their opposition, being forced to settle for a scoreless draw, it would have been enough for a play-off place, but for a 93rd minute Syrian equalizer in the other game, scored by Omar Al Somah. By two GD, Uzbekistan were out, while Syria went on to lose to Australia in the intercontinental play-offs.

Throw in their loss this year to Australia, on penalties, in the last 16 of the Asian Cup, and a picture of Uzbekistan as a nation consistently just a little bit short of what is required emerges. The managers have changed, nearly the entire team has changed (Server Djeparov, a midfield journeyman, is essentially the only player to be with the team throughout the above period), but the air of unrealised potential has most definitely remained.

Perhaps it is only natural then that Argentinian manager Hector Cuper is the man currently tasked with leading the Uzbek’s to the promised land. Cuper is a man who has become infamous for never winning a major final, holding runner-up medals in the Champions League (twice, with Valencia), UEFA Cup, Spanish Cup, Greek Cup, and AFCON, as well as being a Seria A runner-up. His most recent managerial job, with Egypt, ended with a disastrous effort in Group A of the World Cup Finals, the mostly Salah-less Egyptians losing all three games, most damningly to Saudi Arabia.

Cuper and Uzbekistan thus seem well suited for each other, both looking for a measure of rehabilitation and redemption. Cuper has some decent talent to work with to achieve the goal of qualification: veteran goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov, who has played in five Asian Cups; Vitaliy Deniov of Rubin Kazan, who won a UEFA Cup with CSKA ten years ago; midfield captain Odil Ahmedov; and Nacional striker Sardor Rashivdov, who will presumably be called upon to be Uzbekistan’s main goal-scoring threat. These are the veterans, but there are good footballers to be found in those who have come through Uzbekistan’s impressive underage system too, like FC Rostov striker Eldor Shomurodov, or a slew of players from the team that won the U-23 Asian Championships last year, that are now stepping up to senior level.

Uzbekistan’s first test will be managing this initial group phase, where only table toppers and the best four runners-up advance. Drawn in Group D, the serious challenge will come from top seeds Saudi Arabia, a team Uzbekistan beat 3-1 in their last match together, a 2015 Asian Cup contest. But even if the White Wolves are unable to finish above them, they should still have enough in the tank to progress, with the other opposition being the comparatively limited Palestine, Yemen and Singapore.

We have reached the point of “now or never” for Uzbekistan. It is time for them to put their past failures behind them and get to that next level. The current team seems to have that crucial mix of battle-hardened, experienced veterans and youth hungry for success at the highest level, and the task will not get any easier in the next cycle. For Uzbekistan, if they are to be seen as anything other than the almost-were’s of the AFC the heartbreak must come to an end. It has to. 2022 is as good a time as any.

10.  The Worst Place On Earth: Eritrea

(27/07/2019) 

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FIFA may have helped provide nice pitches in picturesque stadiums, but Eritrean football remains as stuck in the doldrums as the country it represents.

Having spent the first number of entries in this series in Asia, we now have the opportunity to move further afield, namely to Africa. With the format for CAF’s qualification determined, today saw the draw for the opening round, wherein the 28 lowest ranked teams were paired into two-legged play-off ties, to be played in September. The winners will advance to a group stage alongside the top 26 ranked CAF nations. The losers will be eliminated.

The teams that make up this portion of qualification are the lowest of the low, and not just in football terms. To read through their names is to read through a list of famines, civil wars, genocide and atrocity, those well known and those little remembered. Many of these bottom 28 are the nations where sport is an indulgence that few are able to take part in, too wrapped up in a daily struggle to survive.

The lowest ranked African side – well, joint lowest, in a dead heat with Somalia – is the State of Eritrea. They are, like the lowest of the AFC, likely to play their two games and then vanish into the qualifying twilight. But the games that Eritrea play, or at least the away leg, are likely to be of supreme importance to those called upon to play them. Not for the opportunity they provide to progress in a footballing competition, but for the opportunity they provide to escape.

By all comparable metrics, Eritrea seems to be one of the worst places to live on Earth. Its population is mired in poverty, its tyrannical government oversees an administration that is infamously cruel to its own people and young Eritrean men are liable for lengthy enforced periods of national service (nominally in the armed services, but frequently as cheap labour in mining projects). The totalitarianism of the regime, led by Isaias Afewerki, the only man to ever be President of Eritrea since its independence in 1991, is matched only by an obvious paranoia: its citizens are, by and large, prevented from legally leaving the country for any reason, though thousands leave illegally, living in refugee camps in bordering Ethiopia and Sudan.

Sport, in such circumstances, is often seen as a metaphorical escape, but for those Eritreans desperate to get out of their country and make a new life somewhere else, it is a very real method. Time and again since Eritrea started entering teams in international competitions, be it World Cup qualifying, AFCON qualifying, or regional tournaments when it comes to football, their athletes have played their sport, and then absconded from hotels, buses and planes.

After a 2006 CAF Champions League tie four players of Red Sea FC, Eritrea’s most successfull club side, vanished in Kenya: Eritrea has not entered a club in the competition since. 12 players disappeared at the Tanzania-hosted regional CECAFA tournament in 2007. Nine players stayed in Angola or Sudan during the qualifying for the 2008 AFCON. The ENFF, Eritrea’s association, withdrew from international competitions for a few years (and from the AFCON entirely) since and the government began requiring athletes representing Eritrea abroad to pay a hefty surety of rough equivalence to €6’000 at today’s rates: still they absconded when given the chance, with twelve players seeking political asylum in Kenya in 2009, nearly the entire Red Sea team at a regional club competition in 2011, the entire national first team during the CECAFA tournament in Uganda in 2012, and nine more in Kenya the following year. The team managed to get everybody home after losing to Rwanda in Brazil 2014 qualifying but, most recently, ten players who went to Botswana for a qualifier for Russia 2018, and their coach, refused to go back. Other Eritrean sports are not immune: up to a third of 2012 Olympic team, including the flagbearer, refused to leave London afterwards.

The absconders themselves apply for refugee status, sometimes going as far as UN commissions on the subject. Given what will happen to them if they are forced to return to Eritrea they tend to be given asylum, and some of them have wound up in unlikely places, like those that were sent by the UN to live in Australia, forming a very small but tight-knit Eritrean immigrant community. Two of those, Samuel Tesfagabr and Ambesager Yosief, have played in the top tier of Australian football. They, and the others who represented Eritrea and then refused to go back, are undoubtedly better off.

It was not always like this. Those with the time and inclination to put on rose-tinted glasses in Eritrea will remember that the Ethiopian team that won the 1962 AFCON was made up mostly of Eritreans – then a province of Ethiopia – so there is a degree of footballing pedigree. But that was a long time ago. Nowadays Eritrea are routinely beaten, in games where the handful of foreign journalists allowed to spectate – very much taking their lives into their hands, given Eritrea’s reputation with their profession –  often have to commentate on radio broadcasts through mobile phones. Owing to the number of defections – that the regime mostly blames on the machinations of foreign powers, usually Ethiopia and the United States – the teams they put out tend to be drawn from underage squads. Coaches preach about the inevitability of victory, then appear dumbfounded with defeat. When players vanish, ENFF officials, Comical Ali style, insist it’s a good thing, as Eritrea is left with only the committed.

That aforementioned Botswana tie, a 5-1 aggregate defeat in 2015, remains Eritrea’s last recorded contest. It’s possible that you might have heard of Eritrea’s only goalscorer in that tie, Henok Goitom, Swedish born to Eritrean parents, once of numerous La Liga sides, now with AIK in Stockholm. Their association does not have a website, and information about the current status of their league, national team make-up or coaches is almost non-existent.

In this First Round of CAF qualifying, they have been drawn to face Namibia, a tie they will more than likely lose, if they are able to put together a team to play at all. The bigger, and much more interesting, question will be how many of the team sent to Windhoek will consent to go back to Eritrea.

11. FA Johansen: Sierra Leone

(04/09/2019)

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One of the few women in a position of prominence in football administration, Isha Johansen has experienced the pitfalls of such work more acutely than most.

On Monday 3rd June, the footballing fans of Sierra Leone could breathe a sigh of relief, when it was announced that the suspension of the country’s football authority, the SLFA, had been lifted, meaning they would be free to enter the qualifying for Qatar 2022.

Football in Sierra Leone has been under a pall since last October, when FIFA suspended the SLFA for undue government interference in the association. SLFA President Isha Johansen and General Secretary Christopher Kamara were both accused of malfeasance by Sierra Leone’s anti-corruption commission, the ACC, and barred from continuing in their roles. Despite warnings from FIFA the ACC held firm, and the world governing body was left with little choice.

Johansen is one of only a handful of women who have ever headed a national football association (the others are in Algeria, Burundi and the Turks and Caicos Islands). She was brought up in a football heavy environment, with her father being a co-founder of Freetown’s East-End Lions, 12 times winners of the Sierra Leonese top tier. In her adult years she founded her own club, FC Johansen, with her husband, Norwegian ambassador Arne Birger Johansen, with the specific aim of giving an opportunity to youth after the conclusion of the civil war: within just two years it was in the top tier too. For some Johansen may be seen as a symbol of the new Sierra Leone, that has been attempting to cast off the shadow of that civil war that ended in 2002 and has been gradually improving its government, human rights record and societal stability ever since, though with plenty of room for continuing improvement.

The success of her club and her status as a noted philanthropist prompted Johansen to reach further, and in 2013 she ran for the Presidency of the SLFA. The campaign was a difficult and often tawdry one, required after the governing board of the SLFA fell apart from accusations of corruption and inefficiency, and the vote was continually delayed over arguments about various candidates’ eligibility. Her main opponent was former Sierra Leonese player Mohamed Kallon, best known for a couple of spells with Inter Milan fifteen years ago. His candidacy ran aground over his lack of habitation in Sierra Leone for a long enough period: Kallon claimed his exclusion was politically motivated, with government figures rowing in behind Johansen. Other candidates were barred from running over associations with gambling. Some of them appealed to FIFA, but the bans were upheld. Several Sierra Leone clubs stopped playing matches in protest, but it was for naught: Johansen ended up being elected unopposed.

From FC Johansen to FA Johansen: She had three years at the head of the association, during which time she got the league going again and oversaw initiatives to expand women’s football in the country. The national team’s exploits in this time were mixed: progression to the final stage of qualifying for the 2015 AFCON was an achievement, but their record at that level – one draw and five defeats, one of them a 5-1 reverse to regional neighbors Cote d’Ivoire – was less inspiring. A First Round away goals loss to Chad in Russia 2018 qualifying ended that campaign quickly. And then what political support Johansen may have had, or have been perceived as having, went away.

In early September 2016 Johansen, along with Vice President Brian Kamara and Secretary Christopher Kamara, were arrested, with their offices raided and documentation impounded. The claim was that monies the association had received from FIFA and CAF were not being documented properly: the SLFA fired back that the ACC had no right to investigate the funds, as they did not come from government coffers. FIFA backed Johansen and her compatriots up. Media sources noted darkly that Johansen had been attempting to push through a match-fixing inquiry at the time, with several players and SSFA officials in the firing line, a coincidence worth considering.

Johansen was released after a night, but the repercussions of the ACC’s actions are felt to this day. The recriminations and investigations dragged on, with FIFA issuing warnings for the alleged interference to cease: when they were ignored suspension became inevitable. With Johansen barred from her position, Sierra Leone found itself barred too.

The ban killed Sierre Leone’s qualification hopes for AFCON 2019. At the time of its implementation, they were tied on three points with all three teams – Ghana, Kenya and Ethiopia – in their qualification group, with four games left to play. With the top two qualifying, their chances of making it to their first continental finals in 23 years were in the balance. With the suspension, they were in the bin.

For the Sierre Leonese such a downturn, where their fortunes were being determined in boardrooms and not on the field, must have been hard to swallow, especially when the final outcome seemingly made the ACC’s actions pointless. In May of this year Johansen and Kamara were acquitted of all charges against them, and left free to take up their posts again. The Judge deciding the case bluntly stated that the ACC had no evidence to prove the claims, that amounted to accusations that CAF’S funding for MRI player scans had been misappropriated. Worse, the acting heads of the SLFA, in place while Johansen was suspended, were caught out removing funds from SLFA bank accounts they were not supposed to remove. They claimed it was to pay staff. FIFA demanded the money returned. In Sierra Leone, it seemed, everyone involved was being splattered with mud.

So what exactly was/is going on in Sierra Leone football? It would be too easy to craft a narrative of a maligned woman being targeted by corrupt officials, just as it would be too easy to imagine Johansen some kind of evil puppet-master out to ruin the ambitions of others through duplicitous means. The questions with no satisfactory answers pile up: Were the disqualifications of Johansen’s election opponents politically motivated? Why was her SLFA administration so deadset against the government having a look at their books? Will the inquiry about the match-fixing allegations go ahead, and will it be truly independent? Was/will the money withdrawn from SLFA coffers be returned? Will the nature of the ACC’s inadequate prosecution be investigated in turn? And will the ACC be backing off completely now?

The lifting of the ban, timed deliberately for Johansen’s exoneration, provides the potential for a true turning point for Sierra Leonese football. For the national team, that means the opportunity to win or lose on the field. Their opponents in the First Round are neighbours Liberia, and, man-for-man, it is a contest that the Sierra Leonese team should be favored to win. Failure to do so will be viewed as something as bad or worse than the off-field battles. Success and the “Leone Stars” can look forward.

12. Sticking It Out: South Sudan 

(05/09/2019)

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Football persists, even among the people of one of the world’s newest, and most unstable, countries.

FIFA’s third youngest member, behind only Kosovo and Gibraltar, South Sudan yesterday faced into only their second ever World Cup Qualifying campaign. In the process they were to commence again their search for only their seventh ever victory. Their sixth came nearly two and a half years ago. Life as one of the newest members of the international footballing family can not be said to be easy.

The country of South Sudan officially came into existence on the 9th July 2011, though the area we identify as that country was self-governing, as much as the chaos allows for such a designation, for decades before then. Different from the northerners on points of culture, religion and society, southern separation was inevitable for years and de facto for just as long, but has not ceased the bloodshed that is endemic to the region. Warfare is part of daily life in South Sudan, whether it is with elements from Sudan to the north, various armed groups that operate in different internal regions with different ideologies, or in the ongoing civil conflict between government and rebel forces. Child soldiers are common, and NGO’s have reported that militia soldiers are routinely paid through opportunities to rape as they will. The never-ending instability of such conflicts means that South Sudan is under-developed and racked with humanitarian crises. The butcher’s bill, in lives dead or ruined, has long since run into the millions.

To talk about football in such an arena almost seems churlish but just as with Eritrea, and a host of other countries from the less than optimal parts of the world, sport finds a way to exist. The South Sudanese government, benefiting from a sporting pedigree that has seen success for their citizens or diaspora in athletics and basketball, has at least done the bare minimum in prioritising football in a way that their namesakes to the north have frequently failed to do. A two-tier league has been running since independence and a dedicated “Youth Sports Association” has been attempting to coach younger players in clinics held in the capital of Juba. Some of their players have managed to grab a relative amount of spotlight, playing in leagues on the Indian subcontinent. The South Sudanese Football Association has been able to function even if, as is depressingly predictable, it has often been dogged with accusations of incompetence and corruption.

To try and steer the ship the SSFA have looked to a varied assortment of journeymen managers, something that many CAF nations do: 14 have come and gone in ten years, hailing from South Sudan, England, Serbia, South Korea, Uganda, Algeria and, most recently, a combination of Cameroon and Germany. Cyprian Besong Ashu, once an underage coach at Leicester City and with the Cameroon U-20’s, was appointed late last year. Ashu talks the talk in regards building something from the ground up in South Sudan. Maybe he will be the one to stick it out and make progress. Sticking it out is the important part, as few international managers appear to have had the stomach to maintain their presence in South Sudan for too long, tiring quickly of the unstable environment – one former manager reported being held up by rifle-carrying men on the way to training – and limited opportunities for any kind of progression on the field.

Just being the more competitive of the two Sudan’s in the medium to long term would be an achievement even if, in tangible terms, this counts for very little. It took several years after their establishment for South Sudan to win a game of consequence, and the losses since 2011 have been numerous, and often heavy. Victories against other regional minnows have occurred, but are dwarfed by the list of defeats against even less than average opposition. Yet there are indications that the team has something in the way of fight: for Russia 2018 they got a draw out of their home tie with Mauritania, in front of a raucous crowd that had appeared in droves even the previous day, when the match was called off owing to torrential rain. South Sudan went down to a uninspired 4-0 defeat away to lose the tie, but that first leg result was no mean feat.

Things have been on a downturn since, with failures to seriously compete in regional and continental qualification campaigns. In the first leg of their First Round tie with Equatorial Guinea, one of the few teams that South Sudan have managed to beat in the past, the nominal home team was already up against it, forced to play the tie in the undoubtedly uncomfortable surrounds of Khartoum owing to stadium refurbishment in Juba, something that may just be an acceptable smokescreen for the internal unrest. A scattered amount took in the affair, mostly jumbled around the halfway line, and as boisterous as any African crowd tends to be.

Those that assembled saw the away team take the lead from a calmly finished side-footed effort just after the half-hour from Luis “Mese” Meseguer, the South Sudanese defence taken aback by one of the few moments of really skillful build-up play in the contest. Perhaps because of the heat the celebrations were subdued. South Sudan smashed the crossbar shortly after and pressed hard in the second half. They were eventually rewarded 15 minutes from time, when Kenny Atthiu’s excellent work breaking into the box saw his square ball turned in to his own goal by the hapless Niko Kata. The South Sudanese who had made the trip began dancing laps around the running track as both sides pressed for a winner. They both came close as legs tired and defences opened up. In the end nobody could make that final breakthrough and a draw was the result.

Advantage Equatorial Guinea, but South Sudan are not out of the tie yet. They travel to Malabo for Sunday’s second leg knowing that they need to score, but also probably of the mind that they were the better team for large stretches of the Khartoum game. They just need to make that advantage count. If they do, the oft-beleaguered lives of the South Sudanese will at least have a sporting story to inspire hope.

13. “Abuse Us, Criticise Us”: India

(06/09/2019)

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For one of the world’s most populous countries, footballing relevance remains out of reach.

For the first time in Qatar 2022 qualification, two confederations have matches on the same day. As the likes of Somalia, Zimbabwe, Seychelles and Rwanda meet in Africa, the AFC’s Second Round has gotten underway, and it is to the world’s largest continent that we turn our focus again now. The giants of Asian football, the Iran’s, the Japan’s, the Australia’s, kick-off their campaigns next week, but it is a more literal kind of giant that begins tonight, when India face Oman in Group E.

India remains one of the great question marks of international football. No other country has as big an imbalance between population and footballing interest, football players and football success, at any level. When Sunil Chhetri, captain of the senior men’s team, took to social media last summer in the wake of an international where just over two and a half thousand spectators paid in – in a country that has an estimated 1.3 billion population – to essentially beg people to give the team a chance, it may have been viewed as an extraordinary plea, but it could not be described as surprising.

He went as far as encouraging people to come to games just to throw insults at the team: “abuse us, criticise us but please come to watch the Indian national team play”. It must be all the more galling for Indian football fans, players and management to be in such a position, getting less people into games than the better supported teams from the League of Ireland, considering the strides that the men’s national team have made in recent years, a reversal from half a century of being an also-ran and never-was.

You probably know the story most popularly associated with the team: that they declined a place in the 1950 World Cup because they were refused permission to play in bare feet, as was their usual custom. It’s a myth with a blatantly racist connotation: as was not uncommon back then, India declined the place owing to the cost of travelling to Brazil and their higher valuation towards the Olympics, in which they would finish 4th in 1956. But regardless of the reasons, that was the high-water mark of Indian football. While they had some decent showing in regional competitions in the fifties and sixties, they’ve never come close to World Cup qualification since. India remains a cricket-mad nation, with enclaves of footballing support being few and far between.

Just why India, synonymous with the British Empire that exported football all around the world, has been so reluctant to become an established footballing nation is hard to pin down. India’s 1983 World Cup win in cricket remains one of its, if not the, biggest sporting touchstones, something that football can’t compete with in terms of popular connection and sentimentality. The club game has never been given the chance to develop properly, and the authority, the AIFF, has been routinely criticised for mismanagement and perceived corruption. Coaching at youth levels is poor, and prospects for Indian footballers are not excellent.

The recent establishment of the Indian Super League, an effort to ape the similarly titled cricket competition, hasn’t been able to right the ship at a club level. It’s a competition that has been known to revolve around star (or “star” in some cases) players pulled from European and South American leagues, with the likes of Alessandro del Piero, David Trezeguet and Freddie Ljungberg all playing there late in their careers, though the last few editions have struggled to attract players of that calibre. The ISL plays on different months to the less outwardly exciting I-League, which remains India’s “official” league, though it suffers from financial instability and poor crowds. Conflict between the two has been a long-standing news story of the past few years, with continental competition places divvied up between them after an agreement made in 2017.

To try and get a national team going in such circumstances is difficult and India’s fortunes, even over the last twenty years, have fluctuated wildly. Winning the AFC Challenge Cup, a tournament for the lower tiers of Asian international football, in 2008 was a big step, as was participation in the AFC Cup in 2011 and 2019. In the later tournament they opened their account with an inspired 4-1 win over Thailand, their first victory at that level in 55 years. But there have been disappointments too: losing all of their other games in 2011 and 2019, failing to ever look like credible challengers in World Cup qualifying, and a record low FIFA Rankings position of 173 in March 2015.

The man who turned that last terrible stat around was Stephen Constantine, an English-born manager of Cypriot descent, who had previously managed Nepal, Malawi, Sudan and Rwanda, as well as India for a three-year spell between 2002 and 2005. Within a year of his second appointment Constantine managed India to victory in the regional SAFF Cup, and then later got them to Qatar 2019: when he resigned after that tournament India had broken into the top 100 in the same FIFA Rankings. Constantine did this with new approaches preciously unseen in Indian national football, with an emphasis on sports science, oversight of nutrition, and general player wellness, beyond encouraging graft and determination on the pitch. It is important to note that there was discontent with tactics and squad choices at varying points, and Constantine’s departure post-2019 AFC Cup was not met with wailing and gnashing of teeth. The new coach is Croatian Igor Stimac, once of Derby and West Ham.

Now the question is whether India can push on and reach that next level. They no longer reside in the First Round tier of Asian football, but the Second Round group stage, containing Qatar, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Oman is a proving ground all on its own, a place where Stimac and his team will be tested as hard as they ever have been. Oman was the first test last night. The preparations ahead of the game from either side was a lesson in the difference between football mad and football secondary: Oman had a training camp in Germany in July, playing friendlies against professional clubs, while the Indians didn’t get together for even basic training until August. It didn’t auger well.

Chhetri’s call was answered: the match was a sell-out in Guwahati’s Indira Ghandi Athletic Stadium. And, at first, things went the way the captain would have wanted. On 24 minutes, after India had already rattled the woodwork, they took the lead, and it was Chhetri who got the goal: a cunningly orchestrated free from the right was sent low and square to a waiting Chhetri in space, who hit it home first time, having come running back from the six yard box.

India took the lead into half-time, but once they came back out the game fell into a different pattern. Oman, Gulf Cup winners in 2017 even if they have under-achieved elsewhere, put their stamp on the game, dominating possession and creating the only chances, but the Indian defence held firm. That is, all the way to the 82nd minute, when  Al Mandhar latched onto a real hit and hope pass from midfield to loop the ball past Gurpreet Singh in the Indian goal.

From there, it was really only a matter of whether India could hold on to what would still have been a creditable draw or would be undone at the death: when, in injury time, Al Mandhar broke away down the left flank, raced into the box, and cut outside onto his right foot, there was really only one possible outcome.

So it is defeat. There are harder games to come, against Oman away and Qatar twice, but also easier ties on paper, against Afghanistan and Bangladesh. There is still plenty of opportunity in the remaining in that schedule. But one cannot help but feel like a serious opportunity has already slipped through India’s grasp: the chance to make that crucial first impression with an all too ready to waver crowd, at the beginning of another qualifying campaign. Chhetri, and India, will have to act fast if they are to prevent the very people they are trying to entice from taking his plea for open criticism too literally.

14. Freefall: Togo

(07/09/2019)

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Togo will have to dig deep to get back to a World Cup, nearly a decade on from their worst moment.

Two days out from the opening of AFCON 2010, the bus of the Togo national team, the Sparrowhawks, was winding its way through Cabinda, an exclave of host nation Angola. Four years on from their World Cup debut in Germany 2006, the team was looking forward to competing in a group that contained Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Ghana, a difficult but manageable task. Despite relative minnow status, they boasted more than just the recognisable Emmanuel Adebayor, then of Manchester City, their squad also containing Moustapha Salifou of Aston Villa, Assimou Toure of Bayer Leverkusen and Alaixys Romao, who racked up 14 years in the French league system during his career. Their bus was accompanied by two cars of security, mindful of unrest in the area.

What happened to them shortly after they had crossed the border from the Republic of the Congo back into Angolan territory has come to define Togolese football. When fifteen gunmen opened fire on the convoy, in an attack that stretched out to an interminable 30 minutes, three people were killed: bus driver Mario Adjoua, assistant manager Abalo Amelete and media officer Stanislas Ocloo.  Nine more were wounded, some seriously, like defender Serge Akakpo. The team huddled together behind seats as bullets flew by them, waiting for the nightmare to end. When the firing finally ceased, they rushed to a hospital, with those who were not hit obliged to carry their bleeding teammates inside, an experience Adebayor described as “the worst thing I’ve ever been through in my life”.

Responsibility for the attack was claimed by an Angolan separatist group, the “Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda”, that advocates independence for the small northern province. One of their exiled leaders, living in France, later claimed that the Togolese bus had been targeted by accident, that it was their misfortune to be travelling with the Angolan security that constituted the real focus. True or not, the declaration offered little comfort.

Despite the shock, the physical and emotional pain, some members of the Togolese team was prepared to play; others expressed reluctance, openly calling for other teams to boycott the tournament. Amid criticisms of Angolese security arrangements, and some pondering on the soon to be held South African World Cup by those happy to conflate an entire continent, the Togolese Presidential jet was sent to pick their team up who dutifully, albeit reluctantly, headed home. In a confusing number of days, the Togolese were playing, then not playing, then officially disqualified. Their group became a three team affair, and AFCON 2010 continued, with Egypt completing their third triumph in succession.

The consequences of that action blights Togolese football still. Three days of mourning took place in the country, while CAF considered a response to the sudden withdrawal. As far as they were concerned, the circumstances surrounding the decision were immaterial: the football team hadn’t given the required notice to avoid censure, and it appeared as if the Togolese government had been the one making the call, as clear an example of political interference as you would like. When the decision came down, it still shocked Togo, its players, and many others: a fine, and a ban on competing in the next two AFCON’s. The decision may have been understandable from a literal interpretation of the rules, but felt no less of a betrayal for those affected because of that. Angola, that arguably did not do enough to protect the team on that fateful January day, got no such punishment. An appeal to CAS was inevitable, with Sepp Blatter himself involved in moderation: CAF eventually backed down.

At first, it seemed like Togolese football could recover. Adebayor retired from international play, then changed his mind and returned, captaining his nation to the 2013 AFCON in South Africa, where the Hawks enjoyed their best ever showing, reaching the quarter finals, with tributes and dedications to the fallen encompassing the team’s performance. But since 2014, Togo have largely been in freefall. That year they hit #62 in the FIFA rankings: two years later they were at #96, and two years after that it was #122. At time of writing they lie at a record low #128.

What happened? Well, the Togolese authority, the FTF, went into crisis mode owing to years of chronic mismanagement, characterised by political interference, accusations of corruption and squabbles between association and players. FIFA had to step in, but there have been periods when Togolese leagues haven’t run, the national team has struggled to cobble together basic equipment, match-fixing scandals have erupted and the various stakeholders seem more concerned with blaming each other than solving problems.

On the field, failed campaigns to qualify for AFCON 2015 and 2019 sandwiched a one point finish in the 2017 Finals, while the effort to reach Russia 2018 fizzled out quickly with a 3-1 aggregate loss to Uganda in the First Round. From September 2016 to October 2018, Togo didn’t win a single competitive game, a run that happened to coincide with a sustained period of mass protest and political unrest at home against the country’s long-standing leadership. Various coaches have clashed with the FTF, with FIFA, with CAF, with the media and with Adebayor, the superstar who often seems, and acts, bigger than the national team he remains the icon of.

Adebayor wasn’t available for their First Round tie against the small island nation of Comoros, amid rumours of another spat with the coach and another imminent retirement announcement, something that has become a bit of a regular occurrence. He was perhaps missed in what was to be another disappointing day for Togo. They were fortunate enough to take the lead in the first half, Kodjo Laba adjudged to have turned in from close range, though what limited camera angles were available did not exactly indicate he had managed to get the entirety of the ball entirely over the line. It might thus be considered justice that Comoros equalised in the second half, Ibroihim Djoudja slotting home a rebound from a saved free kick, while the Togolese defence stood motionless.

Togo carry the away goal advantage into the second leg and can be considered favourites to complete the job in Lome. But the result is still something of an embarrassment. Comoros have only been competing in major qualification tournaments for less than a decade and has an eighth of Togo’s population: they can still count their number of competitive victories in that time on their fingers. Getting a win on Tuesday can be a first tentative step in getting Togo back up the rankings and back to where a World Cup Finalist should be. Otherwise, they may have to come up with a new definition for rock bottom.

15. Success And Nowhere: Botswana/Malawi

(08/09/2019)

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One kick, or mis-kick, can make all the different at this level.

The seventh day of World Cup Qualifying – and boy does it feel like a lot more than that, even at this stage – gave me the chance to take in an entire game, thanks to FIFA’s ability, presumably free of TV rights quandaries, to stream the First Round of CAF’s process. It was a typical example of this level of competition: two sides that have no realistic expectations of getting to the Finals in Qatar, but get to keep dreaming the dream for a good bit longer if they were to win against similar-level opposition. For Botswana and Malawi, yesterday’s tie was that four yearly opportunity to escape the doldrums.

Looking over the history of both sides, one is certainly struck by a few similarities. Neither side has ever qualified for a World Cup Finals. Botswana has one AFCON appearance, Malawi two: between their nine games at that level, there is one win, one draw and seven defeats. Both are overly dependent on players from their national leagues, with the furthest Batswana or Malawians tend to go being the relative spotlight of South Africa. They both have black stripes going down their jerseys, though have contrasting blues and reds otherwise. Both nations are former British colonies. Both have their internal difficulties that can be a distraction from sporting matters, be it the poverty of Malawi or the sparseness of population in large parts of Botswana. Both nations live under the shadow of major HIV/AIDS epidemics. In the coming contest, there is at stake a place in the next round, the promise of financial incentives from FIFA and CAF, and national pride of course. The winner gets to keep their name in the World Cup Qualifying headlines, while the loser is nowhere, consigned to the already eliminated with Timor-Leste and Macau.

The match takes place in the Francistown Stadium, a ground very open to the elements, as evidenced by the swirling wind that affects proceedings even before the off, knocking over sideline covers for the substitutes (by half-time, they’ve given up righting them). John Banda, a midfielder playing in Mozambique, leads for Malawi, Joel Mogorosi for Botswana: both are arguably the best players on the field. The home side make a point of holding hands in a line and saluting the somewhat limited crowd before proceedings start. Just to the side, one can see an advertising board with the Batswana FA’s efforts at social media engagement: “#zebras 4 lyf”

Malawi get the first chance, midfielder Gerald Phiri firing just wide from outside the box in only the second minute, with Botswana keeper Kabela Dambe not really knowing much about it. It seems for a few minutes that Malawi will try to exert control of proceedings whenever Botswana are on the ball, with a high press looking to force the home team into errors. But then suddenly, out of nowhere, Mogorosi takes a swing at an errant ball, and his distant effort flies past Brighton Munthali in the Malawian goal, only to hit the post and bounce back.

Only a few minutes later Botswana should score when given a free header from a left wing free kick, but their effort is too close to Munthali, who is able to parry before, presumably, breathing a sigh of relief. It’s a big game for Munthali, who was temporarily dropped from the squad back in April after publically criticising the coach on social media when a rival goalkeeper was picked in the first 11 ahead of him. Only 21, his maturity was questioned. Things were patched up and now he is in the deep end, with a lot to prove. And he’s meeting that challenge.

The challenges fly in, and around ten minutes Malawi’s Richard Mbulu is floored by Botswana’s Thabo Leinainyane, with what is essentially a kung-fu tackle. If it was a Premier League match it would be a straight red and a talking point that would follow a player to the grave, but here the ref doesn’t even brandish a card, which for those familiar with this level of African football doesn’t really come as a surprise. Later, Malawian striker Richard Mbulu cleans Dambe out while challenging for a loose ball, insuring that a definite edge is apparent. It’s Botswana suddenly making all the running and all the chances, forcing Munthali into another save from Mogorosi shortly after.

Things settle for a short time, before Botswana miss a sitter around 23 minutes in. Rudolph Kgaswane latches onto a ball hit deep from the home defence, presumably aided by the wind, and gets within seven yards before shooting: Munthali somehow gets down to left to save, and hold the ball. It’s an extraordinary stop, and Kgaswane, quite justifiably, looks dumbfounded. Munthali is not the only defensive Malawian player covering himself in glory in the first half, with Peter Cholopi executing a perfect slide tackle inside his own penalty area to deny Kgaswane at the half hour mark.

The rest of the first half passes without noticeable incident. It’s clear the wind is having a major impact, with any pass played in air liable to go far beyond what is intended, or nowhere near far enough. But then things kick off in injury time. Gabadinho Mhango gets barged to the ground inside the Batswana box, with what amounts to a hip check; the ref is uninterested. Seconds later Kgaswane rakes the leg of Yamikane Chester in challenging for a bouncing ball, prompting a square up of the opposing teams. Only a yellow is shown, and the first half whistle goes with both teams’ management engaging in verbal haranguing of each other and officials. Malawi leave the field only after a huddle that may have been necessary to calm some tempers. It can be easy to think, with the poor pitches, half-empty stadiums and mediocre quality that these games don’t really mean that much, but for the players on the field it is obvious that this means as much or more as any UEFA or CONMEBOL qualifier yet to be played.

The second half begins with Botswana having the most possession, but with no incisiveness. Kgaswane is pulled within a few minutes, Batswana Head Coach Adem Amrouche preferring Omaatla Kebatho up front after the incidents of the first half. But he can’t seem to make the difference, and it is Malawi who get the best chance of the second 45, when Phiri’s free kick from just outside the box spins back off the upright with Dambe motionless. Soon the tackles are flying in with abandon again from both sides, necessitating a stop on the hour mark so rattled bones and bruised skin can get some attention.

Malawi show themselves to be the better at coming forward, showcasing an ability to break at pace that Botswana don’t seem to share, but the final pass, the accurate shot, eludes them. The hosts find their main threats from set-pieces, whenever the ref deigns to blow for the stray kicks, but fail to threaten Munthali. Things peter out in the last twenty or so minutes, perhaps due to fatigue, a reluctance to commit players forward or both. What efforts there are, are high and wide or trickle into the goalkeepers’ hands.

Things only spring to life as the clock winds down, briefly. Botswana win a corner with two minutes of normal time to play. It’s swung in and substitute Orebonye gets his head to it, only to see it, yet again, rebound off the post, before a follow-up header drifts a few feet wide. Mbulu shoots just wide at the other end a few minutes later. 90 seconds into injury time, Munthali is the hero again as Kebatho rises to head a deep, looping cross but the Malawian keeper sticks his right hand out and stops it, cementing his performance as the undoubted man of the match, a long way away from the young man who thought bashing the coach on Facebook was appropriate just a few months ago. Into the fourth minute of injury time, and Mbulu heads just wide from a corner. It’s the last incident of note. The post-match feelings are happy, as Botswana applaud their fans and Malawi exchange pleasantries with the officials, the lunges and kicks of only a few minutes ago conveniently forgotten.

Honours even, though Botswana may feel slightly the happier, having prevented any away goals and hitting the woodwork twice to Malawi’s once. The visitors, for their part, had much to thank their keeper for. They were the slightly better side, and would seem to be a good bet to advance after Tuesday’s second leg in Malawi. Everything in the balance: how thin the line between success and nowhere.

16. Enclaves And Annexation: Lesotho

(09/09/2019)

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In Lesotho, football is one of the few ways to effectively demonstrate sovereignty. But is it enough?

In political geography terms, an enclave nation is one that can be defined as being sovereign, but that has the entirety of its territory located inside another sovereign nation. There are only three places in the world that fit the definition. Two of them are inside Italy: the Vatican City and San Marino (or, to give it its under-used full title, “the Most Serene Republic of San Marino”). The other, located entirely within South Africa, is the Kingdom of Lesotho. As countries go its a rarity, and that’s why I find myself interested in exploring more about it, and its relationship to football.

Lesotho’s status arose from its distinctive ethnic character, it being the long-term settlement of the Basotho people. In conflict with the Boers in the late 19th century, Lesotho’s rulers reached out to the British, becoming a colony, and staying that way until 1966, sometimes treated as just part of the growing Cape Colony, and sometimes as its own entity: throughout this time it largely retained varying degrees of autonomy. Independence brought challenges, not least an inability to sustain a stable, democratic government, such work blighted by internecine conflicts and military coups. At times South African military forces have had to step in to maintain order, lest an out-of-control humanitarian crisis be created technically within their own borders.

Unable to develop properly, with child labour and sexual violence widespread, suffering from a crippling HIV/AIDS epidemic and dependent on its only neighbor on many different levels, there is an element of Lesotho political life that actively seeks annexation from South Africa, reasoning that Lesotho has no need for its own nationhood and army when such crises remain unresolved. Only a few years ago, the “Peoples Charter” movement claimed to have a petition 30’000 names long that called for South African annexation. It is important to maintain perspective – that number equates to little more than 1.3% of the Lesothan population, and South Africa appears to have little interest in doing the annexing – but it is still remarkable to see a nation where a proposed solution for internal difficulties is for the country to no longer exist.

How does a football team come into all this? I suppose it is a symbol really. The “Likuena” – “Crocodiles” – have an opportunity to be a potent sign of Lesotho nationhood, like any national team. But one should still not expect miracles. The Lesotho league must provide the bulk of the national team’s players and it is not a really stellar competition. Those Lesothan who are any good usually head to the comparatively big-time surrounds of South African football as soon as they can, but they are few and far between. Playing in distinctive blue and green jerseys, they have, as you would have expected, struggled to make a huge impact on the international stage, with 13 wins total to their name. Their best run was in qualifying for Brazil 2014, when they beat Burundi 3-2 on aggregate to reach the Second Round group stage, where they managed one more, against Sudan, along with two draws, one against recent AFCON winners Zambia. But, of course, that wasn’t good enough to progress.

For this campaign, things got off to a good enough start when they managed to just scrape into being a higher seed, guaranteeing a tie against lower-ranked opposition, which turned out to be Ethiopia. But a big problem turned out to be the head coach position, Moses Maliehe quitting only a few weeks before the tie owing to illness. His replacement, former U-20 South African boss Thabo Senong, was only appointed a week before the first leg. He certainly aimed big in early statements, claiming his objective is qualification for continental tournaments, but the football fans in Lesotho would probably be content with progression to the Second Round of Qatar 2022 qualifying.

The first leg, away in Bahir Dair, was a rather turgid affair on a terrible surface, only partly made up for by the noise from the stands. Chances were few and far between on a pitch that had the ball bouncing in a rugby like fashion: 0-0 was a predictable result, in a game that the nominal home team dominated, but in which Lesotho may have come the closest to scoring in, when an opposition defender hit his own post with a botched clearance.

The second leg, in Lesotho’s capital of Maseru, is played on a much nicer surface. If the football team could be considered an expression of Lesotho national pride, then it might be disconcerting to see the limited numbers in the stadium, even if they do try to make some noise. But then again, the quality of the game that is on offer is not exactly ideal for attracting fans. Passes are sloppy, the tackles are late and the targetting is mostly off.

The game only springs to life in a five minute spell after half-time, when the only goals are scored, and it is perhaps fitting for a tie of such low quality that both goals are less to do with attacking skill and more to do with sheer luck. The first, for the visitors, is a backheel through the keeper’s legs, that would be impressive if it wasn’t a Lesothan defender who performed it following a low cross from the right. The second, an equaliser for the home team, is a free-kick that is wickedly deflected into the opposite corner the keeper was going for.

Lesotho pressed as well they could, and out of sheer desperation and numbers came close a few times. But Ethiopia held out, and now advance. For Lesotho, it’s another four-year wait to try again at this level. The talk at home of rejecting independence and merging with South Africa is undoubtedly premature, and odds are that Lesotho will be around in four years. In both cases, it seems likely that the status quo will remain: the country, and the football team, will continue to struggle, reflections of each other. Perhaps that is how it should be.

17. The Lion Roars: Iran

(10/09/2019)

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The Iranian faithful (still predominantly male) await another effort to create some footballing memories at the highest stage.

The commencement of the Second Round of AFC qualifying provides us the opportunity to finally talk about some of the bigger guns of football, at least in an Asian context. For the first time in Qatar 2022 qualifying, teams expected to make it to the Finals, or at the very least to be in with a shout when we get to the final stages of qualifying, are now competing. One of them is Iran.

For many decades now, Iran, the Lions of Central Asia, have been one of the best teams of the AFC. They’ve qualified for four of the last six World Cups, and are routinely involved at the business end of the AFC Cup, having won it three times. In a continent where football sometimes struggles to garner attention, especially at a club level, Iran is a significant exception, with a football-mad populace and a better-supported league system than the Asian average, that produces most of the country’s senior players.

But then again, it was been a while since Iran’s three-in-a-row AFC domination from 1968 to 1976 (ended spectacularly by the 1979 Revolution), and their World Cup qualification isn’t as consistent as other countries they routinely face down the home stretch in Asia’s part of the process. And in the World Cup Finals itself their record is uninspiring, having won just two games in all of their appearances. One of those was last year in Russia, when they bested Morocco on the way to a third place finish in the group: arguably their draw with European champions Portugal in their last game was a greater achievement.

The other victory is much more famous. It was 1998, and in among David Beckham’s little kick-out, Bergkamp’s moment of genius, Ronaldo de Lima’s morning-of-the-final alleged fit and France’s incredible success, there was one of the most politically charged matches in recent memory, though it had little in the way of tangible impact on the tournament. Group F contained Germany and a soon-to-be-no-more Yugoslavia, but then the much more interesting pair: Iran and the United States of America.

Of course, it wasn’t like Iran or the US were at war at the time, but the level of antipathy was measurable. For many Iranians, the United States will always be the arch-enemy for a variety of reasons, and Americans will never forget the drama of the Revolution in Iran and the subsequent hostage crisis that wrecked Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Three years before the World Cup, Bill Clinton’s administration has introduced a trade embargo on Iran; two years beforehand and a final settlement had been reached over the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by an American Navy vessel in 1988, an event the United States has still never apologised for.

Into that environment stepped the two rivals’ respective football teams. The States, with a team that included Kasey Keller, Eric Wynalda, Brad Friedel and Claudia Reyna, had waltzed through CONCACAF qualification second only to Mexico. For some it was the beginnings of a golden generation with increasing focus on European-based players, but coach Steve Sampson’s team wasn’t at the level they would be later. Iran, whose best known player was probably Khodadad Azizi of FC Koln, had to go through the intercontinental play-off system, where they famously bested Australia on away goals in a contest Iranians still refer to as “the saga of Melbourne”. They were, somewhat ironically, being coached by caretaker boss Jalel Talebi, an emigre who had long since settled in California. Both were, thanks to the inadequacies of the calculation system at the time, riding relatively high in the FIFA rankings, and only a few places behind the other. Both of them lost their first game, Iran by a goal to Yugoslavia, and the US by two to Germany.

When they thus met on the 21st June, in Lyon’s Stade de Gerland, it was a case of the winner still having a chance and the loser being out. Before a ball was kicked, tensions were high. Iranian players, perhaps coached, openly talked about living up to the expectations of the Iran-Iraq War dead, while American players jokingly wondered why they weren’t saying “Let’s do it for Bill Clinton”. In contrast, Sampson deliberately avoided political talk in the build-up, something he claimed to later regret, feeling he missed an opportunity for a potent motivational tool.

The Iranians, under orders from their government, refused to follow protocol and approach the American for the pre-match handshake, necessitating the Americans to agree to the reverse. In contrast, in a bit of pantomime, the Iranians presented the Americans with white roses before the game, nominally a peaceful gesture, but something I’m sure plenty thought more of a finger-wag. The theatrics certainly marked the game out.

If the worries about trouble between Americans and Iranians wasn’t enough, a third factor soon emerged. Thousands of tickets for the game were snapped up by the “National Council of Resistance”, a group sometimes described as terrorists opposed to the Iranian regime, who smuggled in sections of protests banners and stitched them together, which the TV cameras did their best to avoid. The political divides of the Iranians attending the game resulted in fistfights and arrests in the stands. And, amid threats of pitch invasions by the same and similar protesters, units of shielded riot police were on hand.

Given this, you might well have expected a cynical, foul-driven game between two teams out to intimidate and show the other up anyway they could. Instead the Iranians and the Americans, who posed together before the match, served up one of the tournaments more entertaining clashes.  It’s far from the only time that the players on the pitch have had little regard for the political issues off it.

It was a back and forth contest, but the AFC’s representative clearly showed desire a bit ahead of their opponents. The Iranians took the lead five minutes before half-time with a wonderful looping header from Hamid Estili, with Keller in goal more spectator than keeper. The US probed for an equaliser, eventually a bit too much. Seven minutes from time Mehdi Mahdavikia toe-poked home with aplomb after a swift Iranian counter-attack left the US defence far behind them. Brian McBride’s header a few minutes later, just over the line, made things interesting for injury time, but Iran were not to be denied. Many will remember, despite the conflicts that necessitated some police intervention, the wall of noise the Iranian fans created that night, none more so than at the final whistle, a roar that could have been heard all the way to Tehran.

Que wild celebrations in Lyon, and even wilder at home, with reports of impromptu street parties, alcohol consumption and, shock of shocks, women casting off hijabs. The idea propagated by some that the celebrations went far enough to concern the regime might be hyperbole, or then again it might not. Either way, Iran had their first World Cup win and, on the larger international stage, the most famous moment in their sporting history.

The win left Iran with an outside chance of progression, but that was snuffed out by a routine German victory a few days later, matched by Yugoslavia’s almost equally routine win over the States. But Iran had already won far more: positive global attention for the nature of their enthralling contest with the Americans, and a recognition that, through sport, all political and cultural boundaries may be deemed permeable. 18 months later, largely on the back of such goodwill, the sides would meet again in a friendly held in Pasadena, a 1-1 draw.

The Iranian fans today can also hold that memory in their hearts but they have their own heroes to cheer, like Sardar Azmoun of Zenit St Petersburg or Alireza Jahanbakhsh of Brighton, who topped the goal-scoring charts while in the Netherlands with AZ, the first Asian born player to do so in a European league. To get into the final group stage of AFC qualifying they will have to face Bahrain, Cambodia, another historically fraught contest with neighbours Iraq and, first up, a visit to Hong Kong, a city-state having some political problems of its own at time of writing.

Iran are obvious favourites to top this group, and booing crowds or security presences will not deter them. Perhaps, instead, they should be viewed as opportunity, just as they were in 1998: the opportunity to showcase football as a medium to tear down political divides once more.

18. Perpetual Crisis: Sudan

(11/09/2019)

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Football remains a brief manner of escape in Sudan, where literal survival is often far higher on lists of priorities.

I previously took the time to talk a little bit about South Sudan and their difficulties, borne of various unpleasant circumstances, in attempting to craft a pedigree of sporting excellence essentially from scratch. Their neighbours to the north, with whom they share a name but little else besides, have the opposite problem

It has been almost 50 years since Sudan briefly ruled the roost as African champions. They were at the centre of African football even before that moment, being one of the founding members of CAF: indeed, the entity saw its genesis in Sudan’s capital of Khartoum in 1957. Thirteen years later, a team led by the talismanic Mustafa Azhari Alawad, still spoken of in dreamy fashion since, defeated Ghana 1-0 in the final of an AFCON Sudan hosted. It is an achievement that is ingrained in the nation’s sporting consciousness, but one that the “Falcons of Jediane” have never been able to replicate since: the best they’ve been able to do being a Quarter Final appearance in 2012. Their status as a founder of CAF quickly waned too, with the organisations HQ moving to Cairo after a fire in its Khartoum’s offices.

Footballing diversions are a rare treat for the people of Sudan, who more often than not have more much important things on their minds. The history of Sudan, after the withdrawal of the British colonial power in the 1950’s, has been one of famine, floods, civil war and atrocity, seemingly without end. Two million people are believed to have died of such things since 1983, with a succession of wobbly parliamentary regimes and military dictatorships unable to alter things too much. The agreed upon independence of South Sudan in 2011, after a lengthy and bloody civil conflict, proved a false dawn in terms of warding off political and tribal violence, that still engulfs large parts. The well publicised Darfur-centric calamity is really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the manifest problems of Sudan, a state that is barely able to cling to the legitimacy of such a title. 

Such political and humanitarian crises do not make for fallow sporting ground. Sudan’s adventures in World Cup Qualifying paint a grim enough picture all of their own. The team has traditionally hovered in the lower to mid tier of African nations, usually good enough to avoid the do-or-die early two-legged elimination round, but unable to really bother anyone unduly in the later group stages. 2014’s qualification saw a slip towards the wrong end, with a 3-0 aggregate defeat to Gabon putting paid to their chances early.

Such mediocrity is not so surprising when you see that nearly the entire team has been selected from the Sudanese league, a competition with a passionate fanbase but lacking a stellar reputation, with no youth leagues to speak-of. Sudanese players, coming up from dilapidated or non-existent coaching structures, are not attractive prospects for clubs outside of Sudan. The Sudanese Football Association is also hardly the best authority to be governing the sport, having been suspended by FIFA for a time in 2017 owing to dodgy elections and government interference, an all too common problem in the less well-regarded parts of the African continent. The pitches that most players grow up using have no grass, no markings and frequently see players having to make-do with makeshift goals: the players themselves struggle on without adequate gear.

Is a national football team that represents a country in perpetual crisis and dictatorship doomed to an indefinite record of under-achievement? It is, perhaps, simply a natural by-product of such things. Military regimes across Africa and the world have never been shy about using sport as both a symbol of national pride, and as distraction, the circenses section of panem et circenses. But only when they are given the space to: it may not be too surprising that what limited sporting success Sudan has been able to achieve is with individual athletes in track-and-field, and not in team sports. As its leaders find themselves having to constantly deal with the latest round of violence and ecological calamity, and with the elongated process of partitioning the country, the idea of investment in something as seemingly doomed as Sudanese international football must seem like a fool’s errand.

But, within the last twelve months, there are some signs of hope. The ousting last year of military dictator Omar al-Bashir after a mass protest movement has the potential to be the defining moment of a modern Sudan. The new governing body, a mix of civilian and military officials operating, at least for the time being, in concert, has provided the opportunity for at least a partial liberalisation of the country’s laws and society. No one is deluding themselves into thinking Sudan firmly on the road to liberal democracy, but there is an undeniable sense that, for the first time in a very long time, Sudan has taken steps in the right direction.

The spirit of revolution may not be lasting but can be infectious in the short-term. Some now fervently dream that a commitment to investing in football, especially at that all important youth level, will follow. Sport cannot be said to be high in up the list of Sudanese priorities, but already there are portents that a better run country can result in a better run sporting system.  A women’s league is due to start for the first time in September, something that would have been unthinkable in the sharia law following Sudan only a short time ago. A 3-1 away win in Madagascar late last year, as part of an otherwise failing effort to qualify for the 2019 AFCON, showed the team’s capacity to surprise. Muhanned Al Tahir, Sudan’s latest talisman and captain, enters into, at 34, what may be his last campaign with the nation he holds a caps record for.

Progression to the Second Round of AFCON qualifying was the goal, promising to be a potent sign that things are on the up. Standing in the way of that dream were neighbours Chad, a difficult, but far from insurmountable challenge. Chad have many of the same problems as Sudan, in terms of politics, stability and footballing performance: even so, Sudan needed a bit of the spirit of 1970 to meet that challenge. In the first leg, in N’Djamena, the Chadians were made to regret some shocking misses, with Sudan’s Ramadan Agab converting three times before the hosts pulled back a penalty late on to keep the tie at least partly alive.

In the second leg, the three away goals gave Sudan a comfortable cushion, and things were even enough. The best chance went to Chad, whose Ezechiel N’Douassel, having scored the penalty in the first leg, sent an 80th minute penalty into the sky. At full time the Sudanese went to their knees and put their heads to the ground, amid jubilant celebrations.

Signs of hope. The next stage promises games against the very best teams that Africa can offer, a reward in itself, where only topping the group promises the chance of World Cup qualification. That remains an unlikely possibility. But, in the aftermath of the 2018 protests and what they were able to achieve, anything can be said to be possible for the Falcons.

Teams Qualified For The Finals

Qatar

Teams Still Capable Of Qualifying

Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, American Samoa, Andorra, Angola, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Aruba, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bermuda, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, British Virgin Islands, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cameroon, Canada, Cape Verde, Cayman Islands, Central African Republic, Chile, China (People’s Republic), Chinese Taipei, Colombia, Congo (Democratic Republic), Congo (Republic), Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Cote d’Ivoire, Croatia, Cuba, Curacao, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, England, Equatorial Guinea, Estonia, Ethiopia, Faroe Islands, Fiji, Finland, France, Gabon, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Gibraltar, Greece, Grenada, Guatemala, Guam, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Korea (Democratic People’s Republic), Korea (Republic), Kosovo, Kuwait, Kyrgyz Republic, Latvia, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Malta, Mauritania, Mexico, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Montserrat, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, North Macedonia, Norway, Oman, Palestine, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Senegal, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Tahiti, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Togo, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Turks and Caicos Islands, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United States, United States Virgin Islands, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, Venezuela, Vietnam, Wales, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe

Teams Eliminated

Bhutan, Botswana, Brunei Darussalem, Burindi, Chad, Comoros, Eritrea, Eswatini, Gambia, Laos, Lesotho, Macau, Mauritius, Pakistan, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Timor-Leste

Photo Credits

Now Or Never: The Uzbekistan team in a huddle ahead of a 2019 Asian Cup game against Turkmenistan. Photo by Amir Ostovari, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

The Worst Place On Earth: Eritrea’s Joko Keren Stadium, overlooked by granite hills. Photo by David Stanley, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

FA Johansen: Isha Johansen, President of the Sierre Leone Football Association. Copyright BBC

Sticking It Out: Children playing football at Nyogwe Primary School, South Sudan. Photo by Sustainable Sanitation Alliance, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

“Abuse Us, Criticise Us”: Indian fans, nicknamed “the Blue Pilgrims”, cheer on their side in Mumbai. Photo by Dey subrata, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

Freefall: A Togolese flag flying at the 2006 World Cup. Photo by Martin Belam, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Success And Nowhere: Players of Botswana and Malawi in action during the first leg of their First Round Qualifying tie. Copyright CAF

Enclaves And Annexations: A footballer of Lesotho’s Lioli FC. Photo by Seotsanyana, reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

The Lion Roars: Iranian fans in the Azadi Stadium, Tehran, for a friendly game with Germany. Photo by Amirreza, reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Perpetual Crisis: Sudanese children play football during a sandstorm. Photo by Mohammed Abdelmoneim Hashim Mohammed, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

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5 Responses to 211 to 1: Reflections On The Road to Qatar 2022 – (II) The Road Broadens

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